Following recent events in Ireland, Rosa Gilbert finds British journalism struggling with ‘legacy issues’ of its own.
Martin McGuinness’ death on 21st March gave a number of commentators in the British press the opportunity to drop the niceties and decorum that some of us had expected of them since the peace process led him to the office of Deputy First Minister.
Noman Tebbit enjoyed describing how he should burn in hell while article after article described him (without scarequotes) as a terrorist and murderer. Just a week later a British soldier called Alexander Blackman had his sentence reduced from murder to manslaughter after a huge public campaign backed publicly by the Daily Mail who raised almost a million pounds for his legal case. Despite being caught on video shooting an injured, unarmed combatant in Afghanistan, knowingly breaking the Geneva Convention, the British press never referred to Blackman as a war criminal or murderer – even though he had originally been convicted of murder.
By way of expanding on this theme, this article is a brief and preliminary attempt to expose how and why the British press works hand in hand with promoting the British war machine and its colonial nostalgia.
Where other institutions have attempted to deal with the past in Northern Ireland, the attitudes of British journalists remain stubbornly placed in the past. Despite insufficiencies and fragility that have emerged most visibly in the last few years, the Belfast Agreement of 1998, marking the end of the conflict known as ‘the Troubles’, included all the constitutional elements in Britain and Ireland necessary to bring a cessation to hostilities. It also attempted to provide for an impressively large number of eventualities relating to security and policing, justice, democratic institutions. However, the institutions established to deal with the ‘legacy’ of the conflict in Northern Ireland have been on the whole inadequate. The Historical Enquiries Team which was set up in 2005 to review the cases of unsolved murder committed during the Troubles faced criticism from the independent police inspectorate in 2013 for not investigating deaths caused by the police or military with sufficient rigour. Unsurprisingly this was largely down to the fact that members of the investigations team were drawn from RUC personnel, many of whom retired after its reorganisation as the Police Service of Northern Ireland under the 2000 Police Act. The Legacy Support Unit which was tasked with providing documents to the coroner’s office – who, in lieu of judicial reviews and inquiries, were carrying out inquests into murders committed decades ago – was similarly staffed by ex-RUC Special Branch members.
Thanks largely to cuts to the policing budget of 7% in 2014, the HET which, despite its partiality and inadequacies, had revealed crucial information about a number of incidents that had initially been hidden by the RUC, was dissolved and responsibility for its caseload transferred to the much smaller Legacy Investigations Branch of the PSNI. And so the one imperfect but functional method of providing families with information about what happened to their loved ones, a vital element of the reconciliation plank of the Belfast Agreement, ground to a halt. Amongst other issues such as the DUP’s refusal to allow an Irish Language Act, the provision of which was agreed upon in the Belfast Agreement, the lack of progress with legacy investigations has been one of the major stalling points of the current negotiations between the political parties in Northern Ireland. Undoubtedly it will prove to be a sticking point between the new and completely unprecedented Catholic/nationalist majority in Stormont and Theresa May’s Brexit plans – the Historical Enquiry Team, along with the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, had been established following a series of landmark judgments by the European Court of Human Rights (McKerr group v UK). These judgments showed that the UK government had violated its obligations under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights (right to life) by a) not investigating adequately the lethal use of force by State agents in a number of cases, b) not implementing certain judgments in Northern Ireland that were implemented in the rest of the UK.
But if you were absorbing the British print and broadcast media in recent weeks, you might be forgiven for not appreciating this startling problem for the devolved assembly and executive in Northern Ireland in their attempt to continue power-sharing rule under the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and British crown. When British politicians and the press bother to alert themselves to the continued existence of Northern Ireland, they concern themselves with two themes: the issue of the border, and the now decades-long moral panic that the second largest party in the province has been run by erstwhile senior paramilitaries. The death of Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness, who served as their Deputy First Minister for the last ten years and was instrumental in bringing the Provisional IRA towards ceasefire and decommissioning, has provided a new generation with an insight into the absolute poverty of the British media in its reporting on Irish matters.
To prove how little the demographics of Fleet Street journalists has changed over the decades, the same, sensationalised language of the 1970s and particularly the 1980s has resurfaced, the perpetuation of which is vital for the perversion of the historical record that keeps the cogs in the media outrage machine turning – if the Provisional IRA can be written off as terrorists, godfathers and murderers, there is no need to understand how and why thousands of young Irish men and women joined an armed insurrectionary movement in a period of otherwise relative peace in Britain and Ireland. Whilst the Belfast Agreement demanded the reconciliation between the main political actors in Northern Ireland, and former IRA volunteers rather remarkably made peace with ex-loyalists, police officers, soldiers and prison guards, there has been no similar reconciliation between the British media and ex-combatants. Republicans especially feel aggrieved over the reporting of the conflict, and from reading the reaction to McGuinness’ death it’s easy to see how.
It wasn’t simply that print and broadcast media was partisan or treated republicans unfairly, it was an instrumental figure in the interpretation and trajectory of the conflict. From early in the 1970s, the RUC and British Army had a co-ordinated media policy overseen by the Information Policy Co-ordinating Committee based in Stormont Castle, and the British media consumed and regurgitated their output uncritically. One example of how this operated is the tragic incidence of the McGurk’s bar bomb in Belfast in December 1971, Belfast’s deadliest attack during the Troubles. The day after the attack, the BBC was quoting senior RUC sources who stated that forensic scientists believed the bomb had exploded inside the building; the Times repeated it the following day and called it an IRA bomb, and the day after that the Defence Secretary repeated it in the House of Commons. The narrative was set – those inside the pub had died, but as they were handling or protecting explosives, were they really innocent? In fact the police were lying, and the army media unit knew this. The forensic evidence and an eyewitness account proved that the bomb was left outside the pub – indeed, the car that dropped off the bomb was allowed to drive around the most securitised part of Belfast with no trouble. A loyalist sectarian attack was passed off as an IRA “own goal” by the RUC with help from the press, validating the security policy of pursuing and interning republicans instead of loyalists. By uncritically echoing the propaganda pushed by the RUC and British Army, the British media was culpable in smearing innocent victims as terrorists, and allowing their loyalist murderers and the police who colluded in the cover-up – and probably the deed itself – to get away with it. At the same time, they participated in the minimisation of Irish Catholic grievances as well as the vilification of the republican struggle.
There are some notable exceptions to this; the Times Insight team did significant work in lending their audience to the claims of “ill-treatment” in detention centres which we now know amounted to torture (although in the 1980s they misreported on the 1988 Gibraltar killings and helped to smear the key eyewitness). However, exposure of these claims, whilst meritable, can only go so far within the framework of British media reporting on the Troubles. As long as Irish Catholics were seen as a suspect community, and any republican as fair game, it was unlikely that British popular opinion would be adverse to them being subject to what was euphemistically called “slap and tickle”.
Whilst Bloody Sunday has rightly received attention in Britain, largely thanks to the Saville Inquiry’s vindication of the innocence of the victims, the Ballymurphy Massacre just five months earlier is not so well known. As Operation Demetrius – the arrest of the first round of internees – got underway on 9 August 1971, an enclave of West Belfast, besieged by the 1 Para British Army unit conducting arrest swoops, was the site of local protests against the siege, followed by the execution by paratroopers of ten unarmed civilians over the course of 36 hours (another died later after suffering a heart attack). The Daily Mirror’s report of this event from August 12 described the massacre as “IRA ‘suicide attacks’”; two days later it repeated the security forces claim that they have “virtually defeated the hard core of IRA terrorist gunmen” since the start of Operation Demetrius. Most of those arrested in that first swoop weren’t IRA members, let alone “gunmen”; one of those murdered in Ballymurphy was a priest who had been shot twice whilst administering the last rites, one man was shot 14 times in the back.
The passing of Martin McGuinness has seen adult journalists and commentators screeching all manner of hyperbolic claims and holding him solely responsible for IRA attacks on mainland Britain. Of course these are chosen for the maximum impact on the British public rather than an accurate insight into the functioning of the Provisional IRA, beyond the fact that McGuinness never denied his IRA membership nor condemned its acts. And yet, the epithet of “ex-terrorist” has helped to define the more wearying trope of the reportage. The more liberal-minded, particularly those like Alastair Campbell and Tony Blair, who have a vested interest in buffing up their role in the peace negotiations, emphasised this aspect of McGuinness’ personality as a former baddie turned good through his engagement with British politicians – all that was needed was a bit of compromise and reason, and the gunmen would down their weapons. McGuinness went on a “journey”; he “turned” towards politics; Theresa May separated the “earlier part of his life” to his recent years; journalists contrasted the Provisional IRA lethal attack on Lord Mountbatten in 1979 (whilst McGuinness is said to have been IRA Chief of Staff) against McGuinness’ 2012 handshake with the Queen.
The problem with this narrative is that it allows selective grief – we can mourn for the peacemaker whilst still despising the IRA man – without accounting for the subtleties and inherent contradictions that can be garnered from engaging with the historical record of the conflict in Northern Ireland.
This approach towards the republican movement does two crucial things. Firstly, it ignores the very early adoption of political strategies and participation in negotiations. During the 1972 IRA negotiations with the British Northern Ireland Secretary Willie Whitelaw, McGuinness participated as a senior figure. According to the Daily Telegraph in September 1972, attempts to ‘end the campaign of terror have been supported by the Provisionals’ Londonderry Brigade. The Londonderry Provisional leader [McGuinness], in hiding in Buncrana is strongly opposed to Mac Stiofain’s fanatical commitment to uniting the 32 counties by “victory through violence”.’ Secondly, it presents the earlier McGuinness – the violent murderer, the terrorist – in a way which distorts the chronology of the causes and outbreak of violence. To paraphrase Gerry Adams, unlike ‘Marine A’ Alexander Blackman, Martin McGuinness didn’t go to war, the war came to him. But focusing on Irish Catholics’ experience of the police and British Army in Belfast and Derry in the late 1960s would run the risk of assuaging the public of the notion that the British state was more than a neutral arbiter intent on making peace.
In 1982 when McGuinness & Adams had assumed the leadership roles of the republican movement and were pursuing the so-called “armalite and ballot box” approach, the pair, along with Danny Morrison, were banned from Britain under the 1974 Prevention of Terrorism Act, having been invited to London by GLC leader Ken Livingstone who to his credit defied his party leader Michael Foot to do so. As Home Secretary, it was Willie Whitelaw, one of the negotiators during McGuinness’ trip to London in 1972, who had the responsibility of signing the exclusion orders. This was done upon the advice of Kenneth Newman, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police and former RUC Chief Constable. Three years later the government intervened to halt the screening of a BBC film ‘At the Edge of the Union’ because of its part focus on Martin McGuinness. The Daily Mail was not at all alarmed about censorship of the press. In an article titled ‘How the IRA must love this BBC hypocrisy!’, the tabloid asked “what, one wonders, would the last war have been like if the sort of people who run British broadcasting had been manning the airwaves then? Would Hitler and Himmler have been interviewed on the grounds that it was important to ‘understand the issues’? The parallel is not so absurd. The IRA is at war as surely as Hitler was.” The Soviet news network was slightly more alarmed by this state intervention, recognising that the row over this censorship showed that the BBC was under the government’s [editorial] control.
Whitelaw’s hypocrisy was repeated by Douglas Hurd a few years later in 1988 when, after succeeding Whitelaw as Home Secretary, he announced the broadcast ban which stopped television and radio companies carrying interviews or direct statements from proscribed paramilitary groups, but also from representatives of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin (who had recently split from Sinn Féin) or the UDA, and anyone who supported or promoted these organisations. Ten years earlier, in February 1978, Hurd had met Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison in West Belfast for a BBC programme called Spotlight. A week later, Adams was arrested and charged with IRA membership. A few months earlier, in December 1977, the Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Airey Neave had stated in the House of Commons whilst it moved to renew the Emergency Provisions legislation that the “terrorists” were “not glorious Republicans but bloody murderers”. Neave wanted something done about the “godfathers” who were still at large, in particular Martin McGuinness who he complained was “still around”.
The Thatcher government’s broadcast ban was not unprecedented. The 1922 Emergency Provisions (Special Powers) Act allowed the Minister of Home Affairs in Northern Ireland to ban papers, films, books. But as studies of the BBC and Northern Irish media have illustrated, there were soft forms of self-censorship within media organisations which reduced the need for external, state censorship. Some of the programmes censored by the BBC Director General included those on topics such as the Stalker/Sampson ‘shoot-to-kill’ incidents and following cover-up, and the Birmingham Six judgment. For consecutive ministers, relying on internal checks wasn’t enough in the clamour for more firm control of the press output. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Roy Mason wanted a three-month blackout on reporting of terrorist activity, even – remarkably – if he were to be assassinated by the IRA. However, once Sinn Féin became an increasingly popular electoral force during and after the 1981 hunger strikes, there was a clear need to deal with the political respectability with which Sinn Féin were able to promote themselves. During the 1980s the reliance on self-censorship became insufficient and Douglas Hurd turned from making BBC programmes about Sinn Féin to legislating them.
Before he passed away, McGuinness resigned his position as Deputy First Minister, clearly in ill-health. This prompted a great number of tributes and praise of his career from Sinn Féin supporters, an image circulated of him wearing a wide-brimmed hat and three-piece suit imposed on top of the famous depictions of the leaders of the 1916 rising. Photos circulated of McGuinness with Nelson Mandela. The parallels with the icon of the South African anti-apartheid resistance and its post-Apartheid peace and reconciliation is a recurring theme of Irish republicanism, based on similarities in state repression (emergency laws, curfew, police massacres), the resistance (civil rights, armed struggle and international solidarity) and in the attempts to transition to post-conflict society. This comparison between McGuinness and Mandela has infuriated the Daily Mail who published an article after his death with the title “The Irish Mandela? You must be mad! The day his mask slipped and I saw McGuinness the monster” – the mask slipping turned out to reveal that McGuinness had sworn to some British soldiers trying to search his car.
The tabloid press’ collective amnesia over figures like Mandela serves a purpose and we would do well to remind ourselves of Lenin’s description of this tendency in the opening paragraph to State and Revolution, but it wasn’t long ago that British aristocratic lawmakers were condemning McGuinness and Mandela as of the same ilk. After detailing his despair at the apparent travesty of independent, post-colonial African states during a debate in the House of Lords in November 1985, Lord Burton went on to extol the virtues of apartheid South Africa, in particular defending the regime’s press censorship: “Is there anything wrong in gagging the voices of a lot of terrorists? Her husband [Mandela] could have been out of jail now had he renounced violence. Our own Government was quite rightly unhappy about the BBC film on that violent man Martin McGuinness, who was portrayed as a nice comfortable family man playing with his children on the sands of the seashore. Why should the BBC be the voice of the IRA or the ANC?”
Indeed, the commenters on the Daily Mail website at least were consistent in their criticism of the headline which they were furious with for sanctifying Mandela. In 1961 Mandela formed the armed wing of the ANC – Umkhonto we Sizwe (The Spear of the Nation) also known as MK – later recalling that he had come to the conclusion that “it would be wrong and unrealistic for African leaders to continue preaching peace and non-violence at a time when the government met our demands with force”. According to testimony and historical research, Mandela was a senior member of the SACP and part of a small group that prepared the ground for the move from a policy of non-violence to armed struggle on behalf of the SACP, whilst the MK remained formally separate from the ANC despite the crossover in membership of the armed and nonviolent wings. Without being overly simplistic, there is a striking resemblance in the roles played by Mandela and McGuinness in arguing for a competent guerrilla warfare strategy against the violent repression of the hitherto peaceful civil rights campaigns.
But there is a more urgent consequence to this depiction of McGuinness et al that goes beyond mere infidelity to the historical record. As long as both these portrayals – reformed terrorist or unrepentant murderer – of characters like McGuinness or Adams remain, both the Westminster government and the unionists in Stormont are repeatedly forgiven for not taking the legacy commitments outlined in the Belfast Agreement seriously enough to be implemented. Both portrayals position the republican armed struggle as needlessly violent and without cause, rhyme or reason. It helps to perpetuate the justification of British military and loyalist violence in Northern Ireland, and continues to condemn the victims of state violence. Whilst Sinn Féin have been rightly criticised for their political judgment in recent years, the reaction in the press to McGuinness’ death has shown the ignorance of Northern Ireland’s past, present and future.