Saturday 3 December 2016

Books: BBC's own battle for independence

Non-fiction: The BBC's 'Irish Troubles' Robert J Savage, Manchester University Press, hbk, 288 pages, €105

Published 16/08/2015 | 02:30

Speak no ill: Former Labour cabinet minister Roy Mason (right) who seved as Northern Ireland secretary at the height of the Troubles
Speak no ill: Former Labour cabinet minister Roy Mason (right) who seved as Northern Ireland secretary at the height of the Troubles
The BBC's 'Irish Troubles'

Robert Savage's perceptive study depicts a broadcaster struggling with political bullying and intimidation, regardless of the party in power, to ­deliver a true reflection of the Troubles.

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'You've joined the BBC, Jimmy boy, and it's just about to crack. Bloody gentlemen of the BBC think they are above criticism… Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher have come to see me and we're agreed that there should be no increase in your licence fee unless you put things right… De Gaulle knew how to handle the media."

With these cheering words, Roy Mason, Her Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (and don't you forget it!), let newly appointed BBC Northern Ireland Controller James Hawthorne know what was expected of him and his organisation - to be the government's poodle and to speak no ill of the army, police or the civil administration.

His remarks reflected the uneasiness of relations between governments, of whatever hue, and a public-service broadcaster acting under the debatable degree of independence afforded by a royal charter.

Robert Savage's penetrating and exhaustively researched study of the tense relationship between the BBC, locally and nationally, and the civil and military authorities in Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1988 draws on a rich variety of sources: on BBC records; national archives; published memoirs and interviews with some of the main protagonists. He writes perceptively, too, of the difficulties faced by news media in establishing and commenting on the truth in a divided society riven by conflict.

As a member of the BBC NI Advisory Council in the early part of the period under review, I can testify to the accuracy of his narrative and the sharpness of his analysis in what is presented (as indeed it was) as a struggle between two important pillars of a democratic society.

The baddies are nearly all in the ranks of the State and its agents: the main anti-heroes (who book-end the period) being Roy Mason and Margaret Thatcher, while the BBC presents a confused mixture of heroic figures (mainly journalists and editors) and a collection of much more confused and at times pusillanimous figures at the higher levels of governance.

Savage depicts BBCNI pre the civil rights marches as an organisation totally in thrall to the Unionist establishment, carrying only good news supplied by the government information service and suppressing all reference to a minority - or its distinctive culture. The most egregious example of this posture of compliance was the cancellation after the first instalment of a projected series of snapshots of life in Ulster by leading television journalist Alan Whicker. There had been vociferous unionist protests at a programme which depicted a less than utopian Ulster, with betting shops, armed policemen and sectarian graffiti.

The reaction of local broadcasters to public dissent when it emerged on the streets was to suppress or dilute, whether to join the government in denial or the demand for only good news, or in an effort not to make things worse by retailing inflammatory rhetoric. The result was a news presentation which was muted to the point of distortion, and a clash of cultures with serious journalists like Keith Kyle, Peter Taylor, Bernard Falk (who went to jail to protect a source) and Martin Bell from other parts of the BBC, chafing under the requirement to clear content and contacts with Controller NI Waldo Maguire, a decent but ultra-cautious and perpetually harassed man.

It is noteworthy that but for the fortuitous presence of an RTÉ cameraman, the over-reaction of the RUC to a Civil Rights march in Derry would have gone unrecorded.

It is ironic that one of the first manifestations of independence by BBCNI was to involve coverage of the 1974 Ulster Workers' Council strike, which it got quite badly wrong, and contributed to the fall of the power-sharing executive.

A new controller, Dick Francis (actually, in Savage's narrative, consistently one of the good guys) took the view that the BBC should be neutral in the struggle between UWC and government. This was a bitter pill for the SDLP, which, having suffered for years the BBC acting as a mouthpiece for unionism, was now the victim of the new-found independence in which the station opened its doors to provide a platform for the more extreme forms of unionism.

With renewed Direct Rule, the war went on between government and BBC, regardless of the party in power. In what has become notorious as the Second Battle of Culloden, Mason assembled a cast of Unionist notables to batter the governors and BBC management in the crudest terms.

Ironically, there was no voice raised to defend the BBC, as there were no Catholics on the guest list: "That's the way things are in Northern Ireland", as one BBC executive remarked philosophically. From then to the imposition of censorship and minatory controls by Margaret Thatcher in the late eighties under the Prevention of Terrorism Act, the narrative is littered with causes célèbres: the presentation of the hunger strikes, an interview with Irish National Liberation Army in the wake of shadow Northern Ireland secretary Airey Neave's murder, Bloody Sunday, the treatment of state violence, ill-treatment of prisoners and torture, all of which became sticks for the Tory right to beat the broadcasters with, producing increasing nervousness and a tendency to self-censorship. This culminated in the suppression by the governors of Real Lives, a programme which purported to allow Martin McGuinness to present himself as a human being.

In the end Savage gives the BBC, if not full marks, at least a high commendation for standing up to intimidation and bullying, and in presenting the facts over an extended period in an extremely difficult situation. It is hard to do better than that. His analysis of historic tensions takes on a new relevance as the UK government, facing a threat of international terrorism from another quarter, begins to question the role of public service broadcasting, and the BBC finding the same threats of cuts in licence fee and Charter renewal - put more suavely by an old Etonian than by a Yorkshire miner, but no less lethal for that.

Over the years successive directors general, controllers and BBC governors embroiled in the struggle with government in Northern Ireland must have echoed the cry of former home secretary Reggie Maudling as he boarded the plane for home: "What a bloody awful country! Bring me a large Scotch!" Savage's fine study is a due recognition of their stoicism and professionalism.

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