BBC: purveyors of ‘shrink wrap’ narrative?

After nearly forty years of deployment, the British Army is finally to reduced to the old garrison force of 5,000 troops in Northern Ireland. But reader Aidan reckons this BBC report is an attempt to shrink wrap a complex narrative, down to a single grabbable story. The passage he highlights is:

“British troops were sent to Northern Ireland in 1969 after violent clashes between Catholics and Protestants. Catholic civil rights marchers were met by counter-protests by Protestant loyalists and the Army initially arrived as peacekeepers.”

And he remarks:

“No mention of the attempted pogrom of 1969 – Divis Street, Conway Street, Bombay Street etc which was the reason the troops were rushed on to the streets. A bloody disgraceful rewrite of history. And all in a effort (I presume) to make out one side was as bad as the other in 1969!”

Now Aidan’s remarks may themselves spark some controversy amongst those who do not share his view, but at their heart lies an important criticism of the lack of complexity in the BBC’s corporate view (as opposed to those of individual journalists) that has barely changed nor been substantially augmented for most of those forty years.

It brought to mind two important writers in this space. In his 1977 study of a north Belfast Republican community Frank Burton asks:

“What order of knowledge is it that is denied the journalist? I shall argue that the reporter has little or no access to the history and context of an event , to the construction of that event and to the consequent connotations attached to that event. This is particularly true of the English press in Northern Ireland, but it is also evident in both Catholic and Protestant newspapers. All three stand on the peripheries of the social worlds which they report and, in varying degrees, each makes leaps in the dark.

“The inevitably partial nature of press accounting means that, like all decontextualised accounts, they pose serious if they are to be used as the basis of explanatory texts”.

Most recently in June of this year John Lloyd argued in the Guardian that the BBC needs embrace the depth suggested in John Bridcut’s report on the BBC and impartiality, From seesaw to wagon wheel:

“The Bridcut report argues for a “wider and deeper application” of impartiality than a left-right balance. It’s an important phrase, for it points to both a danger and a cure. The danger is that it will be interpreted mechanically so that, in place of carefully counted seconds for differing party positions, will come carefully calibrated contributions from a range of differing views – a response which could make for wider reporting, to be sure, but also shallower.

“The chance the BBC has is to use the phrase to engage more fully, to come to grips with complexity. Complexity is the inevitable consequence of pluralistic societies and democratic governance – it is the greatest challenge to journalism because it means the object of journalism, to tell a defined narrative, constantly recedes. There are stories which have an end. One will come soon, in the ending of Tony Blair’s premiership. But most don’t: the nature of modern societies means that questions are always open and that journalism that slips into easy judgements, implicit or explicit, often betrays itself. Complexity is the enemy of shallow journalism; it is what you get when you deepen the application of impartiality.

“Of course, reports, whether of 30 seconds or two hours, must have an end in time. But they need not have an end in narrative. Technically, the internet provides a space in which stories can be pursued, added to, corrected and opened to the audience for their contributions, in principle forever. And editorially, the avoidance of the implicit and final judgement which has become a feature of broadcast news opens the space for an assertion of uncertainty, which more closely reflects everyday experience and the nature of public life.”

Whether you agree with the particulars of Aidan’s criticism or not, it seems extraordinary that over those many years the BBC should not have accumulated more insight into the traumatic events of 1969/70. Events that were, certainly in the case of the urban Nationalist population, to frame important understandings and the subjective framing of the overall political game in Northern Ireland for the next forty years.


  • Aidan is fully correct to be upset by the BBC’s flawed analysis, but perhaps a little naive to expect anything else.

    The BBC as a worldwide news organisation is highly credible, but BBC NI has always come under very close scrutiny at times for it’s partial reporting of The Troubles throughout the past three or four decades.

    Even now, some of it’s anchor presenters such as Mark Carruthers are (in my opinion) incredibly one-sided.

  • willowfield

    ”Attempted pogrom”? Nothing like a bit of hyperbole!

  • Wee slabber

    “An organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group…”

    Hardly hyperbole in the context of what took place in 1969! Rampaging B Specials, out of control RUC men in Shoreland amoured cars shooting up Divis Towers; armed, organised loyalist mobs burning out nationalist streets. All leading to the biggest movement of refugees in Europe since WW2 (at that time). But none of this appears in BBC NI’s view of history!

  • Baudrillard

    It’s a bit unrealistic, Mick, to expect any harassed journalist (who’s probably been given fifteen minutes to knock out copy) to fashion a piece that sensitively deals with all the historical and political nuances. It’s a small wonder that such stories are even grammatically correct never mind accurate.

    Most news stories bear little relationship with the actualite – and it’s not due to conspiracy or intent – it’s simple expediency. Real life is too complicated.

    I’ve been reading Robert Fisk’s vast account of the conflict in the Middle East (a 1,000 page tome looking back to its origins in the 19th century and earlier). To try and place the current fiasco in Iraq in its proper context requires this level of detail to do justice to its complex origin. And you’re never going to get such an approach in the dailies. (I’ve read complaints that even Fisk has been too simplistic.)

    The emphasis maybe should be on citizen education. How to deal with the morass that is the modern media (newspapers, multiple tv channels, internet and all) and then how to fashion informed views on it.

    Good luck to anyone trying to frame that particular syllabus – especially in an era when most universities are content to pump out students with hotel and tourism management ‘degrees’.

  • BogExile

    BBC NI have managed to drive both sides of the political divide into apoplexy over the last 15 years or so which is a high recommendation for impartiality.

    In 1969 the national broadcaster was much more identified/affiliated with the state as opposed to the viewer. I doubt if this can be said to be the case today. The state was under attack from within and it is not surprising that reports were partisan in nature in the same way that early CBS reports were re: anti-vietnam protests in the US.

    But a reasonable person would surely infer from the following passage:

    ‘…Catholic civil rights marchers were met by counter-protests by Protestant loyalists.’ that those who opposed civil rights were more delinquent and reprehensible than those who marched against them. The reportage of Holy Cross had much the same tinge (deservedly so) to it.

    I don’t think this is an example of a revisionist BBC at work at all.

    The Republican News agenda was always to present the conflict in the way that Wee Slabber and Macswiney would like it – a state violently and uncontrollably repressing its citizens. The truth is of course much more complex (certainly after 1969). In terms of the Army contribution, the grabbable story is that Operation Banner succeeded as it showed militant republicanism that civil society could not be destroyed by its activities and when PIRA were reduced to scuttling around the hedgerows of South Armagh, compromised and hemmed in by electronic and physical surveillence, they eventually opted for peace.

  • Shore Road Resident

    Isn’t it terrible when brief items on a news website don’t illuminate every grievance of every begrudger in the country? I suggest you write a strongly worded letter to the Broadcasting Standards Commisssion! In green biro! Onward to the Republic!

  • lib2016

    Any objectivity the BBC might have had was crushed out of it in the 70’s by the Thatcher government. BBC journalists, never the most militant group of people, publicly protested and even went on strike over political interference but it did them no good.

    As for ITV, the example of Thames Television which lost it’s franchise 18 months after broadcasting ‘Death on the Rock’ has kept it in line for most of the time.

    The result – the British media have earned the world’s contempt and republicans are in government having won the propaganda war hands down.

    The same thing has happened in Iraq, of course. It’s the British way. Find a losing strategy and pursue it to the bitter end for short-term ends.

  • Oilibhear Chromaill

    This isn’t the only example of the BBC ‘compressing’ the news to suit their own agenda.

    On Thursday morning’s Good Morning Ulster, a representative of the Irish language organisation, Baile, which has been set up to establish new Gaeltacht settlements in locations on the eastern seaboard. This is not the typical Gaeltacht settlement – it’s not grant dependent. It’s more like a housing development with a particular ethic – similar to sustainable development/eco friendly housing developments in Cloughjordan in Tipperary.

    During the course of the interview, the representative said that they would not be seeking help from the government (either UK or ROI). That’s what not they were about.

    This comment, taken entirely out of context, was then dropped into the 8.30 news bulletin in an item about the meeting that day between Edwin Poots and the SF leader, Gerry Adams, about the proposal for an Irish Language Act in the north.

    It was used to ‘show’ that not even the Irish Language Community in the north wanted the Irish Language Act. As if. The people involved in Baile are understandably angry over the misrepresentation of their position by lazy/incompetent/politically motivated (delete as appropriate) journos and are bringing a complaint to Ofcom about the matter. The members of Baile are all active supporters of the Irish Language Act but their project is entirely apolitical and they resent being drawn in on ‘the wrong side’ of the argument in this case.

    It’s just another example of BBC incompetence/partiality and indicates that the BBC problems over phone-ins, bias and ‘sexing up’ are as widesread in the ‘nations and regions’ as they are in London.

    Whether or not you support the Irish Language Act, it’s important that the BBC, a supposed public service broadcaster, doesn’t ‘cut and paste’ the news in a reckless manner like this.

    Imagine if they did something like this to Peter Robinson.
    In a story about the Long Kesh national stadium project in which the emphasis was on, for instance, the proposed conflict transformation centre, the BBC dropped in a quote from an entirely different story about Peter Robinson supporting measures to encourage tourism in the north. it could be read as Peter Robinson supporting the National Stadium/’shrine to terrorists’ story.

    Would the BBC stand over their report as they have with this report – highlighted at…..?

  • kensei

    Consider maps for a moment. If the best map is the one with the most detail, then the ultimate map must include even single detail, every pebble on a coast, etc. In fact under this criteria the best map would have to be an exact replica of the Earth itself. Which is entirely useless (we’ll ignore Google Earth :)) to find your way about.

    Reporting is like a map for a situation. It needs to pull out enough of the complexity to allow you to navigate, and indeed get more detail if required. But not so much as to overwhlem and become useless.

  • BogExile

    Imagine if you took that detailed map, removed any inconvenient features and landmarks, obliterated any alternative routes. Oh, and coloured everything green.

    There you go, Olib!

  • Peter

    While Aidan has a point, he somewhat is missing the mark here. Britain is transforming at a rate so fast he can’t seem to catch up. In fact most of us can’t seem to catch up either, which makes it rather annoying.

    There’s only one real way to conquer in this day and age, and it involves assimilating your enemies by whatever means available, even promoting their policies.

    The British system has changed dramatically over the last century into one which is prepared to welcome Republicanism into it’s fold. Yes, the EU may be primarily responsible as human rights laws increasingly out-weigh old British laws like treason, etc, both morally and legally.

    We’re in for an interesting period ahead, which in all honesty will be one where Irish Republicanism will eventually have to decide if they’re better off with this new Britian or as european unionists.

  • mnob

    The BBC does do complex analyses and examines stories in incredible and impartial detail. Its called Radio 4.

    The BBC website produces short snappy articles based on what its readers want to see.

    Its a one pager on the fact that the Army has reduced its numbers, FFS, its not presented as a comprehensive guide to ‘the struggle’ – because if it was quite simply NOBODY WOULD READ IT.

    Would you have them explain the whole conext of Irish history starting at the ice age and working forward ?

    The BBC is *not* the leading offender when it comes to try to promote a cause by simplification.

  • Eddie

    It has been suggested that the BBC, in its reporting, must “come to grips with this complexity” – i.e. symptoms, cause, context, history etc etc.

    The very nature of the medium in which the BBC operates makes this an impossibility. An entire half hour television news bulletin will contain only about 3,600 words.

    Television, any television, BBC or otherwise, by the very nature of the medium, is incapable of dealing with complexity. Radio is only marginally better.

    Television is not an aid to understanding, but a barrier.

    What is important is that, as has been suggested. this crippled medium, should steer away from “implied or final judgement.” Dropping the bit where the journalist does his/her “wrap-up” at the end of the piece would be a start. He/she doesn’t really “know” – any more than we “know”. He/she can only report what they have found out, which, even with the best will in the world, is only the some of the “facts” in brief “at this point in time.”

    As the man said, quite often: “It’s too early to say”

  • Peter

    Eddie, i don’t think the original post was about the complexities of broadcasting and the amount of words Radio possesses over TV, it’s about the neutrality or non-neutrality of broadcasting.

  • Cruimh

    An ironic thread considering the one we had on 10th July “An Phoblacht-style coverage”,

  • Peter

    There’s actual mileage in the title Mick announced, “shrink wrap”. From the L/Derry concept of shrinking the name, to ‘shrink wrapping’ the troubles into a nice wee package.

    It works for all sorts in ulster!

  • Eddie

    Peter, I wasn’t talking about “the complexities of broadcasting” as you put it. (No 14 above)

    I was speaking of the LIMITATIONS of broadcasting as a medium to report/explain/contextualise the COMPLEXITIES of situations, Northern Ireland being a good example.

  • jone