- The BBC’s ‘Irish Troubles’: Television, Conflict and Northern Irelandby Robert J. Savage
In September 1976, Roy Mason, a Labour MP from Yorkshire, was appointed secretary of state for Northern Ireland. Mason was a famously bullish individual; having already served at the Ministry of Defence, he took a bellicose line on Ulster. Maurice Hayes, one of the few high-ranking Catholics in the Northern Ireland Civil Service, had a dim view of his new boss, observing that he was “a small man in every respect, probably the worst secretary of state in my time. . . . He was a little boy playing with toy soldiers and tanks and he was completely in the pocket of the army.”
Two months into Mason’s tenure, an incident occurred that would seem to bear out the veracity of Hayes’s harsh assessment, an incident that is at the heart of Robert Savage’s richly researched study of the BBC and the Northern Irish “Troubles.” In November 1976, the newly appointed secretary attended a dinner at the Culloden Hotel in Belfast held in honour of the BBC’s director-general, [End Page 144]Charles Curran. Mason viewed the BBC “with utter contempt,” a stance confirmed by other leading figures in his department. In a speech delivered at this dinner, he “launched in a blistering attack on the BBC,” accusing them of fomenting divisions with their journalism, of providing publicity for the IRA, and of broadcasting unsubstantiated accusations of army misconduct. With all his grievances aired, Mason ended with an open threat: as a member of the British cabinet, he was part of the decision-making process that would set the rates for the television license fee. He controlled the BBC’s income and new funds would only be forthcoming if their reporting on Northern Ireland—the most contentious region of the United Kingdom—met with government expectations. In other words, he was threatening to censor the standard bearers of British television journalism.
As Savage shows in this provocative book, censorship had a long history at BBC Northern Ireland, ranging from attempts at government coercion to the outright formal censorship imposed by Thatcher, as well as subtler forms of self-censorship. Already in the years prior to the outbreak of the “Troubles,” a culture of “being overly sensitive to the concerns of the unionist community” reigned at the BBC. As well as a de factoban on discussions of the border, Partition, or Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, there was opposition to programming on such seemingly innocuous issues as Gaelic games, the Irish language, and even St. Patrick’s Day. Indeed, BBC NI became known as the “Siberia” of the BBC, due to its disconnect from the rest of the organization. This all intensified after 1969. Already at the very start of the conflict, both Ian Paisley and Bernadette Devlin were banned from the airwaves and a common suspicion among BBC journalists based in the “Mainland” was that Waldo Maguire, the controller for Northern Ireland, was trying to subtly manipulate their coverage of news events. As Savage shows, the shooting war of the “Troubles” was paralleled by battles over media representation.
Tension with local political forces increased the perceived need for political control of TV journalists at the BBC. Already in the early 1970s, Unionist MPs began to advocate for “patriotic censorship” of the BBC, something that was taken seriously by the Conservative home secretary, Reginald Maudling. In one passage, Savage uncovers the discussions that took place within the BBC after Bloody Sunday: “They agreed it was acceptable to refer to the ‘Londonderry killings’ because it was agreed ‘no other word was both accurate and neutral; if “massacre” was out of the question so were “shootings” and “incidents.” Even “deaths” fell short of what was required.’ The fact that BBC editors, producers and reporters debated the proper terminology illustrates how careful and even paranoid senior executives had become.” As such frankly odd discussions show, the stage had been set for censorship well before Roy...