Oh God, can we face it?

Daniel Finn

  • The BBC’s ‘Irish Troubles’: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland by Robert Savage
    Manchester, 298 pp, £70.00, May 2015, ISBN 978 0 7190 8733 2

The Conservative politician Airey Neave was a man whose life touched many bases. A Second World War veteran who became a close friend and ally of Margaret Thatcher, he was killed by Irish republicans when a bomb attached to his car exploded as he left the underground car park at the Palace of Westminster. Speaking to the Media Society in 1977, Neave had pitched his idea for a ‘Belfast Starsky and Hutch’ that would show ‘Protestants and Catholics working together on security missions’; this, he believed, would inspire greater public enthusiasm for the struggle against the IRA. No TV executive ever took him up on this particular brainwave. Some of his other comments on the subject of broadcasting were more predictable; calling for ‘a review of present attitudes to media freedom’, he insisted that broadcasters should be ‘more positively on the side of authority’, and professed himself ‘disgusted by their self-satisfied attitude’. One BBC programme was denounced as a ‘party political broadcast for the IRA … glorifying violence and fostering a new generation of killers’. Similar comments were made throughout the conflict by spokesmen for both major parties; Thatcher imposed a ban on interviews with Sinn Féin in order to deny them the ‘oxygen of publicity’ while Irish nationalists accused broadcasters of toeing the government line and holding up a distorting mirror to events in Northern Ireland.

The Troubles posed one of the sternest challenges the BBC has had to face. How was it to report on a war, never recognised as such by any British government, being fought on its own national territory? How would it reconcile a reputation for independence of government control with the fact that the British state, of which it was a part, was one of the main protagonists in the conflict? Robert Savage believes that the corporation passed this test with honour: ‘the BBC was attacked, threatened and bullied by a variety of actors, but did its best to stand its ground and maintain editorial independence and journalistic integrity.’ But the facts presented in his account, and in those of pioneering media critics such as Liz Curtis and David Miller, suggest that a more critical verdict would not be out of place.[*]

The early years of broadcasting in Northern Ireland had been safe and somnolent, as Savage describes. After BBC Northern Ireland was established between the wars, its directors quickly took their place in the local unionist establishment: one of them explained to Lord Reith that ‘our position here will be strengthened immensely if we can persuade the Northern [Irish] government to look upon us as their mouthpiece.’ Radio broadcasts steered clear of the fact that Northern Ireland contained a large nationalist minority, excluded from any share in political power, which disputed the very existence of the state. This deferential approach was carried over to television when it arrived in 1953, and the rare controversies that arose usually involved material taken from London. In 1958, the BBC showed an interview with the Belfast-born actress Siobhan McKenna in which she described IRA members as ‘young idealists’. There was a furious response from the Northern Irish authorities: the elderly Ulster Unionist Party leader, Basil Brooke, suggested that if McKenna were ‘put across someone’s knee and spanked it would do her a world of good’. The New York Daily News reprinted these comments with what Savage describes as ‘unrestrained glee’ – a foretaste of the trouble unionist politicians would later have in dealing with the global media. But the outcry did its job, and the second part of the interview wasn’t broadcast. Another bout of trouble about a programme on the unlikely subject of Northern Irish betting shops led the BBC to impose a directive requiring the controller of BBC NI to be consulted about ‘any programmes which deal with questions directly affecting Northern Ireland’. This neatly harmonised with the convention at Westminster that all speeches touching on Northern Irish affairs should be ruled out of order.

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[*] Ireland: The Propaganda War – The British Media and the ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’ by Liz Curtis (1984); Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media by David Miller (1994).