Friday, November 17, 2017

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BBC's 'Irish Troubles',

Christopher Owens with the latest in a series of reviews looks at a book on BBC NI.


Long regarded as the bastion of the British establishment, the BBC have often produced works that have both dealt with the history of this country in terms that could be described as informative. However, it's well publicised that their news coverage (which, let's remember, goes around the world) can often be lacking.

First published in 2015, Robert J. Savage's look at the history of BBC NI and it's role in this country and it's recent history. There have been studies of this topic before, like Rex Cathcart's The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984, but Savage is able to use recently declassified documents in order to help give a broader picture for the scenes that played out in Broadcasting House.

Beginning from the first BBC NI radio broadcast in 1924, it's clear that the local members of the organisation were all too aware of the need to toe the line by the Stormont government. English journalists often tried to offer a more nuanced view, but were shot down by horrified executives, politicians and newspaper editors (Alan Whicker's segment for 'Tonight' that aired in 1959 is one such example cited).

These depictions of the early stages of the Six Counties make for tremendous reading. Often, the history books tend to start with the 1960's, so it's always intriguing to see just how far discrimination went down in the state, to the extent that references to gerrymandering and the poor upkeep of nationalist areas of the country were often deleted from programmes. 

As events move onto the Civil Rights Association, through to the Army arriving and the beginning of violence, BBC NI journalists are depicted as seekers of the truth, openly despised by Stormont officials because of their questioning of the official line. Indeed, it's claimed that UTV and ITV were much preferred as they took the press office at their word. But said BBC journalists freely admit that their coverage of August 1969 was deeply flawed, and led to the perception in England of the conflict being one purely about religious differences, as opposed to civil rights and overt oppression.

Savage's writing style can be a little on the dry side at times, being overtly direct and with a tendency to repeat certain phrases and information about particular people. Unsurprisingly, this grates on the reader quickly. Also, he doesn't really ask questions that arise from particular incidents (apart from one that will be dealt with later on). It's just a case of describing particular moments, the reaction/coverage from the BBC and the implications of it.

In most cases, this is fine as events in the early 70's move so quickly throughout the book that it's quickly replaced by another. But by the time we get to the end of that decade, and the description of Roy Mason's open war on the corporation for their coverage of the Bernard O'Connor case, there are enough questions that can be raised by the reader.

For example, he uses the coverage of the Ulster Workers Council strike to show the disconnect that often existed between the BBC and the rest of the world. The Board of Governors genuinely seemed to think the NI branch had done a good job covering the strike (despite not offering any alternate viewpoints so beloved of the BBC), and Robert Fisk's expose of the coverage burst that particular bubble. 

So what exactly made the Board decide such coverage was acceptable for broadcast? Did BBC NI staff do anything to indicate their supposed frustration at their bosses, like threaten a walkout? Questions like these are left unanswered, and I think they do deserve answers.    

It has often been written about journalists north and south routinely felt the need to display how anti IRA they could be, in order to displace notions of them being (to quote Ed Moloney) "fellow travellers", and this is something that could certainly have been explored in depth as to why BBC NI staff (seemingly) did nothing. 

The most fascinating moment comes when a Panorama crew end up filming an IRA unit setting up an impromptu checkpoint in Carrickmore in 1979. Through a set of circumstances involving lack of communication and gut reaction, the footage threatened the stability of the BBC with the Thatcher government, who were already furious at the BBC for interviewing an INLA spokesperson the same year.

Although there is a pervading feeling throughout that someone somewhere is holding back (and he is not prepared to cross the line and name names), Savage explores the various reactions from BBC management, and it comes across as the sort of bureaucratic nightmare often envisaged by Orwell and Kafka, with the ever real threat of journalists potentially being arrested for interviewing illegal organisations.

Savage argues, convincingly, that this was the beginning of the crackdown of broadcasters freedom by the Thatcher government which would ultimately culminate in her reaction to the ITV 'Death on the Rock' programme. 

After the "Carrickmore incident", the book gets quite tedious, with the usual round of people complaining about bias over the hunger strike. The book ends with the broadcasting ban, and Savage admits this is mainly because the amount of declassified papers from this period onwards are nowhere near the same amount as the previous years. 

It's certainly a worthy addition to the ever growing shelf of Troubles related texts, but it's writing style, lack of open questioning and cut off period stop it from being definitive. What is really needed are volumes dealing with the other major British broadcasters, and the media. The results would be interesting, and would give academics pause for thought about the power of the media to shape the ordinary person's opinion on such matters. 


Robert J. Savage, 2015, The BBC's 'Irish Troubles': Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland Manchester University Press, ISBN-13: 978-1526116888


Christopher Owens reviews for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland.

Follow Christopher Owens on Twitter @MrOwens212

2 comments :

DaithiD said...

The Edge of the Union doc came after Carrickmore, and this would be the most intruiging aspect for me, is this dealt with? To have the IRA's Chief of Staff effectively humanised playing with his children on the beach (contrasted with Gregory Campbell loading his revolver) could of seemed a propaganda coup for many years until you eventually understand the direction MMG ultimately helped take the movement.

Christopher Owens said...

DaithiD,

yes, it is dealt with. But the discussion around it lapses into back and forth with BBC management and, frankly, isn't that interesting to read. If gone through with a fine tooth comb, it would have brought up some relevant queries. Not to be, unfortunately.