Current Edition

Who says the BBC doesn’t take sides?

Current edition, Volume Number 35 Number 2 June 2024

The so-called “troubles” in Northern Ireland never go away, you know. Shelves of books continue to be published. There is a sizeable stand at WHSmith in Belfast airport dedicated to the latest crop. Film-makers are still drawn to the subject. One of the most recent, Baltimore, related (poorly) the story of the 1974 theft of priceless paintings orchestrated on behalf of the IRA by Rose Dugdale. And television programme-makers often return to the conflict. At each end of March 2024, for example, the BBC screened two very different documentaries that dealt with its earliest phase. The first was a 13-minute segment in the third part of a series, How the BBC Began. The second, The Secret Army, was a 90-minute film about a film, concerning a “disappeared” documentary about the IRA made in 1972 by an American academic.

It would have been of far greater value if the interrogation of the BBC’s role in Northern Ireland had been given a solo 90-minute slot. As for the second, well, let’s just say half an hour would have been long enough. But both, in their very different ways, reminded us that truth is always a moving target. While retelling a history we know well – or think we know well – they underlined the overwhelming importance of propaganda. In war, and let’s not haggle over that description of what took place for 30 years on the streets of Belfast and Derry, the fabrication assumes as great a role, arguably a greater one, than the reality. As three of the BBC’s former luminary staff made abundantly clear, the story they were required to tell did not come close to fulfilling the stated aim of Britain’s public service broadcaster to present impartial information to its listeners and viewers. Each of them admitted they were prevented from telling what they knew to be the truth.

For the record, here’s what they said. First up, Sir Paul Fox, controller of BBC1 for six years from 1967: “In a way, it was as difficult to film in Northern Ireland as it was to film in the Soviet Union … stuff was censored, there’s no question about it, by the hierarchy in Northern Ireland. I suppose it’s worth saying there were bloody Protestants who were running the BBC in those days and had a grip on it … everything that was filmed by Tonight and Panorama in Northern Ireland had to be seen by the head of programmes in Northern Ireland, and he would act as a censor… There were no Catholics working in the BBC in senior positions. Outrageous.”

Second, Denis Tuohy, who learned on joining BBC Belfast in 1960 that he was the first Catholic to work in the newsroom, because a local paper greeted his recruitment with the headline: “At last, an appointment from the outside.” He said: “Those who ran the BBC in Northern Ireland and the unionist government of Northern Ireland … had lots of mutual friends.” Eight years later, by now working in London, Tuohy’s editor thought him the perfect reporter to send to Belfast to cover the outbreak of riots “to help us to understand” what was happening. But the editor was overruled, explaining to Tuohy: “BBC Northern Ireland have protested at the highest level of the BBC in London to you as the reporter… They feel you would be too close to the story.” Too off-message, more like.

The man in the white suit who was “kind of impartial”

Third, Martin Bell, sent from London to report during the earliest days of the troubles: “I hardly knew the difference between Belfast and Dublin. I’ve never admitted this before, but it is true… I learned very quickly the sort of thing you had to learn… the BBC’s controller in Northern Ireland was breathing over your shoulder all the time… BBC cameras and reporters were attacked by the loyalists because we were not the voice of loyalism, because we were kind of impartial and even-handed, even then, and we were giving a voice to their republican rivals, so I got harassed quite a bit.”

Kind of impartial? Even that was too much for the then-unionist government in Stormont. But, with the greatest of respect to Mr Bell, to refer to the BBC’s coverage of the conflict that raged from 1968 until 1998 as “kind of impartial” is entirely to miss the point. Aside from suggesting that truth is some kind of spectrum, it was wholly incorrect. Not kind of impartial, but very partial indeed. Partial and, in some instances, wholly untruthful. What is now evident, and should have been evident at the time, was the willingness of the BBC, which habitually asserted its independence from the state, to do the state’s bidding. Yet this is not, any longer, a controversial viewpoint. It is mainstream. It is accepted as fact. Note the lack of any reaction by the current BBC hierarchy, by politicians, or by commentators, to those statements by Fox, Tuohy and Bell. They provoked no denials. Nothing we haven’t known for years. That was then, and this is now. Move on.

But shaking our heads and lamenting what some would like to pass off as a historical aberration is just not good enough. The BBC’s news and current affairs output failed every possible test of impartiality. The fact that its censorship has long been recognised does not negate the significance of what happened. Nor should it be allowed to pass into some kind of historical limbo. Each additional revelation of the BBC’s faults during that conflict requires examination and explanation. As Fox rightly indicated, pro-unionist prejudice was embedded within the BBC from its inception. The Belfast-based controllers, all of them drawn from a unionist background and supportive of the Stormont government, were allowed to do as they wished by the corporation’s London headquarters. None more so than Waldo Maguire, controller from 1966 to 1972, who suppressed anything he considered inflammatory, meaning, of course, anything that offered even an inkling of the truth. What he achieved and, through him, the wider BBC, was a bias against understanding.

For example, the framing of civil rights protests in 1969 as some kind of stalking horse for the IRA was a crucial deception, playing on the fears of unionists within Northern Ireland while creating among its audience in Britain a bogeyman enemy which, at the time, did not exist as a fighting force. As Bell recalled, reality was camouflaged. When Catholics were burned out of their homes, he was told: “You’re not allowed to call them Catholics. You have to call them refugees.”

These contributions to a false narrative were also charted, along with several others, in a fascinating and meticulous 2015 study by Robert Savage, The BBC’s ‘Irish troubles’: Television, conflict and Northern Ireland. As he related, matters grew infinitely worse for the BBC once British soldiers were deployed on the streets in August 1969. Their arrival engendered the founding, some four months later, of the Provisional IRA and, suddenly, the shadow enemy assumed factual existence. From this point on, the battles on the streets were echoed by battles behind the scenes for media influence.

Despite Maguire’s malign influence, some BBC reporters refused to toe the line. John Bierman, for instance, broadcast a network news item in February 1971 in which he said: “There are growing doubts about the army’s impartiality among moderate middle-class Catholics desperately anxious to hold their co-religionists back from extremism.”

This report enraged the authorities, in Stormont and in Westminster. It also prompted the British army and Britain’s secret services to get their act together. Seen in retrospect, one of the most remarkable aspects of their response was its speed and sophistication. Informed by counter-insurgency experience elsewhere in Britain’s empire, notably by that of General Sir Frank Kitson, it was understood that censorship was no longer good enough; it must be replaced by its more proactive cousin, propaganda. Far and away its greatest success was to institute what became the conflict’s most persuasive overarching media narrative, the portrayal of the army as the disinterested piggy in the middle between two warring tribes.

Maguire becomes the Godfather of news output

It was eagerly adopted by the “neutral” BBC. But there was no tribal equality. There was never any doubt that one tribe – variously described as Catholic, nationalist or republican – was the state’s main enemy. To hammer home the point, lest the BBC’s journalists stray, various pressures were applied, overt and covert, to reinforce the message. When internment was introduced in August 1971, government ministers openly warned the BBC to beware “bias”. The defence secretary, Lord Carrington, wrote to the corporation’s chairman, Lord Hill, to complain about reports “which are unfairly loaded to suggest improper behaviour by British troops”. The post and telegraphs minister, Christopher Chataway, then made a speech in which he said broadcasters need no longer strike an even balance between the unionist government and the IRA, nor between the army and the IRA. Lord Hill took the hint, writing to the home secretary, Reginald Maudling, to affirm that “as between the British Army and the gunmen the BBC is not and cannot be impartial”. These exchanges had the effect of reinforcing Maguire’s hand, cementing his power over all output relating to Northern Ireland. He forbade reporters from interviewing released internees who alleged army brutality and prevented the screening of an interview with the civil rights leader Michael Farrell on his release. He also overruled the making of an “in depth” programme about the IRA.

Although these decisions were not made public at the time, BBC journalists were aware of them. What they did not know was the army’s decision, in the wake of public hostility to internment, to engage in a covert media war through the formation of its notorious information policy unit. The single aim of this khaki public relations initiative was to disseminate misinformation (aka lies). Working closely with the secret services, notably MI5, and often with the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), it developed into an agency of deceit. Years passed before reporters realised they could not trust its briefings. Again, this is now well known, a matter of record, and it is therefore tempting to pass it off as a deviation from the norm, the result of the requirement to deal with exceptional circumstances. No need, all these years on, to rake over old coals. Nothing new can be found in those embers. Wrong, so wrong.

By December 1971, disinformation was the order of the day for the army, and one of its central themes was the denigration of the Provisional IRA. Their operatives were to be portrayed as cowards and/or psychopaths who bombed indiscriminately without a care for the local population. One of that policy’s most contentious manifestations followed the bombing that month of a Belfast pub favoured by Catholics, McGurk’s Bar. It was one of Northern Ireland’s deadliest atrocities, killing 15 Catholics, including two children, and wounding 17 more.

Immediately afterwards, British security forces briefed journalists about the bomb having exploded inside the pub. Unnamed “forensic experts” were cited as having “pinpointed” the centre of the blast with “a tell-tale crater” in the main bar area. It was further hinted that the pub was a regular meeting place for members of the Provisional IRA. These falsehoods suggested that the bomb was an IRA device, a scenario enthusiastically endorsed by none other than Kitson, the commander of 39 Infantry Brigade. He noted in his log that the RUC had “a line that the bomb” was “left in the pub to be picked up by the Provisional IRA. Bomb went off and was a mistake”.

Yet a British army technical officer had already reported to his superiors that it was the pub’s entrance that was cratered and was, therefore, “the seat of the explosion”. This dovetailed with the account of a witness, an eight-year-old boy, who told of seeing men drive up and place a package at the pub’s doorway. This statement was subsequently supported by the confession of the only man prosecuted for the crime (in 1977, loyalist Robert Campbell of the UVF was sentenced to life imprisonment, eventually serving 15 years). But it was the lie that gained media traction, especially at the BBC’s “prestigious” current affairs programme Panorama. Weeks after the event, it reported that “an IRA bomb” was responsible for the massacre.

So far, so bad. A tone had been set. In subsequent years, there was a reliance on unattributed briefings and a belief in their veracity. In the BBC’s news report in January 1972 about Bloody Sunday in Derry, in which 14 people were killed by the Paratroop Regiment, one sentence was particularly notable: “The gun battle lasted about 25 minutes.” That lie – there was no battle – was finally laid to rest 38 years later by Lord Savile’s inquiry. It was, however, just one of so many examples where the security forces’ version of events was too readily accepted.

As if the external political pressure, internal constraints and the army’s information policy unit were not enough to keep the BBC in check, it has become apparent that there was another undeclared level of contact between the corporation and the state. Pioneering research into the BBC archives by Belfast-based Ciarán MacAirt, founder of the Paper Trail charity and grandson to two McGurk’s Bar victims, has revealed a fascinating link between a secret section of the Foreign Office, the Information Research Department (IRD), and a well-placed BBC executive. The contact is clear from a letter sent by the IRD’s Josephine O’Connor Howe to John Cecil Crawley, chief assistant to the then-BBC director-general, Sir Charles Curran.

BBC discounted evidence from eyewitnesses to bombing

She offered Crawley “a background paper” on the IRA, adding that “as usual it is sent for your personal background and is not for attribution”. That letter, dated December 6, 1971, was delivered on the day the BBC in Belfast interviewed two witnesses to the McGurk’s Bar explosion, both of whom offered evidence diametrically opposed to the army’s “official version”, evidence that the BBC discounted. Crawley, in thanking O’Connor Howe for the “very interesting” paper, confirmed that he had sent it on to Desmond Taylor, editor of news and current affairs. Taylor had inherited the job weeks before from Crawley, who headed the news department for four years after spending 26 years as a BBC correspondent and editor.

MacAirt has unearthed other files that show IRD contact with BBC managers and journalists. One file of “ad hoc” BBC contacts was compiled by Norman Reddaway, whose 1970 Foreign Office title as “assistant undersecretary for information and cultural affairs” tended to conceal his real role as, to quote his obituary, “an expert in the field of intelligence and counterpropaganda”. It was also the case that the London-based IRD was closely allied to the army’s Belfast-based information policy unit. At least one of its operatives, Hugh Mooney, was a former journalist for the Irish Times and Reuters, who worked for both. The interpenetration of journalists with the secret services is hardly a new revelation, of course, but each new discovery raises important questions.

Nor must we forget that there is a human element to all this obfuscation and secrecy. MacAirt’s grandmother, Kitty Irvine, died in the McGurk’s blast, and his grandfather John, who served in an Irish regiment of the British army, was badly injured. MacAirt is one of the many bereaved who have been campaigning for a generation to expose the truth and to obtain official acknowledgement of what he calls “the casual criminalisation of our loved ones”. They are also seeking an apology from all concerned, including the BBC. The struggle has involved lengthy and expensive court actions. It has also shown up the BBC in a continuing poor light. In December 2021, the BBC failed to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing. When reminded of the omission, an online news report was belatedly published. The painstaking research into this incident alone justifies further investigation into the relationship between the BBC and the secret services of the state. There are plenty of similar cases that demand attention too

Roy Greenslade

Roy Greenslade is an author and freelance journalist. He edited the Daily Mirror and was a professor of journalism. He is a member of the BJR editorial board, and is a member of Sinn Féin.

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