The sectarian content of Northern Ireland’s competing regional daily newspaper titles is fascinating.
‘Police admit collusion with loyalist killer’ was the splash in The Irish News on Monday 9 March, claiming that the Belfast force had finally disclosed in court its involvement in the attempted murder of Catholic John Flynn in 1992.
This nationalist paper (its readers are predominantly Catholic) felt the story so important that it not only warranted a huge splash but also a background spread of reports on pages 14 and 15.
But this story was nowhere to be found in the unionist News Letter (its readers are predominantly Protestants) nor in the Belfast Telegraph (which attempts neutrality, but still leans towards unionists).
And yes, I can see The Irish News’ ‘exclusive’ tag on its story, but according to my thorough search of ‘John Flynn’ on the News Letter’s and Telegraph’s websites, neither carried a follow up the next day or on any day since.
Conversely, an arguably more serious story carried in both the News Letter and the Telegraph on 9 March was ignored – at least for a month – by The Irish News.
‘I want justice for aunt slain by IRA in Germany’ screamed the Telegraph’s splash, reporting the plea for justice by the family of Heidi Hazell, the wife of a British soldier murdered at army barracks in 1989.
The same story was boosted on page one of the News Letter, and filled page nine, but it was nowhere to be found in The Irish News that day or in the days and four weeks that followed.
In fairness to The Irish News, they did appear to have finally published a follow up nearly a month later, with ‘German authorities to reopen IRA murder inquiry’ coming up on my search of its website for 7 April.
But this concession aside, The Irish News was notably nationalist in its coverage of politics, a headline on page four suggesting that protests over the Orange (Protestant) marching season ‘could descend into violence’.
On this subject, the Telegraph played its more neutral role well, headlining that the plan for Orange rallies had been labelled ‘irresponsible’.
Meanwhile, the News Letter’s splash would only go as far as saying that ‘Unionism divided on Order’s protest calls’ as its splash headline, highlighting that leaders were calling for ‘peaceful and legal protests’ in its introduction.
What else did I expect? Belfast papers know their history and audiences, and have to serve readers’ strongly-divided expectations; but it does feel different to have regional newspapers – so impartial across the rest of the UK – making such clear political stances.
Take the comment piece on page 49 of the News Letter, headlined: ‘Unionists need to stop squabbling and start taking Sinn Fein seriously’, which included the following paragraph: “Can you imagine their [Unionists’] collective horror at the sight of a smirking, smug, puffed-to-the-gills-with-his-own-pomposity Gerry Adams giving them one of his enormously wordy Kumbaya speeches.”
Or how about this snippet from the editorial leader on page 20 in The Irish News, tub-thumping against the Orange marches: “While he [Orange Order leader Edward Stevenson] insisted that the loyalist gathering would be peaceful and legal, similar initiatives have regularly descended into violence in the past and at the very least they will inevitably increase tensions in interface districts.
“The entirely unacceptable cost to the tax-payers of policing loyalist protests also needs to be taken into account… This is a scandalous waste of public resources…”
I’m not arguing for or against any of the above stories, but note how The Irish News and News Letter just cannot resist falling onto their traditional sides of the peace wall.
When I last compared the three main Belfast papers four years ago, I judged the Telegraph to have the ‘best page one design’, while The Irish News carried the ‘best splash’.
This time around both those snapshot trophies go to the Telegraph: its splash shape, headline size and picture choice were the most attractive, and the lead was both well-written and felt the most worthy as an issue; The Irish News was a close second, the News Letter third.
The ‘story-count and value’ prize went to The Irish News, owned by the independent Northern Media Group, which had around 190 reports – many of them much longer than its rivals – on 69 editorial pages in a 80-page book, for a cover price of 80p.
Second was the Telegraph (Independent News & Media) which had around 175 reports on 47 editorial pages in a 56-page book for 80p, narrowly beating the News Letter (Johnston Press) which had 180 reports on 54 editorial pages in a 64-page book for 95p.
This was a turnaround from my last count in 2011 when The Irish News was last, beaten by the News Letter in second place and the Telegraph in first, but remember: these are one-day decisions.
I make no excuse for reviewing Belfast’s three daily newspaper again, which between them still sell 99,339 a day (down -21pc from 126,382 in 2011): the latest figures record that the Telegraph sells 45,905 (down -21.5pc from 58,491 in 2011), the Irish News 38,581 (down -13pc from 44,222) and the News Letter 17,853 (down -24.5pc from 23,669).
Across four years they are all double digit declines, but that makes the average yearly decline between 3pc (The Irish News) and 6pc (News Letter), with religious viewpoints arguably making sales much healthier than most UK titles.