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.

In spite of these precautions, television would have a catalytic role in the crisis that led to the demise of the ‘Orange state’. When officers of the Royal Ulster Constabulary attacked a civil rights march in Derry in October 1968, the violence was filmed by a camera crew from the Irish state broadcaster RTE; its footage was broadcast on TV networks in Britain and the US, and Northern Ireland was on the international news agenda for the first time in half a century. The scenes in Derry triggered a wave of protest by the nationalist minority against the discrimination they faced in housing, employment and local government, with counter-demonstrations by hardline unionists often leading to violent clashes. The counter-demonstrators also targeted news crews, and BBC journalists wanted the corporation to issue a statement condemning their behaviour. Managers preferred to fudge the question, trusting in a private appeal to the Unionist home affairs minister, but the Northern Irish government was more interested in blaming television crews for its problems than in upholding their right to report and their appeal was (predictably) met with indifference.

The unrest reached its peak in August 1969, when nationalist protesters in Derry drove the RUC out of the city’s Bogside with a hail of bricks and petrol bombs while sectarian violence in Belfast forced hundreds of (mostly Catholic) families to leave their homes. Harold Wilson’s decision to send in the army – nominally on a mission to protect civilians, but really in support of the ‘civil power’ whose writ no longer ran in Derry – changed the parameters of reporting for the BBC and other media outlets. With British soldiers and politicians now directly involved, the main story was no longer about a confrontation between telegenic civil rights marchers and the inflexible Unionist government whose leaders had proved so flat-footed before the cameras. Pressure on regional power-holders to carry out reforms that would address nationalist grievances, especially in the field of policing, eased after Heath replaced Wilson in 1970. The emergence of the Provisional IRA, which put itself forward as a defender of the Catholic ghettos before launching its first attacks on British soldiers in the spring of 1971, led government ministers in London and Belfast to depict the problem as one of ‘law and order’, and to demand support from the media in their efforts to crush the insurgency.

Reporting the point of view of the nationalist population, especially in the urban ghettos where the IRA was most active, now posed a much greater problem for the BBC, since the main target of their anger was the British army. Every report on allegations of brutality was greeted with howls of outrage from Westminster MPs, who accused the corporation of bringing comfort to the enemy. The BBC chairman, Lord Hill, responded to an early barrage of complaints in November 1971 by insisting that ‘the BBC and its staff abhor the terrorism of the IRA and report their campaign of murder with revulsion’ while at the same time reminding critics that much of the nationalist community was now ‘openly hostile to the presence of the British army … these are citizens of Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom, and their opinions must be presented.’ Savage doesn’t quote another part of the same letter, in which the chairman spelled out the limits of political neutrality: ‘As between the government and the opposition, as between the two communities in Northern Ireland, the BBC has a duty to be impartial no less than in the rest of the United Kingdom. But as between the British army and the gunmen, the BBC is not and cannot be impartial.’

The strain of reconciling these imperatives – to support the army against the IRA and other ‘gunmen’, while reporting the views of those ‘openly hostile’ to its presence – can easily be imagined. After internment without trial was imposed in August 1971, in what proved to be a forlorn attempt to prop up the Unionist government of Brian Faulkner against his hard-right opponents, the BBC was reluctant to pursue the allegations of torture that began to circulate almost immediately. This self-censorship ended only when the Sunday Times took up the issue; even then, the tone of BBC reporting was highly sceptical, as Jonathan Dimbleby noted in an (unsigned) article for the New Statesman: ‘Quite clearly, until the Compton Report [on the treatment of internees] bore out much of what had been alleged, the BBC’s intention was to discredit the allegations and those who made them.’ A BBC crew was on the scene in Derry on 30 January 1972 – Bloody Sunday – when 14 nationalist civilians were killed by paratroopers who opened fire on an anti-internment march. Its footage was shown around the world, dealing a heavy blow to the Heath government on the propaganda front, but it was quickly followed by another bout of self-censorship on the instructions of the BBC’s lawyers. The reason given was that ‘nothing should be published which might be held to prejudice the findings of Lord Widgery,’ who had been appointed to head an official inquiry, with a judicious reminder from Heath that ‘we were in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war’; in the light of Widgery’s ensuing whitewash, it would have been more accurate to say that ‘nothing should be published which might prejudice the ability of Lord Widgery to conceal his findings.’

Bloody Sunday proved to be the death-knell for the regional government. Direct rule from London was imposed in March 1972: apart from a short-lived experiment in power-sharing between unionist and nationalist parties in 1973–74, this would be the political framework for Northern Ireland until the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Meanwhile the war dragged on, never quite matching the violence of 1972, when 480 people were killed, but claiming a steady toll of lives from combatants and civilians. The direct rule period takes up the remaining two-thirds of Savage’s book, punctuated by the disagreements between the BBC and Westminster politicians over the BBC’s coverage of the conflict. These episodes can be divided into two categories: general broadsides against the whole tenor of media coverage, and spasms of fury provoked by individual programmes – especially those concerned with the IRA and its political associates, or with allegations of misconduct on the part of state forces.

The first can be exemplified by a dinner at the Culloden Hotel on the outskirts of Belfast in November 1976, arranged by the BBC to mark the extension of its local premises, and to welcome the new secretary of state for Northern Ireland, Labour’s Roy Mason. Mason took the opportunity to launch a ferocious attack – ‘a thermonuclear explosion of rage and spleen’, according to one of those in attendance – on the BBC’s record in Northern Ireland. One BBC veteran described the evening as ‘the most traumatic incident of my career … a tirade of criticism and hostility that was beyond belief’. A programme aired in 1977 and discussed at some length by Savage illustrates the second kind of dispute. It was based on an interview with Bernard O’Connor, who described the beatings and psychological abuse he had received at the hands of the RUC while being held in Castlereagh interrogation centre. The RUC claimed that O’Connor was a terrorist ‘godfather’; he denied having any links with the IRA, and the BBC reporter Keith Kyle found his story convincing (a doctor also confirmed the injuries he had received). The programme was ‘referred upwards’ to senior management in Belfast and London for approval, and held over for a fortnight to give the RUC time to respond. When it was eventually broadcast it met with a furious response from Mason and his Tory shadow, Airey Neave, the RUC hierarchy and the right-wing press, all of whom accused the BBC of having been duped by IRA propaganda. A subsequent report by Amnesty International confirmed that O’Connor’s experience was quite typical of those held at Castlereagh.

Savage ends his survey rather abruptly in 1982, a timeframe dictated by the thirty-year rule for release of government papers. This means he can only touch on some of the most important controversies from the 1980s and 1990s. A comprehensive history of the BBC will have to cover this ground more thoroughly. But there are other limitations on the scope of his account that should be kept in mind. By focusing on the high-profile confrontations, he exaggerates their importance in the overall record. The Observer journalist Mary Holland warned that the whole point of attacks on television programmes was to foster a climate of self-censorship: ‘If an article or a programme or an interview is going to provoke rage from Airey Neave, cries of “IRA-lover” from Mr Mason and “flak” from the press, then everyone involved, no matter how courageous, from the researcher to the controller instinctively reacts by thinking “Oh God, can we face it?”’ She estimated that ‘for every programme that gets banned, there are about twenty that don’t get made.’

It is difficult, of course, to document the presence of an absence; but the dogs that didn’t bark are very much a part of this story. Careful analysis of BBC news broadcasts of the kind pioneered by the Glasgow Media Group in its ‘Bad News’ series, and applied to Northern Ireland by David Miller in his book Don’t Mention the War – would give a fuller picture and allow us to catch the background hum of the BBC’s reporting on the conflict. What does emerge very clearly from Savage’s history is that the people responsible for directing Britain’s counter-insurgency had a direct channel of influence that could be used to apply pressure on the BBC which simply wasn’t available to the nationalist population in Northern Ireland (or to the unionist population for that matter, but they could at least be satisfied that the two main goals of British security policy – to defeat the IRA and preserve the Union – were in line with their own wishes). ‘We are often aware that Catholics do not always accord us much credibility,’ the chairman of the BBC’s Board of Governors told Mason in 1976. Nationalists were in no position to demand meetings with senior management, and their critiques would find no purchase in the British press. The substantial minority of nationalists who sympathised with the IRA, and went on to vote for Sinn Féin in the 1980s, were pushed to the margins; so, too, were those who opposed the IRA campaign, but rejected the sanitised view of the British army as impartial peacekeepers, upholding the rule of law. Take, for example, a BBC programme that was aired the year before the Bernard O’Connor interview. Panorama’s ‘Bandit Country’ report from South Armagh presented British soldiers as a constructive force in the region, holding the ring against sectarian violence. That view would have been disputed by the local nationalist community every bit as strenuously as the RUC objected to O’Connor’s account of his experience in Castlereagh. But their complaints would barely have registered. Even the programmes that caused the greatest controversy were often less damaging to the British government’s position than its protests might lead one to believe. Savage describes the outcry provoked by an interview with a masked INLA spokesman that was aired shortly after the group had assassinated Airey Neave. Predictably, the BBC was accused of undermining the struggle against terrorism and assisting the enemy. But the corporation’s Audience Research Department convened focus groups in seven British cities and found that ‘most respondents claimed to be more hostile towards the INLA and the IRA and more sympathetic towards the army after seeing the broadcast’; the INLA spokesman was described as ‘despicable, bigoted, fanatical, cowardly and evil’. For all the talk of British television as a platform for republican propaganda, the pithiest summary of its record may have come from the unionist politician Jeffrey Donaldson in 1993: ‘Sinn Féin do get a fairly bad press. You get the occasional documentary from Channel 4 which we would argue is not helpful in that at times it tries to present Sinn Féin as a rational political organisation.’

In 1994, David Miller suggested that there would be a shift in the balance of coverage when the pressure to hold the line was no longer so intense:

If the peace process develops further we can expect a much freer atmosphere. Where previously information was jealously guarded as ammunition in the propaganda war, we may find that previously hidden aspects of the secret war will be revealed as now ‘retired’ participants emerge into public roles. Such a process will make us look back in wonder at the covert actions of the past.

And in horror, he might have added. It is enough to watch some of the documentaries produced by the BBC since the war ended to be reminded of the power of television at its best. Many of these programmes have concentrated on the murky relationship between loyalist paramilitaries and the British state. Panorama’s investigation ‘Licence to Murder’, broadcast in 2002, documented the role of the army’s Force Research Unit in dozens of sectarian killings, including the assassination of the lawyer Pat Finucane. It included footage of Finucane’s killer Ken Barrett talking about his meeting with an RUC officer who told him that Finucane should be a priority target.

The official narrative of the conflict, largely accepted by the British media, presented it as a struggle against terrorism, with the forces of the state doing everything in their power to contain both republican and loyalist violence. But there is no longer any serious doubt that the RUC and the British army applied different standards to loyalist paramilitaries, allowing them greater freedom to operate and often giving them direct assistance as part of a common struggle against the IRA. Much of this was known or strongly suspected at the time; evidence of collusion didn’t drop out of a clear blue sky after the conflict ended. The relationship between loyalist paramilitaries and the state is fundamental to any understanding of the Troubles: while the IRA and other republican groups accounted for more than half of the 3532 conflict-related deaths between 1969 and 2001 – twice as many as the loyalist organisations – the loyalists were so relentless in their targeting of non-combatants that nearly half of the 1841 civilian deaths came at their hands (186 were killed by the British army and the police). If current affairs broadcasting had pursued the story of collusion more aggressively when it was taking place, and worked it into the standard framing applied to reports from Northern Ireland, the pressure to end such practices would have been overwhelming.

[*] 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).