It is taken as axiomatic that the mass media exert a strong influence on how we think and how we act, and it is not surprising therefore that a body such as the Cultural Traditions Group should wish to employ television to help promote its central aim, the cultivation of more tolerant attitudes towards cultural diversity in Northern Ireland. What is not clear however is exactly how television exerts its influence, and to what extent it can be said to foster specific aims such as, for example, a reduction of prejudice, or an increase in awareness of historical fact. A BBC series entitled 'A Sense of Place', broadcast in the Spring of 1991, provides an interesting case in point: produced with the assistance of community relations funding, it aimed to contribute to the process of mutual understanding by bringing a focus to bear on areas of common interest, such as local landscape, and common concern, such as sectarianism.
But how effective was this contribution? And how far did the effects of the programmes match the effects intended by the producers and the funders? Audience research, for so long a neglected and under-theorised area of media studies now has new insights to offer into the ways in which messages from the mass media are imported into the consciousness of the viewer and the interpretative possibilities which different audiences can bring to the same programme. Drawing on the new research methodologies this study attempts a 'start-to-finish' account of the communication process involved in the broadcasting of a particular programme, a thirty minute documentary entitled 'Orange, Green and Yellow', which traces the history of sectarianism in Belfast.
The study begins with the origination of the idea in the Cultural Traditions Group and, working from published reports and from interviews with key individuals, it tries first to locate the political and intellectual context in which it was thought useful to have such programmes broadcast. Attention is then paid to how far the BBC's editorial independence was affected by this partnership with an external agency, and how the production of the actual series was contracted out to independent producers. Interviews with the producers involved are used to explore the degree of autonomy entrusted to the media professionals, and to establish how far the series producers were concerned to relay the messages which the Cultural Traditions Group had hoped could be carried by the programmes. The report then turns to the 'Orange, Green and Yellow' documentary, and provides a detailed analysis of its structure, style and content.
Finally, the reactions of various 'audiences' are tested. Nine
groups, selected to provide a proper mix across the categories
of religion, gender, and class were invited to view the programme
and give their responses. The group interviews reveal a general
refusal to accept the message of the programme, and an underlying
mistrust of the media's presentation of the conflict.
'Did that play of mine send out certain men the British shot?' Yeats' famous question was of course rhetorical., but was, in any case, unanswerable. The attempt to establish direct causal connections between cultural output and events in the social or political realm is doomed to failure: we do not know, and cannot know, the precise effects of a Yeats play, or a Heaney poem or, for that matter, a television documentary. What we can do is attempt to establish the extent to which a particular message, communicated through the medium of television, is likely to be received in the manner intended by the audience intended. On the evidence of this study we can conclude that the hopes of the Cultural Traditions Group failed to be realised, and for reasons which should prove significant for future ventures of this kind. Before detailing these reasons it should perhaps be remembered that this particular documentary was not the vehicle for all of the hopes of the Cultural Traditions Group - indeed, technically speaking, its funding did not come from the Cultural Traditions Group at all, but from the Central Community Relations Unit. Since the time it was commissioned the Cultural Traditions Group has gone on to experiment with various approaches to television, many of them more sophisticated than this first series of programmes. The lessons from 'Orange, Green and Yellow', however, remain significant and need to be drawn carefully.
The first of these is that no matter how carefully the message is encoded by the programme-makers, or written into the DNA of the programme it is still capable of a wide range of oppositional interpretations by those who view it. The simple idea of an undifferentiated 'audience' passively absorbing the content of a television documentary and, consciously or unconsciously, being shaped by the experience must be discarded, and replaced by an awareness of many different audiences, all of them performing their own reading of the text and capable of using those readings to confirm their existing beliefs.
A second important message concerns the role of the programme-makers, in a structure like the BBC which guarantees a degree of editorial freedom. As can be seen from the approaches taken by Flying Fox and Bridge Television the professional ethos of programme-makers militates against any attempt to recruit them to work to the agenda of any external agency. While this degree of professional integrity provides a reassuring guarantee that the medium cannot be abused for any suspect purpose, it provides an equal bulwark against it being employed to transmit other messages, more laudable in intent. An additional feature of the independence of the media professionals is the creation of a self-referencing value system which amounts, in practice, to a solipsistic indifference to the views of the audience. This is particularly regrettable in the Northern Ireland situation where the alienation from television's messages is both deep and widespread.
For many of those interviewed in this study television fails to provide a credible account of experience, and is therefore mistrusted in its representation of other communities and other viewpoints. Common to groups on both sides of the sectarian divide is the belief that television selects opinions from a narrow range of the social spectrum, and deliberately excludes the voices of working class communities in order to preserve a self-serving set of middle class values.
Finally, it should be noted that these are generalisations drawn from a very small scale study, conducted exclusively in the Belfast area, and focused on a particular style of documentary. To discover the attitudes of the wider Northern Ireland public to other television forms, particularly drama productions, is now of paramount importance. It is hoped that this study, however modest in scope, will help to open a field that is as yet untilled.