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The Media and Intrastate Conflict in Northern Ireland

Robin Wilson

a) The Media System in Northern Ireland

The most obvious sight that strikes a foreign visitor to a Belfast newsagency is the number of titles on display. Closer inspection reveals that genuinely foreign—as against British or Irish—papers are conspicuous by their absence. But 15 titles are daily available: three Northern Irish, two southern Irish and 11 British. And Sunday brings a further two Northern Irish, three southern Irish and 10 British titles.

It should not, of course, be assumed from this that all are of equal consequence. According to the latest Northern Ireland Readership Survey (1), 897,000 people, almost three-quarters of the adult population of 1.249 million, read at least one paid-for paper daily. But just 2 per cent of adults read the 'Irish'—ie Dublin-based—papers.

In part this is due to price: value-added tax is applied to papers in the republic, which is not the case in the UK. But it also reveals not only how hostile northern unionists are to the south but how northern is the 'Irishness' of Northern Ireland's nationalists. What Germans refer to as Die Wand im Kopf is very much a reality in Ireland, with considerable consequences for lack of mutual understanding. (It goes without saying that readership of the northern papers in the republic is minuscule.)

Nor indeed do northerners of either main religious persuasion read mainly northern papers in the morning. The Protestant News Letter (even though distributed in Belfast free) is read by only 19 per cent of adults in total, its Catholic counterpart the Irish News by 13 per cent. By contrast, the Sun is read by 22 per cent, the Daily Mirror by 16 per cent, and there is a further tail of mid-market and up-market British dailies. We shall have more to say later about the tabloids in terms of their influence on British attitudes to the conflict (section e).

Things are different in the evening, where the Belfast Telegraph can exploit a monopoly of the non-broadcast media market. Thirty-four per cent of adults read it, though many buy it for its advertising and other services, instead of (or in addition to) its news coverage, which lags behind the evening TV news.

Of the regional titles, only the Irish News is genuinely so in ownership: it is controlled by a substantial Belfast Catholic businessman. The struggling News Letter, owned and run by Captain Oscar Henderson, scion of the unionist establishment, was sold in 1990 after 194 years in the family to a consortium whose main backer was English, but which was registered in Northern Ireland and which put up a former Stormont minister as chair (2). This half-way house ended in 1996 when it was sold again to Mirror Group Newspapers. The chief executive of MGN is, interestingly, a Northern Ireland Protestant; the News Letter editor, Geoff Martin, whose journalistic career began in the local press in the region, claims he has genuine autonomy. The Belfast Telegraph, formerly owned by the Canadian-based Thomson Regional Newspapers, was sold to Trinity Holdings, again an English-based company, in 1995.

If the 'external' ownership of the Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter are reflective of the respective liberal and conservative unionisms they broadly espouse, the relative performance of the News Letter and the Irish News is a testament to the relative demography and self-confidence of Northern Ireland's two main religious communities. Figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation for the last six months of 1996 place Belfast Telegraph sales at 129,760, the Irish News at 47,420 and the News Letter at 34,630. This does not do justice to the last title, of course, because of the freesheet distribution in Belfast. But it does highlight just how much the Irish News—like the community it articulates—has progressed, given that Catholics still only constitute (depending on a number of assumptions) around 43 per cent of the population. In 1985, the News Letter was still a nose ahead of its Catholic counterpart.

The News Letter has to compete in the mornings with the powerful British tabloids, to which an increasingly nervous Protestant community has culturally turned over the years. Just 6 per cent of 15-24 year-old Protestants are now prepared to pay for the News Letter, a worrying portent for its future market. Formerly a broadsheet like the Irish News, in 1984 it went tabloid itself in an unsuccessful attempt to turn the tide. On the other hand, the Irish News recently won, for the second successive year, the Newspaper Society award across Britain and Ireland for best sales increase in the 40-80,000 circulation category.

Hugh Lundy's analysis of the three papers' coverage of the early phase of the 'troubles', though now dated, remains a reasonable snapshot:

... both the Irish News and the News Letter gave the most biased reporting of the events in question and tended to reflect the prejudices of their respective communities. However, in general it was perhaps the News Letter of the two papers which displayed the most bias ... The Belfast Telegraph on the other hand was more impartial but ... tended to toe the official line.

More recently, the cultural commentator Edna Longley has presented a similar picture: "The News Letter is the ghost of a dead [unionist] establishment. The Irish News, though more diverse than of yore, retains Pro Fide et Patria in its masthead. The Belfast Telegraph rises above it all into a kind of transcendental consumerism." And she adds: "Both sets of [British and Irish] 'national' newspapers circulate, but much Northern Irish experience eludes their metropolitan biases and sovereign assumptions."

Television coverage comes primarily from the UK terrestrial networks, BBC and Independent Television. BBC has a regional organisation in Northern Ireland, BBC NI, and there is a regional independent station, UTV. Both show mainly network programmes, but both have autonomous news and current affairs structures; indeed, BBC network coverage of Northern Ireland would depend very heavily on the BBC NI news-gathering operation.

Lord Reith appointed the first station director in Belfast in 1926. The postholder, Gerald Beadle, was anxious to ingratiate himself with the then recently established unionist government. In March 1927, he wrote to Lord Reith, saying: "I am sure that our position here will be strengthened immensely if we can persuade the Northern Government to look upon us as their mouthpiece." Matters are rather different now: the current BBC controller Northern Ireland is a Donegal Catholic.

UTV was formerly managed by Brum Henderson, brother of the former chair of the News Letter. Both these robustly unionist figures have departed the scene; the chair and biggest UTV shareholder is now a prominent Catholic businessman, John B McGuckian. It attracts around 43 per cent of the Northern Ireland TV audience, as against 29 per cent for BBC1, whose viewers tend to be more up-market.

A telling contrast between the two stations was presented by Damian Smyth, reviewing their coverage of the publication of the joint framework document for a political settlement published by the British and Irish governments in February 1995:

UTV is tabloid television ... But it's real. After the Framework Document was published, the two stations held studio discussions. BBC invited the great and the good. It was awfully boring. UTV invited ordinary people. They all started arguing. It made you cringe. Yet it was alive.

The two stations have evening flagship news/current affairs programmes. UTV has the hour-long Live at Six; BBC has tried (unsuccessfully) to compete with a revamped half-hour programme, Newsline 6.30. BBC NI claims a weekly average viewership of 160,000 for the latter, only about half the average claimed by UTV for the former.

The Irish state broadcaster, Radio Telefis Eireann, is available in Northern Ireland but only to about one third of the half-million or so homes with televisions in the region—and of those, only a fraction (5 per cent of the audience), overwhelmingly Catholic, would avail of it. By contrast, UTV (formerly Ulster Television—it stressed the abbreviated form to remove the somewhat anti-southern 'Ulster' from its title) has marketed itself strongly in the Republic of Ireland, now claiming to reach 70 per cent of the one million or so homes with television there and securing 16 per cent of the peak viewing audience. "It should be called Southern Television now," a unionist politician has complained.

But, perhaps arising from this distance, a former RTE controller, Muiris Mac Conghail, offers a penetrating perspective on Northern Ireland and British TV coverage:

With some honourable exceptions much of the programming content from within Northern Ireland and the contributions made by services from the neighbouring island are constructed on a 'war zone' footing ... Programming about life in Northern Ireland does not figure in the day to day scheduling of the so-called mainland channels. News and current affairs coverage relate for the most part to violence and terrorism and to political developments or lack of such, normally in the context of the British and Irish Government actions and negotiations. Unionist politicians are for the most part portrayed and interviewed with impatience as intransigent and difficult. Economic, religious and social affairs in Northern Ireland rarely get a 'look-in' on British national news bulletins ... British broadcasters and print journalists, on the whole, regard Northern Ireland genuinely as 'outre-mer': Algeria.

One of the difficulties in resolving the Northern Ireland problem is that a largely provincial media corps is required to cover one of the most internationalised regional conflicts in the world: not only does it directly involve the British and Irish governments because of its geographical position, but it has also inevitably drawn in the wider institutions of the European Union and, in particular, via the Irish diaspora, the United States.

The resources of media organisations in Northern Ireland, and the education and training of journalists in the region, are simply unequal to this challenge. British and Irish newspapers rely on stringers, single correspondents or very modest offices in Belfast—even agency copy. And domestic journalists in the regional media, if trained at all, are largely products of a non-graduate-based system which has been associated with considerable union, and some employer, dissatisfaction for several years. Only in the coming academic year is there to be finally established a postgraduate diploma in newspaper journalism and a masters in journalism studies at the University of Ulster; hitherto, many able trainees from Northern Ireland have pursued postgraduate qualifications in Dublin or in Britain, in most cases not returning to the region to find employment.

This deficit in education and training has militated against the critical role which journalists play in a robustly democratic society. One senior Northern Ireland Office information officer sneeringly told David Miller:

Local journalists, with the best will in the world, are simply local journalists ... and so briefings for local journalists were simply about the nitty gritty of everyday secretary of state and ministerial life and there was never any deep political probing ... I haven't met one single Northern Ireland journalist who was worth five minutes of my time.

One benchmark for the standard of BBC Northern Ireland, for instance, would be not its competitor UTV but its southern state counterpart, RTE. In January 1996, I was invited by BBC NI to watch and listen to a week of its news and current affairs output. I concluded: "Even given resource discrepancies, the unavoidable reality is that BBC NI falls short of RTE in news and current affairs by a long way."

While the provincialism of the Northern Ireland media corps militates against an adequate grasp of the complexity of the conflict, the universal subordination of women in the media has a particular significance in this region. As in such violent nationality conflicts everywhere, men are overwhelmingly the protagonists, yet this is entirely taken for granted, and the relationship between masculinism and violence very rarely probed. On the one hand,

the powerful define what is news. The media look to government, party leaders, prominent business people, the police and the churches—to make the news and to make the statements that can be treated as 'authoritative' in news reports. With a few exceptions, this élite in Northern Ireland consists of men.

On the other hand, events "among the most momentous in the history of this State", since the ceasefires of 1994, "have been reported largely by men":

Often, you can be the only women journalist at a major press conference or political event. At most, there will be three or four female faces in a crowd of up to 50 reporters.

A recent study has estimated that only 24 per cent of editorial staff on Belfast newspapers are women, in line with the UK as a whole, and that they occupy only 13 per cent of management positions. Thirty-seven per cent of editorial staff in news and current affairs at BBC Northern Ireland in Belfast were women in 1995, and women hold only one of the five senior management posts.

Unfortunately, there is an all-too-close correspondence between the male-dominated world of political and 'security' correspondents in particular and the adversarial political culture which they inhabit.

b) The Media and the Constitution of Division

Anthony Giddens describes well how cultural diversity can be a source or richness and vibrancy or of fear and violence. As he puts it, "Difference can be a means of fusion of horizons; what is a potentially virtuous circle, however, can in some circumstances become degenerate ... Wherever fundamentalism takes hold, whether it be religious, ethnic, nationalist or gender fundamentalism, degenerate spirals of communication threaten." And, with an eye to Bosnia though he could equally have been referring to Northern Ireland, he points out that "once conflict begins, and hate starts to feed on hate, those who were good neighbours can end as the bitterest of enemies".

Sometimes, such 'degenerate spirals of communication' are face-to-face. At sectarian interfaces in Northern Ireland, intercommunal riots have seen segregation entrenched and the building of 'peace walls' so high that communities physically can not see each other. Yet for the vast majority such spirals have taken place in and through the media. How does this happen?

Mark Thompson notes how by early 1993 27 staff of Radio-TV Sarajevo had been killed. By contrast, not one professional journalist has been killed during Northern Ireland's three decades of conflict, though one was badly wounded in a loyalist assassination attempt and another suffered a nasty facial injury from a plastic bullet.

Which makes efforts in Northern Ireland to ensure truth is not the first casualty of conflict seem pretty small potatoes. But Belfast journalists reading this survey [by Thompson] should think twice before they refer to 'the nationalist community' or 'loyalist areas'. It has been such stereotyping media references, to 'Serb forces', 'the Muslim government' and a lot worse, which have helped render the ex-Yugoslav war so murderous and intractable.

I formed this view from experience of working as a sub-editor on both the News Letter and the Irish News during the 1980s, as well as of having to prepare style sheets with the cross-sectarian audience of Fortnight in mind when I was editor there.

The penetration of the Belfast Telegraph, with its moderate unionist editorial stance, is only moderately skewed towards the majority community: it reaches 38 per cent of Protestants as against 27 per cent of Catholics. Much more striking is that just 2 per cent of Catholics read the paid-for News Letter (and only 5 per cent more read the one that is received free in Belfast), and just 1 per cent of Protestants find the Irish News appealing.

The News Letter insists on describing the Republic of Ireland as 'Eire', thereby underlying its status as a 'foreign' country in unionist minds. (The state is in fact officially referred to as Eire as well as Ireland in the 1937 constitution, and its Northern Ireland policy is a matter for its Department of Foreign Affairs, but there it is.) This has very real political effects as the republic has in fact changed dramatically in the past decade, in a manner ironically much less threatening to unionists; paradoxically, it is perhaps more threatening to unionists that the southern bogey may be no more, as this enemy image has been at the heart of unionism's raison d'être. The question of quite what links there should be between north and south in Ireland has bedevilled attempts to negotiate a political settlement, as evidenced by the argument over the framework document for such a settlement published by the British and Irish governments in February 1995.

The IRA and all its works are routinely referred to as 'terrorists' in the News Letter, even though in fact only a minority of its activities over the years, strictly speaking, have been directed at placing the population randomly in fear—no-warning bombs, for instance. Using the catch-all term 'terrorist' decontextualises the IRA from its conditions of existence in Northern Ireland and displaces it into the international arena of organisations deemed simply to be a threat. This renders it impossible to comprehend the underlying reasons why a minority of Catholics support the IRA, which relates to broader minority grievances which unionists must address if a settlement between them ever is to be found.

The News Letter would also routinely refer to Northern Ireland as 'Ulster', even though in that form it has a distinctly 'loyalist' connotation and should strictly only be used to refer to the historic nine-county province of Ulster (as against the six which comprise Northern Ireland). No such slip would occur in the Irish News—which would, on the other hand, use the (in unionist eyes) both unofficial and Irish-sounding 'North' interchangeably with 'Northern Ireland' as the name of the state, though the Irish News discouraged use of the 'six counties' (very much republican phraseology delegitimising the state altogether).

Though the practice has changed in recent years, the nationalist paper used to bracket events north and south in Ireland under 'Home News' while events in Britain were included under 'World News'. And only in 1990 did the paper end its tradition of naming the saint's day at the top of the leader column. This all contributes to two wider traits within nationalist politics: a fuzziness as to quite what is desired/required in terms of the aspiration towards an all-Ireland political community, and a blind spot about Britain and so towards comprehension of unionists' sense of Britishness.

Both papers, like the Belfast Telegraph and the TV stations, routinely elide the terms Protestant/unionist, and Catholic/nationalist. This not only renders secular liberals, those who otherwise define themselves as outside the conventional political space, those who are a- or anti-political and those not from Northern Ireland (such as the substantial Chinese community) non-persons. It also flattens out the diversity within each religious community between more moderate and more extreme positions.

Remarkably, the BBC has even enshrined this ideological labelling in its 1993 style guide, where it suggests, as examples, that west Belfast would be described as "a largely nationalist area" while Crossmaglen (in south Armagh) is "a republican stronghold". Paradoxically it balks, meanwhile, at describing the SDLP as "mainly-Catholic" (which is in fact an underestimate: the party contains only a handful of Protestants), perhaps reflective of the 'goodwill' the party enjoys from the media. And so physical spaces become defined as 'nationalist' or 'loyalist' areas in media parlance, with severe consequences for issues such as the routes of communal (overwhelmingly Protestant) parades. For this media presentation heightens the perception of territoriality and so the struggle for territorial control which is at the heart of the parades controversy.

Worse still, all (nominal) Protestants and all (nominal) Catholics are hoovered up into the 'unionist community' and the 'nationalist community', whether they feel part of any such imagined community or not, and whether in particular they want to be protagonists for 'their' side against the other in the way the term assumes. Thus enemy images are constructed of individuals and whole communities with whom media consumers may have no direct modulating contact whatsoever; even such direct contact as does exist between two individuals drawn from the two deeply segregated populations is usually of a low-level and deliberately banal character.

The significance of all this is that the very possibility of a political settlement, grouping the moderates from both camps and the secular centre in a dialogic exchange counterposed to fundamentalists on either side, is thus almost by definition rendered unrealistic by the categories the media crucially construct. It is thus that Giddens' 'degenerate spirals of communication' are effected.

The controller of BBC NI, Pat Loughrey, admits the problem. He believes broadcasters have an obligation to communication, dialogue and the avoidance of easy labelling and he expresses unease about an analysis of Northern Ireland which only recognises two traditions: "I have argued for a very long time that there are many traditions, many backgrounds, many identities and that to easily succumb ... to an analysis that is simple dichotomy ... is to take the political polarisation and to allow it to appropriate a far more diverse cultural historical group." While he can see a danger of being accused of "escapism from the polarised truth", he stresses that the future must be one of "true individualism rather than this collectivism, because collectivism is a way to tribalism and danger ... there are not just two communities".

Such a complex media discourse, however, has not always been welcome to the authorities in Northern Ireland, whose reflexes have normally been much more towards ideological closure.

c) The Influences of the State

On August 20th 1988, eight British soldiers were killed and many more injured in an IRA bomb attack on the bus in which they were travelling in Co Tyrone. Coming only two months after six soldiers were killed in a similar attack on their minibus in Co Antrim, it represented the worst loss for British forces in Northern Ireland since 1979.

On October 19th, the then British home secretary, Douglas Hurd, introduced restrictions throughout the UK on broadcast (but not press) interviews with 'republican' and 'loyalist' paramilitary organisations, their political wings and others deemed to advocate their causes. Mr Hurd was utilising extensive powers—allowing him to act by administrative fiat—contained in the 1981 Licence and Agreement governing the operation of the British Broadcasting Corporation, and the Broadcasting Act of the same year governing the Independent Broadcasting Authority (which then regulated commercial TV in Britain). Eleven paramilitary and political organisations were named in notices issued to these organisations, which said:

I hereby request the [BBC and IBA] to refrain at all times from sending any broadcast matter which consists of or includes any words spoken ... by a person who ... represents an organisation specified ... or [when] the words support or solicit or invite support for such an organisation.

Election campaigns and Westminster proceedings were exempt from the restrictions.

The home secretary defended his measure by arguing that interviews with paramilitary spokespeople had "caused widespread offence". Yet this sat very uneasily with the claim of his prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, that 'terrorists' should be denied the 'oxygen of publicity'. For the latter claim assumed viewers and listeners represented empty vessels, which could be filled with paramilitary propaganda; the former assertion, however, implied that such propaganda fell on very stony ground, and might indeed only serve to alienate broadcast audiences thus offended.

Sinn Féin's publicity director, Danny Morrison (shortly afterwards imprisoned for an IRA offence), was wise to this flaw. It was "a direct contradiction", he said launching a pamphlet attacking the curbs, to contend that a "Sinn Féin spokesperspon appearing on television caused revulsion and then say it's an attempt to recruit people to the IRA".

Because of this incoherence, opposition to the restrictions was not confined to liberal advocates of freedom of expression, for whom this represented a "threat to the right of the people to be fully informed". The government's move was widely condemned by press and broadcasting organisations across the political spectrum (never mind internationally), the middle-of-the-road Today newspaper calling it "futile" and "muddled". A senior judge described it as "half-baked". An opinion poll in Britain found 62 per cent support for the restrictions, yet a similar proportion believed they would not help defeat the IRA. The Royal Ulster Constabulary, however, was uncompromisingly in favour.

In practice, the order was soon subverted by broadcasters replacing the 'offending' voice of the spokesperson with that of an actor, a response further refined with the lip-synchronising of the actor's words with those of the interviewee. But, despite formal protests, the general response of broadcasters, and indeed journalists, to the notice was ineffectual: "I see everybody learning to live with it," said one senior figure. A year on, a Home Office minister complacently intoned: "Despite a few initial difficulties you have all come to act sensibly."

The British restrictions were, however, less strict or longstanding than those in the Republic of Ireland. Under extensive discretion granted by section 31 of the 1960 Broadcasting Authority Act, in 1971 the minister for posts and telegraphs, Gerry Collins, directed the authority running the state broadcasting service, Radio Telefis Eireann, to "refrain from broadcasting any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engaged, promoted, encouraged or advocated the attainment of any political objective by violent means". In 1976, section 31 was amended in more specific form and an order under it was limited to 12 months, though this could be renewed—as it was every year. The text of the latter made clear that RTE was prohibited from broadcasting not only interviews with leaders of named organisations, like the British order, but also reports of such interviews.

The ban even led in 1983 to RTE not transmitting the cheers for Gerry Adams when he won the West Belfast seat in the Westminster election of that year, because the crowd were shouting 'Up Sinn Féin'. Indeed, back in 1972, the government went so far as to dismiss the RTE Authority, its governing body, following an interview with the IRA leader Sean MacStiofain.

While this was of significance in the republic, the British restrictions were of much greater import in Northern Ireland, owing to the low penetration of RTE north of the border. This arises in part from the technical difficulties of reception, which requires in most areas not only a special aerial but also a booster device to obtain a quality signal. RTE would like to be able to strengthen the signal from its border transmitter but, while this has been raised with the British government via the Intergovernmental Conference established by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, these representations have been inconsequential.

The 1988 British order represented the culmination of years of friction between government and the broadcasters. As the 'troubles' developed, the BBC and ITV had sought to put in place internal constraints for journalists. In 1971, a system of 'referencing up' was elaborated, requiring programme-makers to obtain authorisation for their proposals, particularly where they involved interviews with IRA representatives, if necessary up to the director-general of the BBC or the (then) Independent Television Authority.

But this was not sufficient to forestall external political pressures on the media. In January 1972, the British home secretary, Reginald Maudling sought, in this case unsuccessfully, to stop a discussion programme, The Question of Ulster, boycotted by the disintegrating Stormont government. The programme's tribunal format was a classic instance of seeking to foster understanding through exegesis of positions (and no IRA representative had been invited to take part).

What was going on, as British military and political engagement increased, was that a philosophy of 'terrorism as cause' was taking over from 'discrimination as cause' as definer of the conflict in the dominant media and political minds. "To all intents and purposes analysis of the deeper causes of the violence was barred. In journalistic terminology, the 'who, what, where and when' could still be reported (description was unaffected), but the context, the 'why', could not."

This perspective had been accepted in November 1971 by the BBC chair, Lord Hill. Following a speech in which the minister for posts and telegraphs, Christopher Chataway, said that "as between the IRA and the Ulster government or between the army and the terrorists" the media "were not required to strike a balance", Lord Hill wrote to Mr Maudling that "between the British Army and the gunmen, the BBC is not and cannot be impartial". And for the Independent Television Authority, Lord Aylestone said: "As far as I am concerned, Britain is at war with the IRA in Ulster and the IRA will get no more coverage than the Nazis would have done in the last war."

What matters, in this ultimately partisan view, is whose interests are deemed to be served by a particular story. Far from safeguarding the 'fourth estate', it allows a severe question mark to be placed over the exercise of journalistic freedom and media independence.

Nor was this attitude a Conservative preserve. In the wake of bombs in Birmingham in November 1974 in which 21 people were killed, the Prevention of Terrorism Act was rushed through Parliament, inter alia rendering the IRA illegal and making it offence to withhold information about 'terrorism'. This effectively ended broadcast interviews with IRA spokespersons.

The last Labour Northern Ireland secretary, Roy Mason (1976-9), adopted a particularly pugnacious stance. At a dinner outside Belfast in November 1976, Mr Mason accused the then BBC chair, Sir Michael Swann, of supporting terrorism by reporting the activities of, and statements by, leaders of paramilitary organisations; he said the BBC was not to be used by the IRA as a weapon in its propaganda war.

The minister was to be particularly exercised by media allegations that paramilitary suspects were being mistreated at police 'holding centres', where they could be detained under emergency legislation for up to seven days. He attacked as "irresponsible and insensitive" and "riddled with unsubstantiated conclusions" an ITV programme in the This Week series focusing on allegations of maltreatment of police detainees, allegations later substantiated by Amnesty International; the chief constable put his men on 'red alert' before transmission. The Independent Broadcasting Authority (which replaced the ITA) banned a subsequent This Week programme on the Amnesty report, provoking technicians to pull the plugs on the alternative programme slotted in for transmission.

In the midst of its running battle with Mr Mason, the BBC published a pamphlet by its then Northern Ireland controller, Dick Francis, giving the classic liberal defence (if parenthetically qualified) of media autonomy:

The experience in Northern Ireland, where communities and governments are in conflict but not in a state of emergency or a state of war, suggests a greater need than ever for the media to function as the 'fourth estate', distinct from the executive, the legislature and the judiciary. But if the functions are to remain separate, it must be left to the media themselves to take the decisions (within the limits of responsibility) as to what to publish, as to when, and as to how.

Under the Thatcher governments, these tensions were acted out within a wider picture of antagonism to what the prime minister saw as media disloyalty during such confrontations as the Falklands war and the British-supported invasion of Libya. In 1979, untransmitted film for the BBC's Panorama, showing an IRA checkpoint in Co Tyrone, was seized by government under the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

An internal BBC document of 1980 instructed journalists to refer up, ultimately to the director-general, proposals to seek, and subsequently to transmit, interviews with those deemed even to be "closely associated with a terrorist organisation". The electoral rise of Sinn Féin on the back of the IRA hunger strike of 1981 made this unsustainable, however, creating the biggest crisis up to that point for the broadcasters.

In 1985, a BBC documentary in a series called Real Lives, including an interview with the leading IRA/SF figure Martin McGuinness, was initially banned by the BBC board of governors under government pressure: the home secretary, Leon Brittan, without seeing the programme, had said it would "materially assist the terrorist cause". Mrs Thatcher was "very pleased" but the BBC NI controller, James Hawthorne, almost resigned and a strike across broadcasting followed. A re-edited version was later transmitted.

But an even bigger furore stemmed from the killing by undercover soldiers of three IRA members in Gibraltar in March 1988. This began a bloody sequence of violence culminating in the lynching of two corporals who got caught up in a republican funeral in Belfast. The chief constable, Sir John Hermon, requested the broadcasters to hand over footage of the episode; they refused, unless served with a court order. Mrs Thatcher made clear her view that "one is on the side of justice in these matters, or one is on the side of terrorism". The material was subsequently seized.

An almighty row was caused by a Thames TV This Week programme, 'Death on the Rock', on the Gibraltar killings. The award-winning programme, and a similar BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight product, questioned the official version that the IRA members were about to detonate a bomb by remote control when gunned down.

It appears that a cabinet sub-committee was kept regularly informed as the Thames programme progressed, even while all requests for official co-operation were denied to the makers. The foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, personally phoned the chair of the IBA and its director of television in an endeavour to prevent the programme being transmitted. Ministers denounced it as 'trial by television. The defence secretary, George Younger, subsequently admitted in the House of Commons that he supplied "briefing notes" to the Sunday Times defence correspondent for an attack on the programme in the paper.

It was in this climate that the broadcasting restrictions were introduced in October of that year. Yet in its 1989 guidelines for broadcasters, despite the restrictions, the BBC accepted that interviews with people "associated with Irish terrorist organisations" (ie SF) were "not so rare" (as with "Irish terrorists" directly), "because the people interviewed are active in the daily politics of Northern Ireland, nearly always in publicly elected positions".

And, as the Hume-Adams 'peace process' emerged in 1993—in many ways led more by the SF president, Mr Adams, than by the leader of the SDLP, John Hume—the restrictions became increasingly unsustainable. They were lifted in the republic in January 1994 as a carrot to SF, but the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, and the responsible minister, Peter Brooke, initially resisted pressure from a sensitive Foreign Office to follow suit the next month. After the IRA ceasefire of August 1994, however, the prime minister, John Major, bowed to the inevitable.

SF spokespeople now have uninhibited access to the airwaves—indeed, and this also applies to their loyalist counterparts, access quite disproportionate to their electoral support. The ending of the IRA ceasefire and the fragmentation of the loyalist cessation have not, at the time of writing, led to any significant calls for the restrictions to be reimposed.

There have, of course, been forms of leverage deployed by the authorities over the years other than seeking an outright ban on programmes or spokespeople. Numerous instances of 'black propaganda' have taken place, notably associated with the enthusiastic disinformation activities of Colin Wallace at the army's Lisburn headquarters in the early 70s. In its 'psychological operations unit', he was fed briefings by MI5 which assisted him in the "army's battle ... for hearts and minds" by smearing Sinn Féin and loyalist paramilitaries as 'communist'. The most recent example was the story propagated in the Conservative-supporting Mail on Sunday that the "top IRA man" Gerry Kelly, a leading figure in SF's contacts with government, was having an affair with a key aide to George Mitchell, chair of the multi-party talks from which SF had been excluded owing to continuing IRA violence.

A crucial episode surrounded the investigation by the then Greater Manchester deputy chief constable, John Stalker, into an alleged 'shoot-to-kill' policy by the Royal Ulster Constabulary in Co Armagh in 1982. One case involved the shooting dead that December of two alleged members of the Irish National Liberation Army, Seamus Grew and Roddy Carroll, where raisons d'état prevailed over honesty:

After that shooting a public statement had been issued by the police saying that the men were shot after breaking through a random police road block and injuring a policeman. None of this was true ... The false story had been prepared as a contingency before the shooting took place and had been put out almost immediately as a press release. One enlightening instance involved a policeman member of the special E4 squad involved in the shooting of Grew and Carroll. While waiting to be debriefed by his Special Branch chiefs at Gough Barracks, Armagh, he watched, bewildered, a television news bulletin that broadcast an already circulated and totally false police account of what had happened. He knew it to be lies ... When he went into the office to be debriefed, however, he was told that protection of informant sources was far more important than truthfulness to the press ...

The then chief constable of the RUC, Sir John Hermon, has defended this practice in his recent autiobiography, in which he refers to these 'lies': "To be effective, such cover stories had sometimes to be included in a public statement given by RUC headquarters to the media."

While the 'Stalker affair' was the cause célèbre of disputed killings by the police and army, there have been numerous such instances during the 'troubles'. It has been characteristic of such episodes that the relevant force has issued a statement or briefed journalists to the effect that (a) the police/soldiers happened upon the situation accidentally and/or (b) the victims, though unarmed, appeared to the police/soldiers to have made a threatening movement. Mark Urban catalogues two such episodes where the army responded to the killings of uninvolved civilians by undercover soldiers by issuing what were transparently inaccurate statements.

The Gibraltar killings were themselves, of course, an extreme case of (b), with the Sunday Telegraph and Sunday Times being briefed within a week of the killings that the SAS killers had feared the three IRA members they challenged could detonate a bomb elsewhere on the island by remote control—a 'button job' as it was described. This implausible suggestion was subsequently rubbished by an Irish expert in the field.

A former director of information at the Northern Ireland Office, David Gilliland, has also since admitted to having issued "flat denials" on controversial issues in the 70s and 80s. "I didn't resent the fact that we were blamed for telling lies," he said. The government had wanted "to manipulate the media and use it as a weapon in the arsenal" against the paramilitaries.

An extreme example was the refusal to admit contacts between the British government and the IRA/SF between 1990 and 1993. Just 12 days before the Observer revealed the existence of this 'channel of communication' in November 1993, the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, made just such a 'flat denial' on BBC Radio. And, amidst a conflict with SF as to what the content of these contacts had been, the government was forced to admit its first, self-serving version was incorrect.

A further means of influence has been to blackball, or alternatively to cultivate, particular journalists or organisations. Thus, in the early days of the 'troubles', when the British army was in many ways running the show, Simon Winchester of the Guardian described how he had been "punished with the one weapon the army could use with effect against me—the denial of information" for naming a very senior officer who had talked to him on the expectation of remaining anonymous.

On the other hand, he notes how the Sunday Times was used by government after the Bloody Sunday massacre in 1972 to float the idea of reconstructing the unionist state on power-sharing terms, with guaranteed representation in government for the Catholic minority. "How, the government asked Ulstermen through the paper, would that suit you?"

A confidential 1975 army memorandum gloated that "there are many ways of influencing even the most anti-establishment reporter". Most simply, government can simply make sure it gets the last word. The Northern Ireland secretary is frequently 'doorstepped', in the sense that the media are told of his daily appointments with the opportunity of a brief engagement as he arrives or leaves. Mr Gilliland once told a UTV schools programme: "So yes, it is contrived on occasions to put a minister on a doorstep in the open air so that when he [has] said as much as he deems to be in the public interest then he is able to say 'well I have another appointment. Thank you very much' and go."

Finally, resources are a key issue in all this and their distribution is a rough-and-ready index of the media power of various organisations of the state (and its opponents). In the early days of the 'troubles', the not very competent but very unionist Stormont Information Service had a handful of staff. As the army took over, its press office grew from two to 40 between 1968 and 1971. But as 'police primacy' was implemented from the mid-70s, the army cut back to 21 press officers by 1981, and by 1989 to three; the RUC press operation, first established with one part-time press officer in 1968, correspondingly expanded.

Similarly, as direct rule moved from being 'temporary' to 'normal', the Northern Ireland Information Service (under the control now of the British administration) grew substantially, to 20 in 1981 and 50 in 1989. In total, Miller estimates that official sources could, conservatively, draw on 145 full-time information staff at that time.

And yet ... The history of the 'troubles'—some would say the history of the past century in Ireland since the first home rule crisis of 1886—has been a history of the failure of the British state to exercise its hegemony. Neo-Marxist writing on the media tends to take for granted that the state will indeed enjoy such a hegemonic position, operating as a 'primary definer' of news, as the principal 'accredited spokesperson'.

This cannot however be taken for granted in Northern Ireland, a region in a more-or-less permanent crisis of hegemony from which in many respects the state has mentally abdicated, ceding much ground to the contending protagonists. As Miller and McLaughlin argue, the "dramatic shift in government thinking" towards the IRA/SF marked by the onset of the 'peace process' in 1993 can hardly be said to have had nothing to do with "the armed struggle of the IRA". In that sense the Downing Street Declaration of December 1993, setting out the terms for SF's involvement in talks on the future of the region (spurned by SF after seven months of prevarication), represented "an attempt to regain the public relations initiative from Sinn Féin".

d) The Parties and the Media

Censorship and manipulation of the media agenda are not, of course, confined to the authorities. On the contrary, state opponents of a militant kind often, at first sight paradoxically, mimic the behaviour of the state. This is only initially paradoxical, however, because in reality such groups share the perspective of the guardians of the core of the state apparatus—of being engaged in a life-or-death Manichean struggle, determined by the balance of forces, in which other actors are secondary players. From the Bolsheviks onwards, such extremist movements have thereby been radicals in opposition, conservatives in power.

In the beginning it was very unsophisticated: in 1971 the IRA blew up the Daily Mirror's printing plant in Belfast; in 1974, it kidnapped two Mirror journalists for a few hours. Less crudely, the so-called General Headquarters department of the IRA has circulated rumours about journalists with independent republican contacts, alleging them to be MI5 agents. It has also tapped journalists' telephones. As the independent-minded journalist Suzanne Breen concludes, "Black propaganda is regarded by many protagonists in the conflict as just another tool of war. Moral scruples are unlikely to stand in the way."

Following the seizure by the authorities of media footage of the killing of the two corporals in west Belfast in March 1988, 27 reporters, photographers, TV crew and media executives were subpoenaed to give evidence at the trial of two men who were eventually convicted of involvement in the murder. In reaction, the IRA issued death threats to a BBC journalist and the former head of BBC news and current affairs in the region, forcing them to leave Northern Ireland (one eventually returned).

But the worst episode of paramilitary intimidation stemmed from the 'loyalist' side. It began when the northern editor of the Sunday World, Jim Campbell, was shot and wounded by the Ulster Volunteer Force at his north Belfast home in May 1984. This followed a series of articles by Mr Campbell about a UVF multiple murderer nicknamed 'the Jackal'. Eight years later, a loyalist held a gun to his daughter's head at the Sunday World office in Belfast —she was working as Mr Campbell's personal assistant at the time—before leaving a bomb which staff had to step over to escape. The so-called Combined Loyalist Military Command—the umbrella body for loyalist paramilitaries—then issued a statement saying the lives of all Sunday World journalists were in danger, in particular those of Mr Campbell and his colleague Martin O'Hagan, provoking strong protest from the National Union of Journalists.

There followed, according to Mr Campbell, a "calculated attempt" by loyalists to put the northern edition of the paper (which sells throughout Ireland) out of business, with threats to distributors and newsagents and seizures of papers in Protestant areas. Mr O'Hagan was moved temporarily to Cork. The threat was eventually lifted.

In May 1992 the fringe republican group the Irish People's Liberation Organisation hit the apogee of black farce. The product of a murderous feud in the Irish National Liberation Army and seriously implicated in drug trafficking, the IPLO chose to blame the messenger for its image problem. It threatened "direct action" against journalists deemed to be engaged in a "black propaganda campaign" against it.

At the heart of the mainstream republican propaganda effort is the Sinn Féin newspaper An Phoblacht, which bills itself as the biggest selling political weekly in Ireland (there aren't actually any real competitors). For SF activists, selling AP around pubs and clubs is a weekly chore. It carries IRA statements and therefore frequently makes the news elsewhere itself. Its significance was demonstrated by the authorities backhandedly with a raid on the premises of its predecessor, Republican News, in Belfast in 1977. The language of AP is classically propagandist: the army 'brutally murders' loyalists form 'hit squads', but the IRA 'executes' ...

As to the 'mainstream' parties in Northern Ireland, the most striking thing about their relationships with the media is their amateurism. There are no spin-doctors (and nor are there the focus groups, tracking polls and so on characteristic of the entire public presentation of parties today). Only the SDLP over the years has sustained a regular, full-time press officer (SF, by contrast, has two longstanding press officers, one in Belfast, one in Dublin, as well as support staff). And the succession of incumbents to that post has been testament to the difficulty they have had in co-ordinating the diverse activities of the SDLP's (at the time of writing) four MPs, who have tended to operate private fiefdoms.

Unionists, meanwhile, have consistently assumed the media to be hostile; journalists, particularly Catholic ones, have been a verbal target at Ulster Unionist Party conferences. They have also, especially the extreme Democratic Unionist Party, been more insular, even provincial, compared with their nationalist opponents. The DUP's press spokesperson, Sammy Wilson, told David Miller: "As far as views of people outside of Northern Ireland are concerned, I suppose it's part of just our insularity that we have felt that we can ignore them and I think that that's probably been a weakness."

In other words, while SF sees itself as involved in a revolutionary struggle in which the propaganda war is a very important dimension, the conventional parties, including its constitutional-nationalist opponent, the SDLP, do not really take seriously their presentation in the public domain. Underlying all this, of course, is the fact that Northern Ireland has so few 'floating voters' whom parties would court; the contrast with, for example, British Labour's obsession with the views of waverers in the marginals in the run-up to the 1997 Westminster election could not be starker. Thus the lack of a professional approach to public relations is a reflection of the non-dialogic nature of so many of the exchanges in which party representatives are involved, once they leave the confines of communal politics and enter the theoretically religion-blind TV studios.

Nevertheless, both republicans and unionists face a particularly difficult battle persuading the international media of their case, because of their less than fulsome commitment to liberal-democratic norms. Unionists have increasingly recognised the problem, though they tend to put it down to bad PR, rather than the message itself. The SDLP, meanwhile, correspondingly knows that it has "a lot of goodwill going for it in the media".

But then, the ambivalence of at least some of the Northern Ireland parties towards the media is at least reciprocated by the tiredness of much of the media with Northern Ireland—which has its own reverberations on the political environment in which the parties operate.

e) The Political Influence of the Media

Section (a) of this report referred to the provincialism of the Northern Ireland media. This has pertinent political effects: it entrenches an involuted and particularistic political culture, insulated from the leavening criticism of more universalist or internationalist perspectives.

Thus Maurice Hayes, a very senior former civil servant in Northern Ireland, has written:

Among the less endearing traits of the Ulster people in relation to their present conflict is a lack of humility and a poor sense of proportion. We take a perverse pride in the length and intensity of the struggle—no conflict is better than ours—and we find it difficult to understand how Northern Ireland does not dominate the headlines in the world press ... In part, this results from the introverted and narcissistic immediacy of the local media in publicising the daily bomb, eternally recycling the views of a small number of politicians and continually examining the entrails for political comment, and concentrating on local issues to the exclusion of everything else.

Yet British coverage of Northern Ireland has suffered from its own tunnel vision. Describing his experience as a Guardian corespondent, Simon Winchester wrote:

There was an indefinable feeling of being in a foreign country in Ireland, north or south—and, it must be admitted, there was some identification, some commonality between the ordinary British squaddie [soldier (colloquial)] on the street and the ordinary British reporter or photographer or television man who followed him around or took pictures of him or whatever ... Like us, he, the individual soldier was no real part of the trouble; like us, he had been sent from England to do a job.

This 'squaddie's eye view' of the 'troubles' had its impact too, fostering a partisan perspective in which the army was indeed no 'real part of the trouble'—merely reacting stoically to the inflammatory Irish with a restraint no other force would show. An extreme, but not atypical, example was a Daily Sketch editorial in September 1970, in which the British soldier was described as "a great defender of civilisation against chaos, of order against the apostles of violence. He is the most patient, decent, military man in the world."

This has both insulated the British political class against much justified criticism directed at the authorities, including from international human rights organisations, and against sensitivity towards the perceived double standards involved in its attitudes to state and not-state violence. Thus, the release in July 1995 by the Northern Ireland secretary, Sir Patrick Mayhew, of Private Lee Clegg, convicted of the murder of a young female 'joyrider' in west Belfast, having served just four years of a 'life' sentence, provoked widespread disturbances in Catholic areas.

A more general effect of media coverage in both Britain and the republic of Northern Ireland has been to numb readers to the human tragedy involved and to persuade many—including, particularly, in the political class—that nothing can be done. Coverage, as Hugh Lundy describes it, which presents the conflict as "a series of unconnected incidents ... helps promote in readers' minds the idea that the violence is mindless and has not grown out of specific economic, political and military causes." This is hardly likely to induce governmental activism or popular demand for same. Rather it is to put Northern Ireland into what one very senior British civil servant once called the 'too difficult' category.

Here the almost unique phenomenon in European journalism of British tabloid newspapers, reflective of the sharp class-cultural cleavages in British society, has a very real impact:

... because of their vast circulation these papers have tended to affect the way people have viewed the Northern Ireland situation. Thus, simplicity in reporting involves both a lack of explanation and perspective, human interest and the concentration on the particular details of incidents and the personal characteristics of those involved. The result is a continual procession of inexplicable events.

As Philip Elliott concluded more generally from his analysis of reporting in the early 70s, "the tendency of the British media was to report violent events as simply irrational and horrid ... Such events were irrational because they were horrid."

True, the 'peace process' of 1994-6 occasioned massive international media interest, as had the IRA hunger strikes of 1980-81, or indeed the outbreak of violence in 1968-9. But such peaks of media engagement only highlight the 'normal' deep troughs of uninterest (another of which we have now entered)—to which political disengagement corresponds.

The comments of the former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade, made before the excitement of the last few years, are once again becoming valid:

Every Northern Ireland national newspaper correspondent I have spoken to has similar misgivings about the difficulty of getting their reports into their own papers and hence helping readers to grasp the truth ... No British tabloid bothers to employ a full-time correspondent in Northern Ireland any longer, relying on agencies to cover outbreaks of violence that make a paragraph or two. Broadsheets do provide a better coverage, but all their reporters talk of their frustration at trying to convince London-based newsdesks of the importance of their stories ... "The Troubles are like the weather," said one correspondent. "They appear completely beyond anyone's control."

Similarly, Mary Holland cites the director of programmes at Channel 4 as saying in 1992: "Viewers turn off at the very mention of the subject. The story has been going hopelessly round in circles for decades."

Nor is this ennui confined to Britain. In 1991, the then director of news for RTE, Joe Mulholland, told an audience in Liverpool that the troubles were now perceived by many European news organisations as "a dirty little sectarian war that is bereft of any real ideological basis".

Having completed his stint as northern editor of the Irish Times, Mark Brennock wrote how his paper had a policy of ensuring every killing in the north became a page-one story. But he said:

Many people, particularly those living outside Northern Ireland, don't read them. I know this: when I was living in Dublin I had a sub-conscious dictionary that translated headlines such as "Man shot dead in North" into "don't read this".

Politics in Northern Ireland is not only influenced by developments in Britain and the Republic of Ireland, but also the United States. Indeed, in 1989 a government information officer described US journalists as his "prime target": "Because here was the leading nation in the western world [and] if the US government had thought that the United Kingdom was wrong in their policy towards Ireland ... then somehow one had to get the opinion formers onside."

This became even more true with the onset of the 'peace process'. The US played a key role under President Clinton in bringing the IRA/SF 'in from the cold', notably with the decision before the IRA ceasefire in 1994 to grant Gerry Adams a visa—against State Department advice and in the teeth of British opposition—and the doors thus opened for the republicans not only to political power but to major-league fundraising. The culmination of this was perhaps the White House St Patrick's Day bash in March 1995, when Mr Adams was an honoured guest.

Yet within a year, after the ending of the IRA ceasefire, the president and the first lady were "spitting blood" about Mr Adams, who would be refused a visa were he now to reapply. In terms of domestic Northern Ireland politics, the damage had, however, been done: the American connection had become perceived as partisan by the Protestant community, as another unwelcome 'outside interference'.

The two-year US affair with Mr Adams and SF seemed odd, however, even to independent observers. Mr Adams, after all, was no Nelson Mandela or Yasser Arafat, commanding only the support of a minority of the Catholic minority within Northern Ireland—5-10 per cent of the 'Irish people as a whole' in whose name SF purports to present itself as the leading advocate of self-determination. Part of the explanation for this conundrum may lie in prior media coverage.

Because of the obsession with 'terrorism' in US culture on the one hand, and the sympathies of Irish-America on the other, US media coverage of Northern Ireland has foregrounded the republican movement to an extraordinary degree. A content analysis of seven leading US dailies from 1985 to 1988 compared 471 major events in Northern Ireland, derived from an authoritative political directory, with the proportion of times Northern Ireland actors involved in them were mentioned in the American coverage.

The IRA was covered so extensively that its ratio of coverage to events in which it was involved was calculated as 5.5. And its political wing, SF, enjoyed a ratio of 1.5. By contrast, the coverage/events ratio for the main nationalist party, the SDLP, was only 0.3. And for the main unionist party—indeed the largest party in Northern Ireland—the Ulster Unionists, the ratio was a mere 0.1.

Thus references to SF in this period were some five times as frequent as to the SDLP, which polled about twice as many votes, and some 15 times as frequent as to the UUP, which polled about three times as many. In this context, the otherwise bizarre focus in US policy from 1994 to 1996 on the republican movement, as if it were the principal actor, becomes more explicable.

But it is worth stressing, finally, the limits of the influence of the external media on Northern Ireland. For all the fashionable internationalisation of the Northern Ireland conflict in recent years, the ending of the IRA ceasefire in February 1996 and the Orange mobilisation at Drumcree the following July—both wholly defiant of international opinion—demonstrated once more the veracity of the claim by the respected political scientist the late John Whyte that the conflict has a primarily internal dynamic.

And it is, to use Giddens' terminology, in assisting positive spirals of communication—rather than degenerate ones—within Northern Ireland that the media can play a positive role.

f) A New Role for the Media

In 1978, a secret assessment by a senior British army intelligence figure acknowledged that the IRA could not be militarily defeated: "The Movement will retain popular support sufficient to maintain secure bases in the traditional republican areas." From his side, in 1987, the Sinn Féin president, Gerry Adams, told Hot Press magazine: "There is no military solution, none whatsoever."

In this context, the Article 19 report on the broadcasting restrictions concluded:

The way forward in Northern Ireland is to turn people away from violence and towards political debate. Censorship undoubtedly impedes this process. Those who are most passionately opposed to the violence of Ireland's paramilitary groups, and who are most serious about that violence, must think not of how best to defeat them militarily—the evidence so far is that that simply cannot be done—but rather of how to defeat them through political debate ... That means openly examining, discussing, analysing and directly addressing the political stances and the tactical approaches taken by such groups and their public apologists, and persuading those who now support such groups that there is either a better fundamental goal or a more effective, and ethical, means of achieving or defeating the purpose on which they are currently focused. If the British and Irish governments are serious in presenting themselves as arbiters in, rather than parties to, the Northern strife, then they must encourage debate and dialogue.

I have quoted this at length because of its prophetic character. For the year 1988 did not only see the liberal-pluralist option held out by Article 19 closed down by the broadcasting restrictions. It also saw the first round of secret talks between Mr Adams and his 'constitutional' nationalist counterpart, the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, John Hume. These latter talks were eventually to close down the liberal-pluralist avenue in another way.

Though initially abortive, they were to issue into the so-called Hume-Adams agreement of 1993, around the conservative-communalist theme of 'self-determination', consolidating the division of Northern Ireland into two communalist blocs with politics confined to secret deals between élite figures. Thus emerged the at first sight paradoxical outcome of peace associated with intense sectarian polarisation—bringing, in turn, the collapse of the peace itself in renewed paramilitary and broader communal violence: developments which themselves seemed to catch the media as much as the political class by surprise.

If peace in Northern Ireland is to mean more than the absence of violence, to be sustainable and to linked to a wider process of reconciliation, a liberal-pluralist perspective on and within the media must be strengthened. Yet considerable anecdotal evidence suggests a prevailing journalistic culture marked by cynicism and conservatism. Characterised by taken-for-granted communal labelling and uncritical acceptance of the representative claims of political élites, far from encouraging debate this merely tends to reduce coverage to "routinist reportage of well-rehearsed adversarial positions of political spokespeople". Genuinely fresh ideas and new voices are thus squeezed out.

In more exaggerated form, ex-Yugoslavia underscores the point. In polemical vein, Bogdan Denitch writes how oppositional forces have offered the best political hope:

But decent people and their activities are hardly ever news; nationalist demagogues are ... There have been ten interviews with marginal fascist psychopaths in Serbia and Croatia for every interview with a human rights or peace activist. Thus the media have helped the bad guys. At least they have certainly helped them in Yugoslavia.

In a comparative European context, Alex Schmid has pointed out how, the Netherlands has been remarkably free of politically-motivated violence in the post-war and especially post-'68 period. He traces this in part to the clean human rights record of the state and to the willingness of the authorities to co-opt rather than suppress dissent. And he goes on:

The media, too, offer a freedom of expression and a degree of access to all sectors of the public which is not easily matched elsewhere in the world. It might be that this great freedom of verbal expression, which allows the statement of extreme positions, has so far limited the need for 'expressive' violence. Government tolerance of political dissent and media access for dissenting voices appear to have played a part in preventing the kind of terrorism that emerged from the extreme fringe of the student movements of the late 1960s.

It would, however, be naïve to assume that unrestrained pluralism would dissolve the conflict in Northern Ireland. Harry Murray may not have been a 'marginal fascist psychopath' but he and his fellow leaders of the strike/putsch organised by the Ulster Workers Council, which brought down the power-sharing executive in 1974, were certainly elevated by broadcast media coverage of their action—marked in the initial days by intense intimidation in the Protestant community, never mind Catholic opposition—into almost a counter-state, issuing statements as to who could go where to get what.

The BBC defended its behaviour subsequently in an internal report which said it had a duty to "reflect significant bodies of opinion—however arrived at". Mr Murray was less ethereal:

The BBC were marvellous—they were prepared to be fed any information. They fell into their own trap that "the public must get the news". Sometimes they were just a news service for us; we found that if the media was [sic] on our side we didn't need a gun.

Many liberal critics of the broadcasting restrictions, similarly, argued that their removal would expose paramilitary spokespersons to searching scrutiny. Yet this has not been borne out in reality: since given free access to the airwaves, SF representatives in particular have quite simply dissembled about their organic relationship with the IRA. The problem, as Colum McCaffery argued six months after the lifting of the restrictions in the republic in January 1994, is in part the structure of news and current affairs television. While this lends itself readily to reporting a bomb or a shooting, "A rigorous examination of the issues surrounding political violence is another matter altogether."

After all, pluralism may in practice be a Tower of Babel of mutually uncomprehending voices—of which the audience in turn can only understand a tiny fraction. A healthy democracy, Chantal Mouffe insists, is not represented by "a confrontation between non-negotiable moral values and essentialist identities".

The alternative, however, is to recognise that liberal democracy in a context of agonistic pluralism must have another function beyond the expressive: it is not simply about the collection and counting of 'mandates', but also about the further step of creating a relationship between elected representatives as near as possible to what Attracta Ingram calls 'ideal discourse'.

This, as Giddens presents it, is essentially the opposite of what he calls 'fundamentalism'. If fundamentalism refuses to explicate its concerns to other groups (the latter perceived as in a relationship of antagonism), or to assimilate the concerns of the latter, what Giddens calls 'dialogic democracy' accepts this need for rational engagement:

On the one hand, democracy is a vehicle for the representation of interests. On the other, it is a way of creating a public arena in which controversial issues—in principle—can be resolved, or at least handled, through dialogue rather than through pre-established forms of power. While the first aspect has probably received most attention, the second is at least equally significant.

And Giddens recognises the particular role of dialogic democracy, in countering fundamentalism and constraining violence, in ethnically divided societies. Indeed, unless one accepts—or could even without 'ethnic cleansing' achieve—complete segmentation of populations, there is no alternative if conflict is to be stemmed:

Difference ... can become a medium of hostility; but it can also be a medium of creating mutual understanding and sympathy ... Understanding the point of view of the other allows for greater self-understanding, which in turn enhances communication with the other ... Dialogue has great substitutive power in respect of violence, even if the relation between the two in empirical contexts is plainly complex.

But communication in itself does not generate understanding—on the contrary, it may simply confirm the worst fears of protagonists in a conflict about each other. Intellectuals can play a moderating role (though they too can be signed up for one side or another), but only via the media, under the banner of 'objectivity', can a popular audience be engaged in the quest for understanding. In turn, this requires a commitment by the media to analytical, not simply, empirical, reporting.

The broadcaster Poilin ni Chiaráin told a conference in Derry in 1992 how, in the absence of a democratic forum in Northern Ireland, the media were "in the curious position of always having to fill the gap". In that context, Butler argues that the broadcast media have played "a critically mediative role, facilitating dialogue". But he goes on—sceptically—to define the latter, "minimally, as the juxtaposition of separately recorded points of view into a continuous order, thus creating the impression of conversation".

Butler contends that there has been a gradual evolution of broadcast coverage of Northern Ireland, away from a simple establishment or 'law and order' perspective towards what he calls 'balanced sectarianism'. But he only sees this a half-way house towards a more radical pluralist policy, which would be as applicable to the printed media as to his concern, TV:

As an interim stage, balanced sectarianism offers a means of formally accommodating conflicting interests. But two is not a plurality. And in the longer term, admitting the ideological part played by television as a producer of consent for orthodox explanation, the probable outcome of assuring impartiality between unionist and nationalist legends will be to preserve their reactionary influence ... [T]he executive committees of broadcast news in NI have it within their power to prefer an explicitly anti-sectarian agenda: one which interrogates rather than sanitises the ghastly bigotries of orange and green cultures, and which extends the scope of inquiry to asectarian regions of contemporary social, political and economic life.

For this to succeed requires not only journalistic commitment but also a commitment to analysis. That requires investment by media organisations, with public support, in journalistic education and training. It requires a determination to allocate scarce resources to features/op.ed and documentary departments, and to specialist writers and correspondents. It requires a resolution to protect the autonomy of print media and broadcasters from political and state influences. And it requires a willingness to give individual journalists their head, rather than trying to control the areas into which they stray.

Yet all these commodities are in short supply in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most telling index of the result of this deficit is a comment by the veteran Northern Ireland Information Service head, David Gilliland:

I think if there had been more drive and a more analytical approach to the information that was given by the journalists themselves, well then government would perhaps have come under greater cross-examination.

Select bibliography

Article 19, No Comment: Censorship, Secrecy and the Irish Troubles, London, 1989

Roger Bolton, 'Death on the Rock', in Rolston and Miller eds (see below), pp 118-141

BBC, 'Guidelines for factual programmes' (1989), excerpts in Rolston and Miller eds (see below), pp 145-50 [this crucially contains the BBC's interpretation of the notice restricting interviews with paramilitary spokespersons issued in 1988]

David Butler, The Trouble With Reporting Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1995

Liz Curtis, 'The reference upwards system', in Rolston and Miller eds (see below), pp 80-95

Philip Elliott, Reporting Northern Ireland: A study of News in Britain, Ulster, and the Irish Republic, Centre for Mass Communication Research, Leicester, 1976

Liz Fawcett, 'Confined to stereotypes', in Power, Politics, Positionings, Democratic Dialogue report 4, Belfast, 1996

Fortnight magazine (actually published monthly in recent years), especially Wim Roefs' study of US media coverage of Northern Ireland serialised in Fortnight 308-310

Richard Francis, 'Broadcasting to a community in conflict—the experience of Northern Ireland', in Rolston and Miller eds (see below), pp 56-66

Hugh Lundy, The Press and Northern Ireland, unpublished Master of Social Science dissertation, Queen's University, Belfast, 1983

David Miller, Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, Pluto, London, 1994

Northern Ireland Readership Survey, Belfast Telegraph, 1996

Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement, Who's Making the News?, Belfast, 1996

Bill Rolston and David Miller eds, War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader, Beyond the Pale Publications, Belfast, 1996

Anthony Smith, 'Television coverage of Northern Ireland', in Rolston and Miller eds, pp 22-37

Peter Taylor, 'Reporting Northern Ireland', Index on Censorship, no 6, 1978

Simon Winchester, In Holy Terror: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, Faber and Faber, London, 1974

Robin Wilson, 'Peace process by soundbite', Journalist's Handbook, no 44, January 1996

Scotland's parliament—lessons for Northern Ireland
A cautionary story of the devolution debate in Scotland (September 1998)


  1. Northern Ireland Readership Survey, Belfast Telegraph, 1996
  2. 'NI group buys "News Letter"', Irish Times, July 1st 1989
  3. Belfast Telegraph, June 17th and 18th 1996, Irish News July 19th 1996
  4. Conversation with the editor
  5. Belfast Telegraph, July 10th and November 10th 1995
  6. 'NI newspapers "performing well"', Irish Times, March 28th 1997
  7. 'Irish News sales rise faster than any UK daily', Irish News, May 20th 1996
  8. Hugh Lundy, The Press and Northern Ireland, unpublished Master of Social Science dissertation, Queen's University, Belfast, 1983, p49
  9. Edna Longley, 'In North, photos of the same object are incompatible', Irish Times, August 18th 1993
  10. cited by Rex Cathcart, '2BE consolidates: the early years of the BBC in Northern Ireland', in Bill Rolston and David Miller eds, War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader, Beyond the Pale Publications, Belfast, 1996, p6
  11. Jane Coyle, 'Controller of BBC sets out his vision of the future', Irish Times, November 15th 1994
  12. Suzanne Breen, 'UTV's colour change pays off', Sunday Tribune, June 4th 1995
  13. ibid
  14. Information from BBC NI research section
  15. Information from a senior UTV journalist, formerly head of factual programming for the station
  16. Submission by the director-general of RTE, Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, Dublin Castle, June 2nd 1995
  17. Breen, op cit
  18. Muiris Mac Conghail, 'Television representation of Northern Ireland', paper delivered at the John Hewitt International Summer School, Co Antrim, July 1993
  19. Adrian Guelke, Northern Ireland: The International Perspective, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1988
  20. A cursory perusal of minutes of the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists in recent years reveals this to have been a running sore.
  21. The writer is a member of the course committee for the University of Ulster courses.
  22. David Miller, Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, Pluto, London, 1994, p108 (my emphasis)
  23. Report of External Assessors on BBC NI News and Current Affairs Programmes, unpublished report by BBC NI senior management to the advisory Broadcasting Council, February 1996. It is worth pointing out that the other two assessors commissioned took a less critical view than this writer.
  24. Liz Fawcett, 'Confined to stereotypes', in Power, Politics, Positionings, Democratic Dialogue report 4, Belfast, 1996, p22-3
  25. Suzanne Breen, 'Inside story', in Who's Making the News?, Northern Ireland Women's Rights Movement, Belfast, 1996, p9
  26. Data, including from NIWRM study and her own researches, are in Fawcett, op cit, p22.
  27. Anthony Giddens, Beyond Left and Right: The Future of Radical Politics, Polity Press, Cambridge, 1994, p245
  28. Robin Wilson, reviewing Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Article 19, London, 1994, in Fortnight 337, March 1995, p44
  29. Northern Ireland Readership Survey, Belfast Telegraph, 1996
  30. Rory O'Donnell, 'Modernisation and social partnership', in New thinking for New Times, DD report 1, Belfast 1995, pp 24-33
  31. Frameworks for the Future, Northern Ireland Office, Belfast, 1995. A concise exegesis can be found in 'The framework outlines', Fortnight 337, March 1995, p13; and see the hostile response from even the moderate unionist Jeffrey Donaldson in the following issue, no 338, p20.
  32. Conor Gearty, Terror, Faber & Faber, London, 1991, p1
  33. Adrian Guelke, The Age of Terrorism and the International Political System, I B Tauris, London, 1995
  34. BBC style guide, reproduced in Rolston and Miller eds, op cit, pp 142-4; see also section d of this paper.
  35. interviewed for a forthcoming DD report on pluralism and parity of esteem in Northern Ireland
  36. 'Broadcast ban leads terror fight', Guardian, October 20th 1988
  37. cited in Article 19, No Comment: Censorship, Secrecy and the Irish Troubles, London, 1989, pp 23-4
  38. ibid, p26
  39. 'Broadcasting ban "contradictory"', Irish Times, May 4th 1989
  40. Rex Cathcart (historian of BBC Northern Ireland), 'Hearing no evil', Fortnight 267, November 1988, p7
  41. Article 19, op cit, pp 29-30; international press reaction is detailed in Index on Censorship, no 2, 1989
  42. 'Judge says broadcast ban "half-baked"', Independent, November 22nd 1989
  43. 'People "losing power"', News Letter, January 9th 1989
  44. 'Annesley backs gagging of media', Irish News, July 7th 1990
  45. Fionnuala O Connor, 'The media men roll over', Fortnight 268, December 1988, p11
  46. Interview with Timothy Renton on Radio Ulster, October 19th 1989, cited by Robin Wilson in 'If you can't beat the bombers, then remove them from earshot', Fortnight 278, November 1989, p12
  47. Deaglán de Bréadún, 'The turbulent history of Section 31', Irish Times, October 10th 1988
  48. Deaglán de Bréadún, 'The mushroom cloud over Section 31', Irish Times, March 28th 1989
  49. Submission and oral evidence by the director-general of RTE, Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, Dublin Castle, June 2nd 1995
  50. Article 19, op cit, pp 41-3.
  51. Liz Curtis, 'The reference upwards system', in Rolston and Miller eds, op cit, pp 80-93
  52. On a grander scale this was pursued two decades later in the public domain by the independent Opsahl commission, which received more than 550 submissions and carried out extensive public hearings; ironically, media coverage was patchy—see Andy Pollak ed, A Citizens' Enquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland, Lilliput, Dublin, 1993.
  53. David Butler, The Trouble With Reporting Northern Ireland, Avebury, Aldershot, 1995, p63
  54. cited in ibid, loc cit
  55. cited by Anthony Smith, 'Television coverage of Northern Ireland', in Rolston and Miller eds, p31
  56. cited by Miller, op cit, p28
  57. ibid, p34
  58. Peter Taylor, Beating the Terrorists, Penguin, London, 1990, p99
  59. Peter Taylor, 'Reporting Northern Ireland', Index on Censorship, no 6, 1978
  60. Richard Francis, 'Broadcasting to a community in conflict—the experience of Northern Ireland', reproduced in Rolston and Miller eds, op cit, p58
  61. Cathcart, loc cit
  62. Curtis, op cit, p86
  63. Michael Leapman, The Last Days of the Beeb, Allen & Unwin, London, 1986, pp 290-331; Miller, op cit, p 64. This writer was subjected to his one and only death threat for organising a public showing of the then banned programme in Belfast.
  64. ibid, pp 38-40. See also 'Police get TV film of funeral', 'RTE hands over tapes of Andersonstown to RUC', Irish Times, March 24th and 25th 1988.
  65. 'Thatcher "furious" over programme', Irish Times, April 29th 1988
  66. 'Tories enraged as BBC shows Gibraltar programme', May 6th 1988
  67. Roger Bolton, 'Death on the Rock', in Rolston and Miller eds, op cit, p127
  68. Miller, op cit, pp 43-7
  69. Paul Lashmar, 'MoD leak was behind attack on Thames TV', Observer, March 19th 1989
  70. BBC, 'Guidelines for factual programmes' (1989), excerpts in Rolston and Miller eds, op cit, p148
  71. Stephen Castle, 'Fury at Major's Unionist deal', Independent on Sunday, February 20th 1994
  72. Gerry Moriarty, 'Major's measures on North win widespread support', Irish Times, September 17th 1994
  73. In terms of RTE interviews with SF representatives, for example, see Cathal Mac Coille, 'SF granted lion's share of airtime', Sunday Tribune, March 13th 1994
  74. Paul Foot, Who Framed Colin Wallace?, Macmillan, London, 1990
  75. Colin Wallace, 'Smear tactic aimed to "keep the peace"', Irish News, January 6th 1997
  76. Suzanne Breen, 'Smear tactic has lengthy history in NI troubles', Irish Times, December 7th 1996
  77. John Stalker, Stalker, Harrap, London, 1988, pp 52 & 58
  78. 'RUC men lied to inquiry, Hermon admits', Irish Times, February 20th 1997
  79. Miller, op cit, p100. This writer was given just such a 'steer' by an army press officer in the case where undercover soldiers shot dead three petty criminals at a west Belfast bookmaker's in 1990. At the time he was working on a dummy of the Independent on Sunday. This, or a similar source, found its way into print in the paper's sister daily—see 'Chance encounter of undercover soldiers', Independent, January 16th 1990.
  80. Mark Urban, Big Boys' Rules: The SAS and the Secret Struggle against the IRA, Faber & Faber, London, 1992, pp 60-4
  81. Bolton, op cit, p120
  82. Michael Scott, 'The "button" comes undone', Fortnight 277, October 1989, pp 18-20
  83. 'British official admits lying', Irish Independent, August 29th 1994
  84. David Miller and Greg McLaughlin, 'Reporting the peace in Ireland', in Rolston and Miller, op cit, pp 421-40
  85. Simon Winchester, In Holy Terror: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, p175 and 21. See also Simon Hoggart, also of the Guardian, 'The army PR men of Northern Ireland', New Society, October 11th 1973
  86. Robert Fisk, 'Army regards press as destructive in Ulster, papers show', Times, February 24th 1976
  87. cited in Miller, op cit, p117
  88. ibid, pp 74-87, 133
  89. Miller and McLaughlin, op cit, pp 435-6
  90. Miller, op cit, p274
  91. Breen, 'Smear tactic ...'
  92. 'Hurd's ban begins to tighten' and 'Crucial film identified killers', Guardian, May 8th and June 2nd 1989
  93. Andy Pollak, 'Journalists often threatened in NI', Irish Times, February 1st 1995
  94. NUJge, newsletter of the Belfast branch of the NUJ, May 1992
  95. Marie O'Halloran, 'Putting journalists in NI under the spotlight', Irish Times, August 18th 1989; William Graham, 'Senior unionists hopeful of breakthrough', Irish News, October 26th 1992; Dick Grogan, 'BBC dismisses Trimble's criticism of news coverage', Irish Times, January 22nd 1996
  96. Miller, op cit, p105
  97. Jamie Dettmer, 'Oxygen supply in trouble', Times, April 5th 1989; Andy Pollak, 'Masters of propaganda wage war in NI', Irish Times, August 17th 1989
  98. Miller, op cit, pp 156-9
  99. Maurice Hayes, 'External forces could damage fragile peace', Irish Independent, October 14th 1994
  100. Simon Winchester, In Holy Terror: Reporting the Ulster Troubles, Faber and Faber, London, 1974, p124
  101. cited in Eamonn McCann's polemical pamphlet, The British Press and Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Socialist Research Centre, no date
  102. Amnesty International's annual report, frequently damning, is a good barometer.
  103. David McKittrick, 'Lee Clegg is innocent, OK?', Independent, January 25th 1995
  104. Lundy, op cit, p51
  105. 'We still have Northern Ireland?', Fortnight 271, March 1989, p19
  106. There are, of course, several exciting European tabloids, such as Libération or El Pais; what distinguishes the British variant is the explicit counterposition to 'quality' broadsheets and their up-market readers.
  107. Lundy, op cit, pp 53-4
  108. Philip Elliott, Reporting Northern Ireland: A study of News in Britain, Ulster, and the Irish Republic, Centre for Mass Communication Research, Leicester, 1976, p2-8
  109. Roy Greenslade, 'The forgotten tragedy', Guardian, April 12th 1993
  110. Mary Holland, 'And now the prevention of television Act?', Irish Times, July 23rd 1992
  111. 'Sectarian strife "not news"', Irish Independent, November 21st 1991
  112. Mark Brennock, 'When the terrible news doesn't shock any more', Irish Times, August 28th 1992
  113. Miller, op cit, p111
  114. according to a high-level figure in education in Northern Ireland, who met the Clintons shortly after the Canary Wharf bomb
  115. This emerged in focus groups organised by Democratic Dialogue earlier this year.
  116. Wim Roefs, 'Just the same old story?', Fortnight 310, October 1992, p41
  117. John H Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland, Clarendon, Oxford, 1990
  118. cited in Kevin Kelley, The Longest War: Northern Ireland and the IRA, Zed Books, London, 1988, p296
  119. 'Under fire', Hot Press, December 17th 1987
  120. Article 19, No Comment: Censorship, Secrecy and the Irish Troubles, London, 1989, pp 100-1
  121. Under pressure in late 1993 to reveal the contents of his agreement with Mr Adams, Mr Hume notoriously claimed he did not give "two balls of roasted snow" for the concerns of journalists about the transparency of the process.
  122. The writer has worked, as a staffer and freelance, in three Belfast newspaper offices, apart from his period as editor of Fortnight and Northern Ireland correspondent of the Independent on Sunday, has executed numerous radio and TV interviews for BBC and RTE, and is chair of the Belfast branch of the National Union of Journalists.
  123. Robin Wilson, 'Peace process by soundbite', Journalist's Handbook, no 44, January 1996, p27
  124. Bogdan Denitch, Ethnic Nationalism: The Tragic Death of Yugoslavia, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p20
  125. Alex Schmid, 'Violent activists in the Netherlands', in Juliet Lodge ed, The Threat of Terrorism, Wheatsheaf, Brighton, 1988, p149
  126. ibid, pp 152-3
  127. Both cited by Robert Fisk, The Point of No Return: The Strike which Broke the British in Ulster, Andre Deutsch, London, 1975, p127
  128. Colum McCaffery, 'Hear no evil', Fortnight 330, July/August 1994, p28
  129. Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political, Verso, London, 1993, p6
  130. Attract Ingram, A Political Theory of Rights, Clarendon, Oxford, 1994
  131. Giddens, op cit, pp 15-16
  132. ibid, pp 244-5
  133. 'NI minister says broadcasting ban on SF will stay', Irish Times, August 6th 1992
  134. Butler, op cit, p86
  135. ibid, pp 161-2
  136. Cited by Miller, op cit, p155

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