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Your readers or your principles?

Volume 34 Number 2 June 2023

Initial British media reaction to the government’s “solution” to the Northern Ireland protocol in February was nothing short of ecstatic. It was hailed by newspapers and by news broadcasters as an unparalleled triumph. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was congratulated for his “Brexit breakthrough” (The Times), his “big step towards a final Brexit accord” (Daily Mail), and his “landmark” agreement (Daily Express). He “smashed it”, said The Sun. The non-Tory press was dazzled too. According to The Guardian’s political editor, Sunak “appears to have pulled off the impossible”. In cheering the premier’s “historic” trade deal, The Independent took the opportunity to taunt Boris Johnson: “Look who finally got Brexit done.” The Daily Mirror, also taking a swipe at Johnson, was convinced that Sunak had, by contrast with his predecessor, “brokered a better Northern Ireland deal”.

Even The Daily Telegraph, representative of the diehard Tory right and ever the sceptic about any dealings with the European Union, thought Sunak had “played a difficult hand well”, adding that “it was arguably his best day yet as prime minister”. Broadcasting correspondents, as partially impartial as usual, joined the exultant throng. It was top of the schedule in news bulletins on TV and radio, thus imbuing the story with huge significance. Across the media, Sunak was cast as a modern-day Moses, having descended from Mount Sinai – more prosaically, Brussels – bearing tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments. The Windsor Framework, as it was instantly dubbed, might not have quite the significance of those biblical principles, but The Times led the pro-government chorus in calling it “a remarkable political achievement”.

Such unanimity by supposedly independent, competitive, and politically diverse media outlets is so rare that it set me thinking back to a previous occasion when a Northern Ireland initiative was greeted in similar fashion. It was, of course, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998. Then, it was prime minister Tony Blair who was praised to the skies for forging a deal that was designed to achieve lasting peace – successfully, as it transpired – after 28 years of bloody conflict. The marked similarities between media coverage of the GFA and the Windsor Framework (WF) highlight two controversial and inter-related areas of concern: a general one about possible media clientelism and the other, more specifically, about the way in which London-based national media tend to deal with Northern Ireland. If this were an essay about history and/or politics, a third area would also be relevant, namely the relationship between the British parliament and that portion of the United Kingdom which, since its formation in 1922, has been so problematic. Although I don’t plan to go there, its overarching connection to modern political developments and, in turn, the media’s coverage of them is blindingly obvious.

What was striking about the immediate response by media outlets to the WF story was its framing within the Brexit paradigm. Even though the framework was negotiated because of a problem totally confined to Northern Ireland – the protocol – newspapers chose to view it in terms of the unfinished business of Britain’s extrication from the European Union. The real reason for the framework negotiation was side-lined; mentioned, if at all, sotto voce. Amid the media’s mass hysteria, there was little acknowledgement of the fact that the sole motive for the WF was the opposition of Northern Ireland’s Unionist parties to the protocol. As a result, there seemed to be an underlying assumption that the problem of Unionist refusal to take part in the Stormont-based power-sharing executive had been solved. Newspapers, in ignoring that fact, preferred to congratulate Sunak for performing some kind of miracle related only to the unfinished business of Brexit.

“This will show Brexit truly works,” said a Daily Express headline. According to The Sun, the agreement is a “key to unlocking a new era of friendship between Britain and the EU after the bad blood since 2016”. The London Evening Standard agreed: “The deal represents a breakthrough moment in UK-EU relations.” The Guardian even went so far as to claim that the framework “is about facing up to the mess that Brexit caused”. This was true, of course, but the particularity of that mess was an entirely localised issue. It had no effect whatsoever outside six counties in the north of Ireland. Once this factor was accepted, there was some caution about accepting at face value Sunak’s spin that, by having access to both the UK and European Union markets, Northern Ireland would be in an “unbelievably special position” as “the world’s most exciting economic zone”. But the elephant in the press room, the attitude towards the deal by the two right-wing Unionist parties, the DUP and the TUV, got barely a mention. The Times merely “hoped” the framework would draw “a decisive line under the difficulties and tensions” while the Mail clearly urged Unionists to accept the deal. “The DUP is hardly synonymous with the concept of compromise,” it said, “but knowing when to accept victory is a crucial political skill.” The Daily Telegraph, not wishing to prejudge “the crucial response of the DUP”, concentrated on praising Sunak.

The days when Blair walked on water

Now, to complete the picture, we must go back to 1998 and the explosion of editorial zeal for the Good Friday Agreement. We know Blair had an excellent media machine, run by his then-press secretary Alastair Campbell. We also know that, at the time, Blair had been prime minister for less than a year and was still enjoying his “Cool Britannia” rock star period. Even so, the paean of press praise that greeted him after the signing of the peace deal was extraordinary. It was “a remarkable achievement, and a vindication of Mr Blair’s brave decision to set a firm deadline for finishing the talks”, said the Financial Times. The Sun, in noting Blair’s hyperbolic statement – “I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders” – contended: “He was right. That hand has reached down and clapped him on the back.” Blair, said The Sunday Times, “deserves great praise”. No surprise that the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror should laud Blair, but even the right-wing News of the World joined in: “Blair has achieved the seemingly impossible after the longest of long Good Fridays.” Outside Fleet Street, there was similar praise. The Birmingham Post, in calling it “the deal of a lifetime”, was one of many provincial titles to acclaim the prime minister’s achievement.

What happened weeks later was even more spectacular. The GFA had to be ratified by separate referendums in Ireland, on each side of the border. Despite the overwhelming majority of their readers being in England, Wales and Scotland, who had no votes, London-based newspapers devoted considerable space to the topic. Most editors did not so much urge Irish people to vote “yes” as order them to do so. Securing acceptance of the agreement, they argued, would benefit Ireland and Britain. Peace was at hand, at last.

In the days just before the poll, there was a remarkable sign of unity, with papers of the political left, right and centre carrying the same message. There was not a scintilla of difference between the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror and the Tory cheerleading Daily Mail. The Daily Express warned: “Don’t reject this bid for peace.” The Sun agreed, running three successive leading articles supporting a “yes” vote. It also devoted a front page to an exclusive article written by American president Bill Clinton, headlined: “Say YES to peace.” The Sunday Times was adamant: “Both sides should grasp this settlement with enthusiasm and move forward on behalf of Ireland, Britain and future generations.” No space was given to Northern Ireland Unionists who opposed the agreement.

The Guardian pointed out that “wholly negative” Unionists offered no “alternative solution to Ulster’s woes” and cited, approvingly, support for the GFA expressed by the veteran IRA volunteer, Joe Cahill. “After more than 50 years of struggle”, it viewed Cahill’s enthusiasm for the deal as a welcome sign of “a genuine shift” by “the republican movement”. The Times chose a very different revolutionary to make its case, by quoting Antonio Gramsci’s famous statement about the need for optimism, even if it was only “optimism of the will”. Italian Marxist philosophers have not often figured positively in Britain’s venerable paper of record, but the Daily Mail, without mentioning Gramsci, echoed the sentiment: “It is better to venture in hope than surrender to fear and despair.”

Only The Daily Telegraph registered a reluctance to endorse the agreement, viewing it in less than positive terms. In its early misreading of the situation, it speculated that Gerry Adams would find it difficult to convince Sinn Féin to back the agreement. It found much to dislike, such as the early release of prisoners and the mooted disbandment of the RUC. It was also angry with the Tory opposition, led by William Hague, for supporting the agreement. “Why,” it asked, “does he not listen to Mrs Thatcher?” In contending that the IRA “has been unable to defeat the RUC operationally”, the paper was frustrated that Sinn Féin was “doing well in the battle of the airwaves”. But, after days railing against both the concept and the reality of the agreement, it grudgingly came into line. Its stablemate, the Sunday Telegraph, reluctantly concluded: “There may be occasions in future when it is right to say ‘No’; but Friday’s referendum is not one of them.” That leading article, which expressed the views of Tory right-wingers, carried the headline “faute de mieux”, meaning “for want of a better alternative”. It was an admission that the naysaying Unionists it purported to support had nothing positive to offer.

It was also noticeable that the rest of the press gave short shrift to the Orange Order’s rejection of the agreement, noting it only in passing. As for the DUP’s vociferous leader, the Rev Ian Paisley, several papers ignored him, and his increasingly intemperate speeches, altogether. Instead, papers chose to lionise the one Unionist leader, David Trimble, who did support the GFA. The Times referred warmly to his “personal triumph” in persuading so many Unionists to back the agreement.

No surrender to the bowler hats over GFA and WF

So, there we have it. Twenty-five years apart, the “free” and “independent” British press unanimously endorsed two government-brokered agreements. And here’s the paradox. In both cases, the deals were trenchantly opposed by a section of the Northern Irish community that regards itself as loyal to the British crown and were favoured by the other section of the community which would much prefer the British crown to relinquish its sovereignty. Given the zero-sum nature of a divided society, where one side’s loss is another’s gain, the government was willing to face down Unionists by arguing that it was acting for the greater good. The GFA had been necessary to bring about peace. The WF was a necessary precursor to restoring the devolved government set up in the wake of the GFA.

Therefore, on both occasions, the government’s logic was clear. But what does the media’s full-throated support for those two initiatives say about its rationale? In the case of the GFA, the prime motivation for media support was the desire for peace, an end to the threat of IRA bombings. The British state had long been under attack and, in such circumstances, British-based media organisations were the state’s natural allies. The government, newspapers and broadcasters were in lockstep. Clientelism of sorts, but in the mildest of ways, and surely uncontroversial. But in one important respect, the unity between Westminster and Fleet Street broke new ground: it depended on disregarding a sizeable proportion of Northern Ireland’s Unionists, including several of its most voluble, high-profile political leaders.

There was another aspect too, astutely noted in a Times editorial which stated: “The weary familiarity of the arguments, and faces, has only reinforced the sense of distance other citizens of the United Kingdom have felt towards the people of Ulster.” The paper was articulating the views of so-called “mainland” Britons. They had had enough of the Northern Ireland conflict. Any settlement that brought about peace was just fine. Indeed, anything that removed “Ulster” from the news agenda was welcomed. There was not the slightest chance of newspapers losing readers by taking the government’s side.

The overwhelming media support for the WF was a further example of the changed attitude towards Unionism. Aside from the Tory party’s Brexiteer rump, there was an absence of sympathy across Britain for the DUP’s intransigent stance over the protocol. Furthermore, outside of political circles, it is highly doubtful if there was much concern about the DUP’s boycott of the Northern Ireland Assembly. So, newspaper editors, conscious of their readers’ apathy, had no problem in applauding the framework while turning a blind eye to Unionist objections. It certainly does not suggest, however, that the press has taken against the Union itself. No British newspaper has been transformed into an organ of Irish republican propaganda. But Unionists, whether militant or moderate, might well have reason to worry in future about the potential consequences of an alienated media. And that is especially true when it finds common cause with the political establishment.

Roy Greenslade

Roy Greenslade is a former professor of journalism at City, University of London, and sits on the BJR editorial board. He is a member of Sinn Féin.

@GreensladeR

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