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”.
“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.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty