The BBC’s ‘Irish Troubles’: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland, by Robert J Savage, Manchester University Press, 288 pp, £70, ISBN 978-0719087332
In the summer of 1978 I joined the BBC Northern Ireland current affairs television programme Spotlight as a rather green young reporter. I lasted just two years before my contract was not renewed. I fancied myself as something of an investigative journalist, a radical who was extremely critical of the Northern unionist establishment, and perhaps (in a very small way) one of the “Marxists and extreme socialist elements” whom the Northern Ireland secretary at the time, Roy Mason, liked to denounce regularly as infiltrating the BBC. I spent much of that two years complaining about the timidity and lack of adventurousness of the people who ran the BBC in Belfast.
Little did I know then. Robert Savage’s meticulously researched book shows that during the late 1970s and early 1980s senior BBC executives in both London and Belfast were fighting a running battle with successive British governments – Labour and Conservative – to maintain the corporation’s independence in the face of perilous assaults from a range of establishment figures led by Conservative and Unionist MPs. These gentlemen (and the occasional lady) had a simplistic view of broadcasting the “Troubles”. They believed and proclaimed that the BBC’s task – in the words of Rex Cathcart, an earlier chronicler of its travails in the North – was to be “part of the State’s propaganda machine” against the IRA and its allies, and that “critical investigations into the conduct and practices of the armed forces, troops and police engaged in the campaign against subversion are not only inappropriate but unpatriotic and treacherous”.
Against this, the BBC put forward an equally forceful but far more nuanced argument. In the words of Richard Francis, the Yorkshireman who was the BBC Northern Ireland controller from 1973 to 1977 (and who is one of the heroes of this tale):
I start from the presumption that the media have a very real contribution to make, in particular a contribution to the maintenance of the democracy which is under threat, both by providing a forum where the harshest differences of opinion can be aired, and by reporting and courageously investigating the unpalatable truths which underlie the problems of the province. I have no doubt that if and when the communities of Northern Ireland reconcile their conflicts, it will be by understanding them and not ignoring them.
He then quoted a London Times editorial outlining five things required of public service broadcasting in Northern Ireland: forestalling of rumour by rapid reporting of events; offering a news source that could be trusted by both communities; exposing the views, passions and personalities of every party to the conflict for examination by all the others; assisting people in Britain to a better understanding of the Irish impasse; and uncovering abuses by the security forces, thus “providing a check against abuses by the very possibility of such exposure”.
It was a philosophy that would land the BBC in very hot, deep water with the British army, the RUC and the British government for the best part of two decades, finally leading to a 1988 decision by Margaret Thatcher’s government to ban all those supporting political violence in Northern Ireland from the airwaves ‑ thus following the Irish government’s Section 31 legislation against the IRA and Sinn Féin twelve years earlier.
It had all started so differently. For the best part of half a century BBC radio and television in Northern Ireland had been the tame poodle of successive Unionist governments. The extreme caution and spinelessness of its leaders in the face of unionist insecurities in the first thirty years of the North’s existence make astonishing reading in 2015: there was a ban on even discussing the issue of partition until 1948; Unionist politicians regularly complained to the BBC in London that very occasional programmes featuring Irish traditional music were compromising their British identity; and the BBC in Belfast quickly acceded to prime minister Lord Craigavon’s request to stop broadcasting GAA results because they were “hurting the feelings” of the Northern majority.
A new low point was reached in 1959 when in an extremely unusual essay into Northern Ireland by a nationwide BBC programme (between the 1920s and 1960s the province was almost as completely ignored by broadcasters in London as it was by the British government and parliament), the popular presenter Alan Whicker recorded several items on the North for inclusion in the current affairs programme Tonight. The first of these featured Belfast in all its contrasts: splendid public buildings alongside newly opened betting shops and sectarian graffiti on tenement walls. Whicker commented that “intensely loyal” Belfast, unlike the rest of the UK, had armed policemen but no conscription. Unionists were outraged; the BBC Northern Ireland controller issued a public apology; the BBC in London decided that the other programmes made by Whicker in the North would not be shown, and that henceforth all such London-made programmes about Northern Ireland or British-Irish relations would be vetted by the BBC NI controller.
When the Troubles broke out in 1968-1969 local broadcasting executives were utterly unprepared. Waldo Maguire, a decent but ultra-cautious Belfast controller, had rejected a proposal to develop a programme on anti-Catholic discrimination in housing, the grievance which was most significant in giving birth to the civil rights movement. If it had not been for the presence of RTÉ cameraman Gay O’Brien, the world would not have witnessed the vicious beating of civil rights protesters by the RUC in Derry in October 1968. A tiny staff in the BBC in Belfast did not work weekends. In the summer of 1969, as civil rights marches gave way to widespread violence, particularly in Belfast (where most of it was initiated by loyalists), Maguire insisted that the BBC should not show film of the violence and could not apportion blame because it simply did not know “who started the trouble”. 1969 also unleashed two decades of accusations of anti-unionist bias from local politicians and ordinary loyalists – despite Maguire insisting to “mainland” producers that they should feature both views of the conflict in any and every programme they made.
By this time the Northern conflict was UK and worldwide news. And it did bring an influx of overseas reporters and broadcasters, many of whose instincts were to side with the Catholic underdog. Even a right-wing correspondent like Peregrine Worsthorne, writing in the Sunday Telegraph, described Orange Order celebrations “as incomprehensible to the people in Britain as a Zulu war dance”. Stormont government officials – unionists all ‑ were overwhelmed by the demands of an increasingly suspicious British, Irish and international media. Senior civil servants in London realised that they were already beginning to lose the propaganda war.
In May 1971 a BBC television reporter, Bernard Falk, was sentenced to four days’ imprisonment for refusing to break confidentiality by identifying a masked IRA man he had interviewed. It was the first in a litany of such incidents. The BBC was now sending its top producers and reporters to the province, who infuriated the British government and military chiefs by aggressively questioning the strategies and tactics of the British army. In late 1971, as the Provisional IRA’s campaign took off and reporters sought out their leaders for interview, editorial control was tightened further: “it was emphasised that any story under consideration concerning Northern Ireland now had to be cleared by senior editors in London. Within the BBC, some staff members grew increasingly concerned with an atmosphere of self-censorship they believed permeated the institution, arguing it was inhibiting their efforts to report on the reality of the conflict.” From here on, the “reference upwards” system meant that any interview with an IRA leader required the approval of the director general in London.
However Bloody Sunday in Derry in January 1972 was fully covered by the BBC. Veteran correspondent John Bierman found himself in the middle of the massacre with cameraman Cyril Cave, and produced an ad-libbed thirteen-minute report for the evening news bulletin, a broadcast which would win him a prestigious Cannes TV Festival award. He later said the BBC’s decision to let his report run as long it did was “stirring affirmation of the confidence the BBC put in its reporters”.
BBC Northern Ireland played a contrasting role two years later during the 1974 Ulster Workers Council strike which brought down the first power-sharing executive. The recently appointed NI controller, Richard Francis, said it had been the BBC’s duty to provide citizens with vital information, including from the UWC at a time when its loyalist paramilitary allies were bringing society to a standstill by blocking roads and essential services. The corporation’s critics, led by the distinguished Times correspondent Robert Fisk, accused it of unwittingly legitimising self-appointed UWC leaders who were subverting parliamentary democracy and the rule of law. It was not Francis’s finest hour.
The NI controller and his colleagues had even harder battles ahead. In November 1976 a new Labour Northern Ireland secretary, Roy Mason, speaking at a dinner attended by many BBC governors and senior executives in the Culloden Hotel on the eastern outskirts of Belfast, launched a ferocious and bullying attack on the corporation’s coverage of the North, accusing it of “giving succour to the enemy” and threatening the renewal of its charter and licence (an event that would become known as “the second battle of Culloden”). Senior civil servant Sir Kenneth Bloomfield, who was at the dinner, called it “a thermonuclear explosion of rage and spleen”.
This full frontal attack by the government minister in charge of the North did not appear to intimidate the BBC’s journalists. Six months later Tonight reporter Keith Kyle interviewed an Enniskillen schoolteacher, Bernard O’Connor, who alleged he had been subjected to hours of relentless physical and emotional abuse (including beatings) by the RUC while being questioned about alleged IRA membership (which he always strenuously denied). This case was particularly sensitive because it came at exactly the moment that the British attorney general was assuring the European Human Rights Commission in Strasbourg that the “inhuman and degrading treatment” of those interned in 1971, of which the British government would in the following year be found guilty at the European Human Rights Court, had completely ended. O’Connor was eventually awarded exemplary damages against the RUC in High Court in Belfast.
Two weeks after the O’Connor interview, the IRA killed a young policeman in Fermanagh and issued a statement calling the RUC “the torture instrument of the British war machine”. This prompted a Daily Express headline: “Murder by TV: BBC accused after assassination”. Conservative and Unionist MPs lined up with the RUC to denounce the corporation. The Conservatives’ Northern Ireland spokesman, Airey Neave, demanded drastic action against the IRA, including declaring a state of emergency and a broadcast ban on Sinn Féin. The BBC was unrepentant. Director general Charles Curran told senior colleagues: “There had been 50 years of voluntary silence on certain issues in Northern Ireland. The BBC had been a party to it, but was no longer.”
In May 1979 Margaret Thatcher became prime minister and a period of even fiercer confrontation with the BBC – which she always suspected of left-wing bias – ensued. Two months earlier the INLA had assassinated Neave, one her closest friends and confidants. In early July the BBC Tonight programme broadcast an interview with an INLA spokesman; Neave’s widow wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph expressing her revulsion, and all hell broke loose once again. Richard Francis, now director of news and current affairs in London, defended the broadcast on the grounds that people on the British “mainland” were both ignorant of and inured to the real horror of the violence in Northern Ireland, and it was important to tell them “what was in the minds of the INLA”. The new director general, Ian Trethowan, a man of Tory sympathies, backed him up. A BBC audience research survey found that eighty per cent of viewers thought it was right to transmit the interview.
The murder of Lord Mountbatten by the IRA in the following month changed the atmosphere radically and the BBC’s senior executives made it clear that it was now inconceivable that anyone in the corporation might even consider interviewing a member of the IRA. The “reference upwards” system, although resented by some reporters, was meant to ensure that this didn’t happen. However it didn’t always work. In October 1979 Panorama reporter Jeremy Paxman and producer David Darlow were driven without prior warning to film (although the film was never shown) a group of armed and masked IRA men mounting a roadblock in the Tyrone village of Carrickmore. Unfortunately nobody told the new Northern Ireland Controller, James Hawthorne, and he was caught completely unawares when questioned about it by a senior Northern Ireland Office official. The NIO already regarded the BBC management as not in control of its journalists, and saw this as a perfect opportunity to exploit this apparent weakness. Three weeks later, after the Carrickmore incident had been reported in the Dublin magazine Hibernia, it reached the floor of House of Commons. Ulster Unionist leader James Molyneaux asked: “Following the evidence of this treasonable activity on the part of the BBC Panorama team in setting up what was a joint operation with the IRA, may we have an assurance that the names of those concerned will be forwarded to the Director of Public Prosecutions?” Margaret Thatcher said this was not the first such incident and it was “time that the BBC put its house in order”.
An immediate consequence was that the editor of Panorama, Roger Bolton, whose investigative skills and insistence in bringing the Northern Ireland conflict in all its ugliness to the attention of British viewers had made him a particular thorn in the side of the establishment, was fired. He was reinstated after a threatened strike by BBC staff. Savage calls this episode a “watershed in the history of the BBC” in that it undermined the trust that had existed between the board of governors and the management, including senior editors, which in the past had withstood tremendous political pressure. “The Carrickmore affair signalled that the Governors were wearing down under intense pressure from the Thatcher government. While in the past they had reserved judgement and listened patiently to explanations and advice from the professionals in the institution, in this instance they did not, and their rush to judgement jeopardised the independence of the BBC at a crucial juncture in its history.”
The INLA, Mountbatten and Carrickmore events led to increasingly nervous coverage of the North. Savage says that director general Ian Trethowan was “wary of once again incurring the wrath of Margaret Thatcher; he therefore refused to allow the kind of informative programming advocated by his most senior staff. He understood that it was imperative the BBC be protected from an angry interventionist government and the result was self-censorship.” Attorney general Michael Havers’s warning that both the INLA interview and the Carrickmore filming had breached the Prevention of Terrorism Act and left its employees open to prosecution only served to deepen this cautious attitude.
The highly charged atmosphere surrounding the 1980 and 1981 republican hunger strikes led to further pressure on the corporation. There was a torrent of abuse from right-wing politicians and newspapers that the BBC was losing the propaganda war by giving so much coverage to terrorist murderers in the Maze prison. Some of the comments were astonishing in their vitriol. Accusing BBC journalists of colluding with the IRA, the widely read columnist Paul Johnson, a conservative English Catholic, asked rhetorically: “How would these ghouls have covered Auschwitz? Done a deal with Himmler for permission to film inside the ovens?”
Ian Trethowan, in an extended defence of BBC coverage in the Times, argued that many critics missed a crucial point, particularly in the reporting on Bobby Sands: that thirty thousand voters in Fermanagh-South Tyrone had exercised their democratic right and elected him to the House of Commons. “When last did an elected MP starve himself to death? When last did someone starving himself to death receive a procession of international emissaries?” he asked. He stressed that whether people liked it or not, the death of an elected UK politician by hunger strike was an international event which had to be reported to the British public. It was a lesson not lost on the republican leadership, laying the basis of the “Armalite and ballot box” strategy which would see the eventual acceptance by the IRA that politics and not violence was the way forward in Northern Ireland.
The Thatcher government’s 1988 broadcasting ban is not the subject of this book, which ends in 1982 (based, as it largely is, on official papers released under the thirty year rule). However Savage does add an account of the 1985 Real Lives controversy. This balanced programme (it also filmed DUP politician Gregory Campbell) by the highly regarded film maker Paul Hamann, portrayed senior IRA leader Martin McGuinness in his daily life as a hard-working political representative and loving father. After the intervention of the home secretary, Leon Brittan, it was banned by the BBC governors for being too sympathetic to the IRA, an unprecedented decision that led to an equally unprecedented strike by two thousand BBC journalists and staff; a black-out of large parts of the BBC’s output, including all World Service programmes; and a sympathetic strike by ITN journalists. Although the programme was eventually shown in a slightly amended form, Savage believes this row started the immediate train of events that led to the 1988 ban.
Savage’s thesis in this excellent book is that throughout the 1970s and 1980s the BBC’s reporters, editors and senior managers worked to provide intelligent and timely news and current affairs programming about the Northern Ireland crisis. “In many respects the complex role the BBC played in chronicling the ‘Troubles’ meant it became an integral part of the conflict. In spite of efforts by politicians, civil servants and security officials to control, suppress or shape its broadcasts, the BBC persevered and offered compelling coverage of events in very difficult circumstances. Confronted with threats, insults, bullying and finally the imposition of formal censorship, the BBC did its best to fulfil its mission as a public service. Although the public grew increasingly frustrated by a conflict that seemed insoluble, the coverage provided by the print and broadcast media – especially BBC Television – was a constant reminder that political violence was a gruesome reality that threatened the social order. Television coverage brought the pain, trauma, outrage and tragedy of the ‘Troubles’ into homes throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland, reminding a wary public that finding a way to end the conflict was imperative.”
One could argue equally that Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act meant RTÉ sometimes failed in its responsibility to inform the Irish public about an even more central (and thus even more uncomfortable) element of Irish life during this tempestuous period. We have to be thankful in particular that The Irish Times, under the editorships of Douglas Gageby and Conor Brady, took on the hugely important task of keeping the Southern public fully informed of the running sore that was Northern Ireland and its people’s violent battering by the IRA.
Based on previously unused primary sources such as the minutes of the BBC board of governors, its NI advisory council and senior editors’ meetings, Savage’s largely sympathetic treatment has the ring of authenticity. It is hard to convey to people in the second decade of the twenty-first century, many of whom have no memory of the daily murder and mayhem that was Northern Ireland in the 1970s and 1980s, just how hugely disruptive events in the region were to the national politics of both the UK and the Republic of Ireland in that period, and how vital it was that they were reported and analysed fully and fairly. It is also doubly relevant again today, as media organisations in the UK and elsewhere wrestle with the problems of how to cover the horror that is the Syrian civil war and the even more alarming terrorist threat posed by Islamic State and its offshoots to Western countries. It is a situation in which the truth-telling role of the BBC – now even more weakened by richer commercial competitors, an unsympathetic government which constantly questions the value of public service broadcasting, and consequent threats to its licence fee and charter ‑ is more important than ever.
Andy Pollak was formerly a BBC journalist in Belfast; an Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin; and founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in Armagh.