Broadcasting to a Community in Conflict - Experience in Northern Ireland. A lecture given by Richard Francis, Controller N.I at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. 1977


Broadcasting to a Community in Conflict – the Experience in Northern Ireland

A lecture by Richard Francis

Controller, Northern Ireland

at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House. 22 February 1977


I am tempted to take as a text today the story of the two old boys looking at a newspaper featuring a man accused of subversion, and one is saying to the other: `Why should we give a fair hearing to people who threaten our democratic freedoms?'. To the broadcaster in Northern Ireland, that view has a familiar ring.

`Broadcasting to a Community in Conflict - the Experience in Northern Ireland': the very title might suggest a fallacy. Certainly we have conflict in Northern Ireland, but it would be unwise to consider it is contained within a single community! Indeed, our task is not only to broadcast to two distinct communities and to reflect two cultures within the province, but also in network programmes to broadcast to people throughout the United Kingdom, and incidentally to half the population in the Republic of Ireland who can also see and hear our programmes. All this makes the job for the broadcaster in Northern Ireland both more difficult and more telling.

Broadcasting of its very nature transcends borders; in a fractured society, propagation of a singular point of view or an objective version of events is significant in itself. Thus, our programmes on Irish history for all schools in the province are of rare value in a divided education system. Our Neighbourhood programmes, produced in the heart of sectarian ghettos but heard across the divide, demonstrate the other man's problems are no different. . . significant in a province where de facto segregation is becoming ever more marked.

Conflict of course doesn't necessarily mean violence. Between and within the communities of Northern Ireland there is conflict because the normal reconciliation mechanisms have not worked. Often, as at the moment, when there is a political vacuum in the province, the broadcaster finds himself providing a unique forum for the exchange of conflicting views. But because there is notoriously no consensus in Northern Ireland, what many people want from the broadcaster is not so much reason or impartiality but the reinforcement of their prejudices.

For the first three or four years of the present troubles, whenever we broadcast an objective version of events, there would be loud protests from one side or other of the divide. The chorus has diminished over the years. It seems now that, apart from wearying of the problems, Ulster people have come to recognise that the broadcasters are going to tell them how it is and that some of the things they hear they will not like. Nowadays it is more often the moderates who object to the views of extremists being aired.

One thing everyone in Northern Ireland still wants is news of the situation. Whenever there is trouble in the streets or the sound of an explosion rocks the town, people turn to the radio to find out what is happening. Our task must be to limit that concern as quickly and precisely as possible. During the UWC strike in 1974, half the telephone calls received by the BBC were either offering or requesting further information about the situation. If we fail to report incidents of violence invariably we will attract criticism from people in the vicinity.

The BBC in Northern Ireland is no different in essence from Ulster Television or any of the media. The several members of staff who have joined the BBC from UTV or the press all agree they find no real difference in policy or practice. But we do have a problem in being the British Broadcasting Corporation. The very title creates an expectation on the part of some people on the loyalist side that we should overtly support British institutions. When we allow people to attack these institutions on the air we are accused of undermining authority. On the other hand, the `British' in our title creates an air of suspicion among republicans. Nevertheless, it has been important to our broadcasters in Northern Ireland that we are part of a national institution such as the BBC. It is important in resisting pressures that we are answerable to the Director-General and to the BBC's Board of Governors in London. The various BBC advisory bodies in the province, such as the Northern Ireland Advisory Council, do provide guidance for the professionals and a local sounding board for the products of our policies and judgements. But, ultimately, it is the BBC's editorial unity which provides the essential stability in an often unstable environment.

Perhaps there are lessons to be learnt from Northern Ireland simply because the experience there, of sharp conflict between and within deeply divided communities, throws into relief some of the fundamental issues for the broadcaster in any democratic society today. At least I believe it illustrates the need to enlarge public understanding of the most uncomfortable problems in their midst. I believe it illustrates the need to minimize public concern when actions, often inexplicable and horrific, threaten everyday life. I believe it throws light on the problems of impartially reflecting significant forces in society, of whatever origin, as much as supporting democratic institutions not wholly accepted. Above all, I think it illustrates the need for the broadcaster jealously to guard his independence and his credibility.

In taking an independent and impartial position, we are sometimes asked whose side is the BBC on? The implication is that we should take sides, that in a situation lacking consensus the BBC should stand by the government `in the national interest'. But which government? Which national interest? Often the government at Westminster has been at odds with Stormont. Often the Westminster government's point of view has been opposed, not only by undemocratic and violent organisations, but also by a majority of elected politicians in the province. Surely, the national interest must lie in solving the problem, and the public's interest in being given reliable information about the problem in their midst?

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. That puts a lot of responsibility on all of us to answer these questions wisely, not, I submit, by adopting special criteria for Northern Ireland, but by deploying the best available professional skills and by scrupulously fair dealing.

There is a commonly held belief that, if only the media would cease or tone down their reporting, the problem would go away. It has been suggested that Northern Ireland is an example of a region where violence is often reported but not the determination of the great majority of people to preserve the real values in society. Certainly these feelings are apparent in Westminster. But the perception of the BBC in Northern Ireland is very different to people living in the province than it is to those living this side of the water. In Britain the dominant image is that of the front page - pictures of destruction on television news and the ritual recital of overnight violence on the Radio 4 morning bulletins. Whereas the 40-second film clip of an explosion is explicit, a 60-minute Ulster play on Radio 4 or a 30-minute concert by the BBC Northern Ireland Orchestra on Radio 3 are only implicit in demonstrating normal life in the province. Yet there can be no question of managing news for the national networks in order to restore some sort of balance between `good' and `bad'.

In Northern Ireland, our extensive coverage of sport, our sponsorship of musicians, writers and actors, the daily advertising of events and discussion of household matters in regional programmes such as Good Morning Ulster, Taste of Hunni, and our access and community programmes are all apparent. More than 80 per cent of Radio Ulster's output is concerned with normality. The BBC is committed to supporting such important ventures as the Queen's Festival, the Belfast City Festival, the Derry Feis, and so on. But I would argue that our coverage of bad news also contributes to maintaining real values in society. A thorough and reliable knowledge of society's ills and of the other man's unpalatable views are essential for any realistic evaluation. The Peace Movement stemmed from popular revulsion amongst the working class ghettos at the endless violence in their midst. The media's relentless chronicling of every bomb and bullet cannot fail to have spread the ugly message into less affected homes - remember Vietnam?

Arguably, where the network news can go wrong over Northern Ireland is by doing too little; news values are relative, and disruption in the province (two bombs and one killing a day on average last year) is no longer exceptional. But when shootings and explosions destroying whole businesses in the UK's eighth largest city go unreported on the network news and in the national dailies - as happens more and more frequently - when a small incendiary in Liverpool rates a headline before the assassination of a prominent Ulster industrialist; when a bomb in a north-west London pillar-box rates the same amount of film as the destruction of Belfast's central parcels sorting office ... then perhaps we are no longer concerned for the real values in our society! If the violent activities of terrorists go unreported, there must be a danger that they may escalate their actions to make their point. And, if we don't seek, with suitable safeguards, to report and to expose the words of terrorist front organisations, we may well be encouraging them to speak more and more with violence.

Does the BBC as a whole pay too little attention to the underlying problems of Northern Ireland? I don't think so. Despite the diminished news interest, the flow of analytical programmes has been fairly constant. Over the last six years, on the BBC television networks alone, there have been 349 current affairs features about Northern Ireland (anything from 5 to 50 minutes) - that's rather more than one a week. Over the last fortnight there have been two complete editions of The Money Programme on BBC 2 looking into the province's economic difficulties. Since 1971 there have been three major studio enquiries into the political options for Ulster, 24 documentary films, ten 25-minute programmes (twice repeated) and an accompanying book on the historical background - coverage far in excess of any other regional problem in the UK, including devolution!

Do we give the violence too much prominence on regional programmes? Do radio and television concentrate on violence because of its immediacy or its visual impact? I doubt it. The people in the worst affected areas invariably accuse us of underplaying their plight. To give you one example: between 13 and 16 February last year, Northern Ireland had one of its worst weekends of violence. There were eight deaths, 87 shootings, 56 hijackings, 17 bombs and 126 arrests. The regional television news programmes over that weekend totalled exactly one hour. The reporting of all thus violence amounted to no more than 15 minutes (25 per cent), politics amounted to 20 minutes (one-third), and the rest of the time, 25 minutes or just under half the total, was devoted to news of other peaceful matters - plans for a new power station; cheaper petrol; the Arts Council annual report; cheap bus fares to London; a fashion-show; sport and weather, etc.

One reason the BBC has found itself under pressure in Northern Ireland stems from its historical position. Regional radio started from Belfast in 1924, less than three years after partition. Originally, for understandable reasons, it was felt that broadcasting like other institutions in Northern Ireland, should not question the fundamental premise on which the new State was built. Thus, it was written of the BBC Regional Service in the 20’s, that it `reflects the sentiments of the people, who have always maintained unswerving loyalty to British ideals and to British culture. Northern Ireland relies on broadcasting to strengthen its common loyalties with Britain'. This attitude persisted - even in the 30's there was no broadcast coverage of the Twelfth of July marches or of Gaelic Athletic Association results, because it was felt that to broadcast that which was divisive in society would undermine the fabric of the state.

Even when the BBC Northern Ireland Advisory Council was introduced in 1947, at the very first meeting the Chairman ruled that the question of Partition and the Border was out of order. A solemn directive was issued by the Regional Director at that time stating that BBC policy was `not to admit any attack on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland'. That was in 1947. During the 50's and 60's things began to change, and efforts were made to emphasise not only what was common between the different communities. Programmes were introduced in which consistently, but in controlled circumstances, essential differences could be aired. But the fact is that up to 1968 the accent on the positive, coupled with the periodic denial of air time to people outspoken in their criticism of the status quo, failed to convince the public of the troubles which were just over the horizon. By accentuating the middle ground, the BBC unwittingly may have lulled people into a sense of security which subsequent events were so rudely to shatter.

By 1968-69 the BBC, in common with the rest of the media, was faced with the physical manifestations of conflict and had to hold up a mirror to the reality. There was no way in which the facts of unrest within the country could go uncovered. The question then became not whether it should be covered, but how? And for the first time the BBC was faced within the United Kingdom with having to consider not merely the right of people to know what was happening in their midst, but also what effect the broadcasts might have on public behaviour.

Over the last eight years the greatest consideration has been given within the Corporation to the consequences of what is to be broadcast. It's one thing to broadcast about Northern Ireland for the people of Britain - that is perhaps parallel to the American experience in learning about Vietnam - it is quite another when those same broadcasts are heard and seen day and daily by the people caught up in the events themselves. Nevertheless, we learned early on that all programmes made in Britain about Northern Ireland should be suitable for transmission in the province. Only on one occasion, and to my mind it proved the rule, was a network programme not shown in Ulster because it was considered too inflammatory. Rumour and uncertainty over `what they're saying about us' was more worrying than the facts.

There have been very real questions to answer about how to deal with the often unprecedented circumstances. Invariably, the question that I come back to is not what happens if we do broadcast such and such, but what happens if we don't? The key problem is how to exercise control of a free, pluralistic system when editorial decisions could put lives and livelihoods at risk. The BBC's system of delegating responsibility to the lowest practical level is essentially no different to that of any broadcaster - the reason is inherent in the medium. Managers and editors have to rely heavily upon the judgement of the man on the spot. Commensurate with this principle is the system of referring up, by exception, matters of doubt and difficulty. Normally, the onus to identify these matters is with the individual producer or editor - in the case of BBC programmes about Northern Ireland it is mandatory to consult with me or my deputies before proceeding and during their preparation. Early warning, briefing and consultation is essential if the Controller in Northern Ireland or the Editor of News and Current Affairs in London is not to be caught between last-minute `censorship' or disregard. Often it comes down to the quality of the journalism - and we don't transmit bad journalism just to sustain an individual's editorial integrity! Usually, it is regular liaison with regional staff at the editorial level that ensures proper consideration of local circumstances and possible consequences.

Delegation of responsibility puts a great deal of onus on selecting the right persons for the job, on training them, and on ensuring the growth of their experience over the years. We do have written editorial guidelines, but inevitably these are somewhat didactic and limited to anticipated situations. More importantly, we have a system of regular conferences between senior editors who study difficult and unprecedented cases, generally retrospectively. Through the minutes of these meetings, circulated amongst all the journalistic areas of the BBC, we build up precedents and case histories so that the lessons learnt on one occasion may be applied or considered for application to similar cases in the future. The strength of our news and current affairs programmes in and about Northern Ireland lies in their being considered in a continuous climate by a large number of professionals forming a view of the situation, each required to consult and to liaise. The calibre and credibility of the output depends mainly on the informed iudgement of individuals rather than on rigid central control.

A prime example of the BBC having to proceed in Northern Ireland without benefit of carefully written guidelines was, of course, the UWC strike in May 1974. We were not alone in being affected by something unprecedented and unexpected. Coverage of the strike made for exceptional difficulties, both logistic and editorial. For supplies and transport, the BBC had to remain and to be seen to remain independent of both the UWC and the Army.

In seeking to report objectively, our task was not made easier by the fact that, throughout, the self-appointed UWC called the political tune and that, for long periods, the Northern Ireland Office and the Executive seemed to be powerless and speechless. News is abnormality, and with the situation liable to change by the hour there was a great deal of it to report; but most of it stemmed from the actions of the UWC. When we did take reports from around the province which indicated normality, owners of concerns still running implored us not to mention them lest they became targets. Similarly, for obvious reasons, very few of the people who told us they had been intimidated were prepared to come forward with chapter and verse. Inevitably, we were criticized for underplaying normality!

Clearly, the BBC's task was to report the situation as it presented itself as impartially as possible. But that in itself presented difficulties. The UWC strike was unique in that, on day one we were dealing with the equivalent of an unofficial industrial stoppage, by day fifteen we were dealing with a self-appointed body who had brought down a government by undemocratic means. To have changed our editorial posture during the strike - unless, for instance, the strike had been declared illegal - would have been unthinkable. Similarly, to have refused to carry UWC statements unless or until government retorts were forthcoming would have implied a power of veto. The UWC initiatives affected the daily lives of everyone in the province and the public had a right to know what was happening. In the face of Government inactivity and official silence, our coverage was inevitably somewhat unbalanced. Experience of the UWC strike suggests that the BBC's credibility depends more on impartiality than balance, and our responsibility lies as much in reflecting the significant voices of the people, including subversives, as in sustaining institutions of democracy not wholly accepted.

It must be stressed that we are not impartial as between democratic and undemocratic means. We do not give equal time to right and wrong, there never has been any question of that, though we have been accused of being prepared to give equal time to Satan and to Jesus Christ! The concept of impartiality is queried because, as I said earlier, some people believe we should be taking sides, that we should be positively on the side of authority and against the subversives. Often we have been accused of undermining the Army's credibility by introducing their statements with the phrase `the Army say'; but the experience of all the media in Northern Ireland has led them to treat with circumspection statements, from whatever source, until the facts are established. Generally, therefore, we will report that `the Army say', whereas the paramilitaries `claim' or `allege'. Wording is crucial. Similarly, we were heavily criticised during the UWC strike for giving status to the UWC by reporting the address and telephone number of their head-quarters. I am sure we were right to give such information - many responsible people like doctors, nurses, teachers felt it their duty to get to work, even if it meant going to the UWC for petrol and passes. Where we did err was in the manner of giving it - some bulletins missed out the all-important words `if you want to contact the UWC' and just said `the number to ring is …’

We work in an environment in which propaganda plays a large part, but propaganda doesn't stem only from paramilitaries and illegal organisations - neither are they always wrong. It stems too from government, political parties and the security forces, and it is up to all journalists to weigh propaganda as an inescapable ingredient of the situation which they have to describe. Of course, propaganda itself is not an evil; it's the cause for which it speaks which has to be evaluated. Sometimes, not often, as in the cases of Majella O'Hare and the burning of a GAA Club, the Army's initial version of events turns out to be further away from the truth than that of the Provos. From time to time in thus propaganda war, the Army have put themselves at a disadvantage. Invariably, if there is an incident during an Army patrol or search of a hard-line republican area, reporters following up the story will be met with a barrage of opinions from the locals. If the Army fails to put up a spokesman to give their version of events, wishing perhaps to avoid according status to their accusers, their case is liable to go by default. Newsmen cannot balance their accounts artificially, by inventing what the Army might have said.

The BBC is often accused of not `getting the balance right', in the mathematical sense of over-representing `minorities of minorities' as people like to regard the extremists. In the Northern Ireland situation, with a plethora of political parties, splinter groups and other pressure groups, the concept of balance is often an over-simplification. What matters more is relevance. It's important here to distinguish what happens in a news context - where we will seek the opinion of those most closely involved in a situation, whatever their background or persuasion - and current affairs - where we would frequently solicit a spectrum of opinion, including when appropriate, the views of known extremists. In neither case are we considering a weighted average, such that the number of appearances or invitations is proportionate to the representation of the different elements in population or voting terms.

What is unquestionable is that we operate: within the law, and I would say well within the law. Not by any means do we transmit everything that we might without being prosecuted, allowing the extent of law to be the ultimate determination of what is broadcastable. To do that would be highly irresponsible in many instances, because the law is neither equipped nor intended to consider all the consequences of broadcasting. Nor is it for us to prejudge a person's legality. It has sometimes been suggested that we ought to treat some of the paramilitaries `for what they are - thugs, murderers and bombers by any other name'.

If we were to ascribe that sort of label, or even make that presumption, we would very soon find ourselves in court. What we have to be concerned with is the legality of the subject matter. That is much more crucial than the legality of the organisations to which the authors may, or may purport, to belong. Many of the most blood-curdling things have been said on the air by elected representatives, even MP's; and the more able spokesmen for the paramilitary organisations are also the most adept in avoiding infringements of the law.

Thus we must start by treating those paramilitary organisations, which the executive and the judiciary has seen fit to regard as legal, like any other body in the country. So long as Provisional Sinn Fein is encouraged by the government to play a political role, is accepted as a legal organisation, mounting rallies and making speeches without fear of prosecution under the law, we are bound to treat them accordingly. We have a clear duty to tell the public what they are doing and saying. It is often suggested that we should not interview the paramilitaries because they are the avowed mouth-pieces of terrorists. But where does one draw the line, when some of their community and welfare activities are encouraged and when officials of Her Majesty's Government meet them for political talks? It would be illogical and impractical for the media not to cover their activities and, to do that responsibly, we believe it is necessary to interview and to investigate the unpalatable side when the information to be gained outweighs the possible propaganda effect.

Some of our more significant programmes have demonstrated to the public the terrorist potential of paramilitary yet legal organisations. Panorama filmed such a sequence with the UVF shortly before that organisation was re-proscribed in 1975. Last week the regional programme Spotlight interviewed a man who purported to speak for a new organisation, the Irish National Liberation Army, whose avowed aim is to get Britain out by attacking Ulstermen in the security forces and to establish a republican socialist State. Predictably, this caused offence in some quarters - `such programmes do nothing but encourage violence' - the charge ran. But I am sure that it was our duty to demonstrate the very ugliness of the threat, and I am confident that the demeanour of our reporter left no doubt as to where we stood. Our obligation was to assess whether the threat had real significance. In the light of the recent murders in South Londonderry, and other evidence, we concluded that it had.

We are not unmindful of the impact that these interviews and those with apologists for illegal organisations may have, but the effects are likely to vary widely. We know from reactions received that, when spokesmen for Provisional Sinn Fein are interviewed, the vast majority of the public are strongly antagonistic, even on the Catholic side. For this majority, such an appearance is liable to be counter-productive We also know that, in seeking to widen the area of public understanding, we run the risk that a small proportion of people could be so antagonised that they would take retaliatory action, and at the other extreme a small proportion might be encouraged to take sympathetic action.

Such interviews always demand forthright handling by experienced interviewers - invariably, paramilitary interviewees are treated as hostile witnesses. But there is considerable misconception as to how often we feature the paramilitaries and illegal organisations on BBC television and radio. There have been only two interviews with David O'Connell of the Provisional IRA in the last six years, the last being in June 1974. Each occasion requires the specific permission of the Director-General before proceeding. There is no `ban' in the BBC of interviews with the IRA - there may be a justifiable editorial need to demonstrate what is in these people's minds. As Secretary of State, Merlyn Rees said of one such occasion: `If it makes people realise all over the UK that I am dealing with people who are out to shoot, kill and maim for political reasons . . . they will understand the nature of the problem, it won't have done any harm'. Now that the effects of the Provisional IRA are only too well known in Britain, one must assume that the editorial need is much less than it was.

In the 12-month period from October 1975 to 1976 there were six interviews on BBC Northern Ireland Television with Provisional Sinn Fein and 12 with spokesmen for the Loyalists paramilitaries, six of them being elected representatives. These figures compare with a total of 307 interviews with elected representatives of all other parties, including 56 with UK ministers. In the same period there were 41 interviews with official Trades Union leaders and four with UWC spokesmen. All of these were on the basis of relevance, not according to a representational formula. So, over the year, the proportion of paramilitary interviews (18 out of 325) was extremely low, and incidentally contrasts with 18 interviews for the leaders of the Peace Movement in the first three months of its existence. Maybe we have been guilty of under-representing the forces which have had the most profound effect on everyday life in the province?

IRA or Sinn Fein statements, like all statements, are reported solely on their newsworthiness neither automatically nor according to a quota. We do not give them wide propagation simply because they are issued. What is important is the news criterion, the amount of the statement which is relevant, and the context in which it is set. The frequency is bound to vary according to the level of paramilitary activity, but even in a busy month the average number of statements carried from Provo Sinn Fein and Provo IRA is unlikely to exceed one every other day. Loyalist paramilitaries and illegal organisations issue rather fewer warnings, claims and allegations. In considering threats for publication, whilst we make every effort to substantiate the source and to establish the bona fides (if I can use the phrase) of the organisation involved, the principal consideration must be the public's right to know those matters which constitute a threat to life or property.

Decisions on treatment are all-important. For example, just over a year ago, when the IRA threatened to extend its actions to the cities of England, it was important that the full impact of that threat was understood by the British public. One of the most threatening speeches, made in Derry, included the line `let me warn (them) in Britain that they haven't seen anything yet compared to what they'll get in the not-too-distant future'. The duty editor decided to show a filmed excerpt of the speech, because the threat lay less in the words than in the manner of their delivery. On the other hand, some of the most blood-curdling statements made in print have turned out to be less worrying when examined in interview, less liable to incite hatred than on mere reading.

We stand in danger, by the nature of broadcasting, of furthering the incitement of racial hatred and violence. It has been suggested, even by respected journalistic colleagues, that the very immediacy of broadcasting can exacerbate the situation. Let me assure you that we do treat continuing or up-coming events with the greatest care, limiting details of the locations, etc. Equally, we believe that it would be irresponsible to withhold information when we have the means to transmit it almost instantly. If you are sitting in Belfast in the middle of the afternoon and you hear a loud explosion, your immediate thoughts are of concern for the family - are the children home from school? ... has your wife got home from the shops? - and you want to know as soon as possible where the bomb was, whether anyone was injured, and so on. There is a real need for that information, and it is nothing to do with sensationalism on our part that we broadcast it the moment the facts can be established.

It's also been suggested that if there is trouble in the town we should not report it until it is over. One case quoted was when there was a riot going on in West Belfast, during the course of which four Protestants were shot in East Belfast. It was suggested that we should have withheld broadcasting that information till after the riot in the other part of the town was over. I don't accept that at all. In a town like Belfast, which is like a village, rumour can travel faster even than radio. If we had not announced unequivocally that four Protestants had been shot, the rioting crowds would likely have made it not four but fourteen, not shot but dead, and the riot could have been very much worse than it was.

So, finally, I come to the sensitive issue of sectarian labels. It has been suggested by some people, including those in positions of high authority, that we exacerbate sectarian tension by reporting the religion of innocent victims. If we didn't announce their religion the chances of retaliation would be diminished, the argument runs. None of the media accept the proposition as being either practicable or desirable. In the first place, like the description of a man's colour, the label is only attached when it is relevant - successive Secretaries of State acknowledge that people are being killed for no apparent reason other than that they are Catholic or Protestant. Secondly, a sectarian label is a piece of shorthand; it's no different in essence from the description of a person's background, his name, where he went to school, the street where lie lived and inevitably where he is to be buried, all facts which in Northern Ireland are liable to indicate a person's religion.

It doesn't need broadcasting to convey this sort of information in small communities. The danger is that, without accurate information, people may get it wrong. If you hear of a man with a Gaelic-sounding name, you may assume him to be a Catholic when he is not. If you hear a man has been shot dead in Andersonstown, you may assume he is a Catholic even though one or two per cent living there are Protestants. If two men are shot dead in a well-known Catholic pub, then who are they, who shot them, and why? The possibilities and the anxieties are endless if no details are given. So, in seeking to describe such stories, the victim's background must be given and, in Northern Ireland, invariably this involves his religion. What the reporter does need from the security forces, if he is to be sure the label is relevant, is an indication of the likely motive in each case. Again, it comes down to the public's right to know the truth, however worrying that may be.

There has been no more awful piece of news to convey recently than that of the cold-blooded murder of 10 Protestants in South Armagh on their way home in a mini-bus in January last year. That evening the MP for the area was in my office in Broadcasting House, Belfast, when the telephone rang. People in the constituency, knowing him to be there, rang him with the news, even before our newsroom received it. There was much rumour in the area, and according to local information the number dead varied considerably. But there was no doubt from their place of work or their destination that they were all Protestants. That news was put out as soon as the information could be verified with the police, and like few events in the province stunned the public. Despite fears that there would be retaliation, there were no serious incidents in South Armagh for the next 10 days. Perhaps this suggests that such traumatic news can have a cauterizing effect. But it is also worth noting that, three days later, it was announced officially that the SAS were to operate in the area. Local politicians reckon that this knowledge may have quenched the determination of some Loyalist paramilitaries to take the law into their own hands to exact revenge. On that occasion public knowledge almost certainly saved lives.

So the experience of broadcasting in Northern Ireland, for all the threats to society and to human life, suggests that the practice of free speech within a well-tested framework of responsibility is the best, if not the easiest, way to cover extraordinary circumstances. I believe we have a contribution to make to the maintenance of democracy, both by providing a forum where harsh differences of opinion can be aired and by reporting and courageously investigating the unpalatable truths which underlie the problems in our midst. I am sure that if and when the communities of Northern Ireland reconcile their conflicts it will be by understanding them rather than by ignoring them, and I would like to think that amongst those who will have contributed most to that understanding the broadcasters, and the BBC in particular, will have played their part.

Published by the British Broadcasting Corporation,
35 Marleybone High Street, London WIM 4AA and printed in England by
Heffers Printers Ltd, Cambridge.

ISBN 0 563 17292 4

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