The Damien Walsh Memorial Lecture by Roy Greenslade, 4 August 1998
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The following paper was contributed by Roy Greenslade, who at the time of writing, was a journalist for the Guardian Newspaper. This paper is a transcript of the Damien Walsh Memorial Lecture, delivered on 4 August 1998. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This article is copyright (© 1998) of Roy Greenslade and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
It is hardly earth-shattering to say that London-based national newspapers have never adequately covered events here in the north of Ireland. They deal with the set-pieces, of course... the key marches, the big political crunch meetings, certain moments of violence and mayhem. But incidents occur in these six counties day after day, week after week, that go unreported in Britain. Murders happen, let alone many, many acts of violence, without any mention in the highest circulation mass market tabloids. Even the serious press, the so-called papers of record, have failed to maintain a rigorous coverage over the past 30 years.
(Well, for that matter, my admittedly sketchy researches into the previous 40-odd years -- you know, those years of "peaceful" Stormont rule! -- British papers rarely covered the place at all. During that period of blatant sectarian rule and gerrymandering, the press deemed Northern Ireland a quiet backwater of the UK and, therefore, of no possible interest to British readers).
Nowadays, even when there's a bout of intense media interest, it drops away quickly, often within a day. Sometimes an event does get reported (perhaps it was a quiet day in Finchley or Fergie was out of town) but then the story disappears overnight. There is no follow-up, no continuity.
A person is critically injured in a savage attack, for instance, but what happens to that victim days later, even if he or she dies, never makes the papers. In other words, the British people don't get the real story, don't get the chance to see the unfolding daily and weekly drama. Therefore they can't grasp the reality and have almost no sense of context.
But all of you here know this already. Many perceptive writers and politicians down the years have noted it and provided a lot of evidence to support their views. What has been largely absent, however, has been a methodical empirical analysis of the way in which certain news events receive huge coverage in the British papers while other events are apparently overlooked. Only then can we make informed deductions about the underlying reasons -- the so-called news values -- which create this reporting imbalance.
Let me make it clear: what I'm about to put before you isn't the result of an academic research project. But neither is it ill-informed, biased guesswork. It's the result of careful study of certain incidents, and I believe it gives us a glimpse of just how strong a hold is maintained by the political ideology of the British state without the need for any recourse to silly conspiracy theories.
I read the papers, but I don't read them as other people do. For a start, I read them all, ten papers, every page, every day. I also analyse them as I read them, seeking out the differences, noting the underlying assumptions, trying to divine what lies behind the selection of this picture, that headline, the reasoning behind a choice of feature, why one topic gets acres of space, and why another doesn't, what moves an editor to order a leading article about one subject while ignoring another.
Now it's assumed by British people that at least in one area -- the deaths of its citizens due to the Irish troubles -- reporting has been largely fair and balanced. Among many big lies, this is the biggest lie of all. None of us in the media are innocent. We have deluded ourselves over the years and it certainly took me a long time to see through it. I date my Pauline conversion to the media's response to incidents in March 1993, the beginning of a journey I want to share with you today.
On March 20th, a bomb exploded in Warrington, Cheshire, claiming the lives of two young boys, Jonathan Ball and Tim Parry. Since the early 1 970s, there have been many IRA bombings in Britain and scores of people have died. All have generated huge interest from the Londonbased media and, in that sense, Warrington was no different. Its timing, the fact that there was no adequate warning and that two very young children were victims -- one of whom fought for his life for several days -ensured that it received massive coverage.
It was front page news for days and led all the TV and radio news bulletins. Thundering leading articles called not so much for action as for vengeance. Feature writers were dispatched to Warrington to provide a stream of copy about the "massacre of the innocents." A peace initiative launched by a woman called Susan McHugh (anyone remember her now?) was given explicit support by the amount of media coverage. This was, said the press, a turning point. No more murders must happen. Some time later, political analysts Paul Bew and Gordon Gillespie, commented that the Warrington bombing created "a wave of revulsion throughout the British Isles against terrorist killings." What they meant, of course, was that media coverage of the deaths created a wave of revulsion.
On March 25th, just five days after the Warrington bombing, four Catholic men -- James Kelly, James McKenna, Gerry Dalrymple and Noel O'Kane -- were shot dead as they arrived for work at Castlerock, Co Derry. That same evening, 17-year-old Damien Walsh was shot in the back in west Belfast. You might have thought these murders would have been seized on by the press and TV. Instead, they were virtually ignored. To say they received scant coverage in the London-based press is to redefine the word scant.
The Castlerock murders were covered in five lines in the Sun, two paragraphs in Today, three paragraphs in the Express, three paragraphs in the Daily Star, four paragraphs in the Mirror and five paragraphs in the Mail, which passed it off as "a revenge attack". Damien's murder wasn't even mentioned in three of these papers. Together, these titles were then selling 10.7 million copies a day and, by the usual calculation of readers per copy, were therefore read by 30 million people.
The serious papers, the broadsheets, didn't do much better. They gave very little space indeed to these sectarian assassinations. Nor would deprived readers have had much chance to discover what happened on TV. The main BEC bulletins placed small items way down the running order. Yet, large headlines were still being devoted to the aftermath of the Warnngton bombing. It was the day Tim Parry finally died of his injuries and a nation was asked to mourn for him. They were not even aware of Damien's murder by a UFF gang.
It was, as I've said, a defining moment for me. Surely the British media wasn t treating news in Northern Ireland as it did news in England. It wasn't following its brief. It wasn't doing its job. Though I felt for the parents of the Warrington boys, I didn't have any lesser feelings for the relatives of the Castlerock victims or for Damien.
Why then were they not accorded the same respect by the media and, incidentally, by the British and Irish governments? When I wrote about that disparity in the Guardian my article was spotted by BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme and, fair play to them, I was given a chance to make a film about it. This gave me an opportunity to ask some of the key decision-makers in newspapers and TV why they had acted as they had. The answers were both fascinating and horrifying. Mark Damazer, then editor of BBC's 9 O'clock News and one of the most articulate of men, was caught on the back foot. He stuttered that Warrington was "extremely unusual" because it involved children and one of the reasons it attracted attention was, wait for it, "because the parents were extremely articulate." And why were the northern Irish murders less newsworthy? Well, there was Heseltine's white paper on the future of the coal industry that day. And, to be frank, death in Northern Ireland is common and, here's the nub, "the news agenda is driven to a large extent by unusualness, rarity and surprise, as well as significance."
David Banks, then editor of the Daily Mirror, took a similar view. He said there was a difference between "news as an extraordinary event and merely chronicling news", and he added:
"It makes my flesh creep to say this, but what has, over the last 25 years, become rather more commonplace in that region of the United Kingdom was shockingly out of place, and out of the ordinary, indeed extraordinary in a Cheshire town. And that's no justification but it is, if you like, an explanation."
And to complete the trio came Peter Murtagh, an Irishman who was then home news editor at the Guardian, who said what the others didn't, but clearly thought. "Warrington was just down the road, part of quote "mainland" unquote Britain. It was an attack on us in our country. Northern Ireland is another country. Now that may not reflect the legal and constitutional reality, but I think that's how people really do see it." He also referred to a sort of weariness about the conflict, which is so distressing that "it's hard for anyone to retain an interest." For anyone, read both journalist and reader.
So there we are. A neat summation by three key people in the media about the reason for giving Warrington maximum space and neglecting the deaths of five other people. In the studio discussion afterwards, The Times's northern Irish correspondent, Ed Gorman, was astonishingly frank.
He was quitting his post after four years, he said, because he found it morally corrupting" to work for a paper which failed to give adequate space to the story. He said: "The really depressing part of my job, and other correspondents of quality dailies here find it too, is that you give up. After a while, you become an agent in indifference."
The disappointment of that programme, of course, was that it was screened only in Northern Ireland. I was preaching to the converted. It's the British people who need waking up to their own media's indifference. For the next four years I nagged away at this whole question, keeping files of cuttings and making notes. But it was July last year before I took the next step on my journey.
This time, it was a strange juxtaposition of deaths which caught my attention: the murders of fashion designer Gianni Versace in Miami and Bernadette Martin in Northern Ireland. When I was contemplating the enormous quantitative, and qualitative, difference in media coverage of these separate brutalities, which occurred on the same day, I realised that there was a far more shocking comparison to be made in the northern Irish arena itself: the difference between the media reaction to Bernadette's death and the killing of two RUC men in Lurgan the month before.
This sent me back to my files, back to the Guardian cuttings room and back to the Colindale newspaper library. Suddenly, a truth which had been staring me in the face for so long was revealed. The British media have not only failed to cover Northern Ireland properly, they have been operating - albeit unconsciously - a policy of selective coverage. Nowhere was this more stark than in the way in which they have treated incidents of murder. They've chosen to highlight certain examples and decided to ignore others.
But this has not been a capricious act, a selection made at random. Despite the competition between newspapers, despite the competition between different forms of media, despite the much-heralded plurality and diversity of media outlets, they have all responded in a remarkably similar way on virtually every occasion. Indeed, the closer I looked the more I was struck by the uniformity of reaction.
Let me first outline the disparity between the reaction to Bernadette's killing and that of two RUC men. On June 16th last year, Constable John Graham and Reserve Constable David Johnston were shot dead by the IRA in Lurgan. As far as the media was concerned, it was a cataclysmic event. It was, said Daily Mail, an "atrocity'. The Times called it "a coldblooded double murder". And the Independent claimed that it "blew away
It was front page news for every paper and the lead story on both BBC TV and radio. The political reaction was swift and uncompromising. The British government severed links with Sinn Fein; the Irish Taoiseach was outraged, as was President Clinton. Almost every paper wrote leading articles of condemnation.
On July 15th, 18-year-old Bernadette Martin, who worked in Lurgan, was shot four times in the head as she slept at her boyfriend's house in the village of Aghalee, Co Antrim. This horrific, premeditated murder was imbued with the kind of drama that normally sets tabloid pulses racing. It had a Romeo and Juliet element in that she had apparently been murdered simply because she was a Catholic in love with a Protestant. Here was an innocent girl killed for the basest of reasons.
Yet a report of Bernadette's killing appeared on only one front page, and it was neglected altogether by four national papers. The Versace murder was the hot topic of the moment and Bernadette's death was even overlooked by that night's BBC Nine O'clock News. It did receive publicity in later days, but it never approached the scale of the RUC deaths, nor did it engender the purple prose used to describe them.
There were no leading articles about Bernadette, no headlines suggesting that peace talks were being threatened, no quotes were sought from the political leaders of Britain, Ireland and the USA and none, you can be certain, were offered.
When I contacted editors, I got the expected replies. In their eyes, tragic though the slaughter of Bernadette undoubtedly was, it was just another statistic in an old story with too many tragedies. But this time the excuses didn't ring true. For a start, the Lurgan policemen were the 300th and 301st RUC officers to die: weren't they just another statistic too?
I realise that it's distasteful to compare murder with murder, but it has to be said that, unlike the RUC men, Bernadette wasn't armed. RUC men expect danger, Bernadette did not. The RUC men were awake on patrol in public, Bernadette was asleep safe, so she thought, in a house. As the SDLP's Brid Rodgers observed sadly: "One has to question why such different standards operate."
I too had been wondering the same thing. Why do some deaths in Northern Ireland manage to get the full treatment from press and politicians while others slip past unnoticed? What lay behind that lopsided media reaction to tragedy in Northern Ireland?
I soon discovered that different standards have been applied in the reporting of deaths throughout the troubles, and it emerged that there has been what I've since called a "hierarchy of death." This clearly discernible pattern has to be seen in the context of contemporaneous political situations, but that, if anything, tends to reinforce the theory. So how does it run?
In the first rank - getting the most prominent coverage - are British people killed in Britain. In Warrington this was compounded by the tender years of the victims. But it's always been the case that violence, or even the threat of violence in Britain, is greeted with huge headlines. Witness the reaction to the arrests in London a couple of weeks ago.
In the second rank are members of the security forces, whether army or RUC. These murders have usually been reported on front pages and have generated leading articles and follow-up features. In almost all cases, the funerals have been covered fully, providing another opportunity for reflection on the need for action.
Sometimes prison officers have been included in the second rank. Generally, though, they've slipped into the third category. In this third rank are the civilian victims of republicans. There are occasions - if the victims are young, say, or if the numbers are great, and I'm thinking of Enniskillen here, or if the political situation seems to demand it - then the agenda has pushed them into second, and even the first rank.
In the fourth rank are members of the IRA, or Sinn Fein, killed by the security forces. Certain key dramatic events - such as Gibraltar and Loughgall - change the order of priorities, but most IRA deaths get little initial coverage.
And, finally, in the fifth rank, are the victims of loyalist paramilitaries, whether they are Catholics, Protestants, IRA members or innocent passers-by. I have been looking back to try to find examples when these fifth-rank murders have been elevated to the first rank, with front page splashes and two-page spreads, and concerned quotes from politicians, and leading articles. It proved impossible to find a single example.
Some journalists tried to convince me that Bernadette's death would have got greater coverage if Versace hadn't been shot too. But the evidence suggests otherwise. In the months after her death, with Versace long out of the headlines, two Catholics, Robert Hamill and John Slane, died with barely a mention in the British press. Fifth-rankers, you see, not worth a big show in the national media.
Now I concede that it's facile to view this hierarchy of death as a media conspiracy. It has much more to do with the way in which the conflict has long been seen -- by both the British media and the British political establishment -- firstly, as a war between the British government and republicans and, secondly, and perhaps more pertinently still, as a conflict between two warring tribes in which poor, benighted Britain is the reluctant piggy in the middle.
The first scenario has meant that all nationalists, and by extension all Catholics, have therefore been viewed by the media as "the enemy' or the potential enemy. At worst, as supporters of the IRA. At best, as "disloyal" subjects of Her Majesty, eager to break the link with Britain. Even constitutional nationalists who have always rejected violence, have suffered, if not from media hostility, from media apathy.
Interesting though this may be, it's the second scenario which has become, recently, much more important. It is the ideological stranglehold which has far-reaching implications, contaminating media coverage and, I would argue, stifling political development. The coverage of events in Northern Ireland, especially acts of murder, are adduced as proof that Britain's in a hopeless position. It's the innocent between two guilty parties, the sensible mother trying to deal with two squabbling brats, the honest broker trying to deal with intransigent clients.
This view has become so accepted that when I listen to radio phone-ins in Britain about Ireland, the most common comment is: "They're both as bad as each other." British politicians say it all the time. Newspaper leading articles state it. On TV and radio, presenters happily spout it.
I saw how seductive the argument could be some years ago when I accompanied a group of Commonwealth journalists on a fact-finding visit to Belfast, hosted by the Northern Ireland Office. It was fascinating. The consistent, insistent theme, from the NIO, from the RUC, from the various officials in the quango bodies, was that Britain is in an impossible position. It is a reluctant referee between two warring tribes of religious zealots. Each side is as bad as the other. There's no difference between the two. If only they would grow up, shake hands and learn to live together then everything would be fine. Britain doesn't want the invidious job of holding the ring. Britain isn't the problem and wasn't the problem but, by some ill-defined quirk of history, it's been saddled with it. In other words, the reality of Britain's sovereignty is side-lined.
I thought for a while that these smooth spokespeople were cleverly articulating a subtle political line drawn up by Whitehall. Then I realised that they weren't engaged in some cynical exercise. They weren't reading from a script. They believed it and, to an extent, both Whitehall and Westminster believe it too.
Can there ever be a more successful ideological construct than when it's accepted as gospel by almost everyone involved? Virtually all the opinion-formers subscribe to it: British MPs, Tory and Labour, rightwingers and liberals, British journalists in the press, on TV and radio, and, of course, the vast majority of British people.
In other words, history has not been re-written. It's been eradicated. Let's not deal with the past, only with the present. Even those in Britain who remember, or care to remember, the civil rights marches, have excised from their mind the reasons for those marches. A couple of months ago I heard Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness mention during a radio interview the fact that in his youth he couldn't get a job because of his religion. The interviewer seemed exasperated, almost embarrassed, by this historical truth. It didn't seem relevant to him. Most importantly, it didn't fit the required mind-set: if both sides are as bad as each other, then one side surely cannot claim the moral high ground.
I believe that by damning both sides, we not only skip the central argument but are in danger of running into a political dead end. The result of the media, and the government's, analysis -- well, excuse for analysis -- is that the British people, the voters, the taxpayers, have come to accept that there is no solution.
Now it's possible to see how the process works. The media and the government says it's an intractable political stalemate; the people accept it and become apathetic; then the press, responding to that apathy, report less and less, thereby providing no information which doesn't "fit" the warring tribes notion. And so the cycle of misrepresentation goes on.
It's also, and this is much more contentious, reinforced by broadcasting organisations which, though acting sincerely and believing they are performing a public service by following the statutory guidelines, continue to operate a policy of what's called "balance."
Balance in the northern Irish context bolsters the concept of the pig-in-the-middle, both-sides-as-bad-as-each-other model. It is neutrality of sorts. But I've come to see it as "false neutrality syndrome." It probably doesn't matter in Northern Ireland itself, (though, even then, I have my doubts) but in Britain, already devoid of the day-to-day information about a faraway place across the sea, it hampers any understanding of the conflict.
Ironically, and sadly, I witnessed a case in Donegal just the other week which shows how pervasive this principle of balance, or equivalence of treatment, can be, and how dangerous it is if not properly policed.
So people in Britain remained unaware of the fact that the last four houses on the Glenfield estate in Carrickfergus occupied by Catholics were petrol bombed; that a loyalist mob tried to set fire to a Catholic primary school in Lisburn; that Dunloy was besieged by 1,000 loyalists; that eight fire bombs went off in Collingwood estate, Lurgan; that a mob forced homeless people on to the streets after attacking a hostel in East Belfast... .and soon.
What's more they've got no idea that such sectarian mayhem is common around the Twelfth. British papers hardly ever report the horrors perpetrated by men who roam the streets waving Union flags and unleashing savagery in the name of the British queen. Instead, to learn about such matters in a national newspaper, one has to turn to the Dublin-based Irish Times. Surely it's politically significant that this paper devotes huge space every day to coverage of life in Northern Ireland while the broadsheets based in Britain, the country which asserts its sovereignty over Northern Ireland, tell us so little.
The fact that -- the shocking fact -- that last week housing officials here were still attempting to house 141 Catholic or mixed-marriage families who were burned and intimidated out of their homes, along with the families of 50 RUC officers, because of loyalist Drumcree violence wasn't published in any British paper.
It's no wonder that I can't help thinking that if the media had reported much more, so much more, about events here and had been far less prone to accepting the government's propaganda about there being no way out, then a political settlement might have been reached much sooner, years ago in fact.
Then Damien Walsh would not have died at 17 and Bernadette Martin would not have died at 18. Scores of innocents would have lived.
At some stage, the historical truth about this geopolitical oddity
called Northern Ireland has to be merged -- dare I say, reunited
-- with the present. Only then can there be a lasting solution.
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