Learning Lessons

Richard Ayre began his journalistic career with BBCNI. He went on to hold a number of senior posts in Network News before becoming Controller Editorial Policy. He has a unique understanding of the difficulties that have been involved for newsgathering in Northern Ireland.

I was sitting with Maire Drumm in her West Belfast semi, drinking Nescafe. It was 1976 and the Vice President of Sinn Fein, who had promised to send British soldiers home in their coffins, was on an NHS waiting list. Her eyesight was failing, but her problems were not just physical. She could see no end to the Troubles and told me that all she really wanted was to get out of the North, go down to Galway or Kerry, live a quiet life and find time to read some poetry. Three days later she went into hospital but never came out. The operation was a success but the patient died - shot at point blank range in her bed in the Mater Hospital.

Maire Drumm left a lasting impression on me. She was astute and quick-witted; she was a visceral Republican but much more pragmatic than her public utterances suggested; and she would have been a critical player in Northern Ireland's future - if she had lived. How much more so her successor, Gerry Adams - a man always hard to fathom, never saying an unguarded word, but even in those days calculating, always calculating.

But, working in the BBC of the mid 70s, there was enormous pressure on us not to talk to people like this and certainly not to interview them. The British public, and the Ulster public in particular, were thought too vulnerable, too volatile, to be allowed to hear, even to hear challenged, the ideas and ideologies of the very people whose supporters were bringing the country to the brink of civil war.

The fact that we did go on reporting the views of Sinn Fein - and of the 'political' representatives of Loyalist paramilitaries like the UDA and the UVF - was largely thanks to the determination of one journalist. Robin Walsh was young, driven, driving, and rigorously non-partisan: he took command of the Belfast newsroom in 1973 and shook it to its foundations. He had little or no interest in the traditional stuff of regional TV news - chit-chat, features cut to music, heart-warming tales of local do-goodery. Walsh was interested in forensically dissecting the sectarian politics that were driving his country to self-destruct. The nightly TV news programme, Scene Around Six, became compulsive viewing for the beleaguered people of Northern Ireland and Walsh's office became a regular watering-hole (literally, in the case of Ian Paisley) for every politician, prelate and proto-paramilitary in the Province. As a young journalist, it seemed to me that this exposure to the realities of raw Irish argument served the people of Ireland, North and South, well - though it was rarely comfortable, sometimes deeply disturbing, and regularly dispiriting.

The Troubles, as they developed in the Seventies, called for new disciplines, new rigour, sustained courage. They also called for a lot of new rules - or, to be more precise, a lot of new rules grew out of the lessons learned by BBC journalists as they tried to steer a straight course through very turbulent times.

First there were rules about sources. If you tell the audience that a bomb has gone off in the next town you had better be right. Then there were rules about rumours - the need not to propagate them but to dispel them rapidly with accurate information. There were rules about anonymity; some of the best testimony came from people who could never be identified but anonymity can also be an easy way of spreading lies.

We had rules about bomb warnings and different rules about hoaxes. And there were rules about language - a growing realisation that words like 'terrorism', 'volunteer,' 'execution' carried different meanings for different people and using them almost always looked like taking sides.

Depicting violence - what to show and what not to show - became a critical daily judgement. Show too little and you sanitise, you censor. Show too much and you risk doing the work of the terrorist for him. (In 1972 BBC Northern Ireland took one of the most courageous journalistic decisions of the Troubles, showing ambulancemen in Oxford Street on Bloody Friday shovelling chunks of corpses and their entrails into plastic bags.)

There were rules about balance, of course. When do you talk to one party, or two, or three, or to all of them at once? Whether, when and how to talk to the paramilitaries was a bigger conundrum still. It often outraged governments, sometimes angered audiences, but it served to expose to the world the ignorance, the prejudice and the passions that were tearing Ulster society apart.

Wind the clock forward a decade and more. The IRA remained a murderously potent and pitiless force. Eleven people died in 1987 when the Provos bombed a Remembrance Day service at Enniskillen - 'a blot on mankind' Mrs Thatcher called it and few could disagree. The following summer more than two dozen soldiers died in bombings at Lisburn, at Ballygawley and at Deal in Kent. The British military could offer no solution that they had not already tried in the previous twenty years and found wanting. Then someone, somewhere, came up with a brainwave. If the Government couldn't stop the IRA they could at least stop them talking.

So, without so much as a debate in Parliament, in 1988 the Home Secretary Douglas Hurd banned Sinn Feiners from the airwaves. For some of the British press it seemed Christmas had come - a blow against both the IRA and the BBC was too good to be true. And of course it was. The Broadcasting Ban did nothing to curb Republican violence: the IRA went on killing around fifty people each year, as it had done from the start of the 1980s. But Britain's worldwide reputation as a bastion of freedom of speech was in tatters. Every despotic government from Tripoli to Pyongyang cited Britain as its template for suppressing political opposition.

The BBC and other broadcasters were reduced to paraphrasing or subtitling the words of every paramilitary and anyone who spoke in support of them. That meant that, each time there was a new atrocity, these people could not even be held publicly to account for it. Audiences could no longer hear their evasions, their equivocations.

The Belfast newsroom did its best to go on interrogating Sinn Fein spokesmen in the same way as before, subtitling all their contributions. In reality the pressures of time, the ponderous pace of subtitling technology, and the audience's low tolerance for captioning - all combined to limit the exposure of both Loyalists and Republicans to the airwaves. The killings went on and while the people were denied the authentic voice of Sinn Fein, the British Government started secret talks with them.

In 1993 I took on a new role in London in charge of the BBC's editorial policies - a job with little power but a deal of influence. I read and re-read the Government's regulations to look for a way out - and found one. It was the actual voices that were banned - not what they said nor how they said it. So we decided to stop subtitling and use instead a sound-alike to catch not just the words spoken, but how they were spoken - every pause, stammer, double-take or bluster. Thus the Actor's Voice was born, and for the next year voice-overs became big business for the thespians of Northern Ireland. We even managed a 'live' discussion programme with most of the parties in one studio, Adams in another, and an actor doing simultaneous non-translation as he spoke. In a matter of weeks the other news broadcasters started to follow suit and the Government's regulations were clearly shown for what they were - ridiculous as well as anti-democratic.

The following year the ban was lifted. A shameful episode of state censorship was over, the actors sought more traditional employment, and Adams and Sinn Fein resumed their slow journey into democratic politics.

Richard Ayre

Richard Ayre ©BBC

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Maire Drumm

Maire Drumm ©BBC

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Belfast Newsroom in the 1970s

Belfast Newsroom in the 1970s ©BBC

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