Propaganda of Peace: Media and culture during the peace process

Extract from Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker: The Propaganda of Peace: The Role of Media and Culture in the Northern Ireland Peace Process. Bristol: Intellect Books. 2010.

Political opponents Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness were confirmed as First Minister and Deputy First Minister of a new executive in May 2007, closing yet another chapter in Northern Ireland’s troubled history. A dramatic realignment of politics had brought these irreconcilable enemies together and the media played a significant role in persuading the public to accept this startling change.

The Propaganda of Peace places their role in a broad cultural context and examines a range of factual and fictional representations, from journalism and public museum exhibitions to film, television drama and situation comedy. The authors propose a distinctive theoretical and methodological approach to analyzing the role of such representations in communicating what they call ‘the propaganda of peace’. They go on to explore whether it simply promotes conflict transformation or if it actually underwrites the abandonment of a politically engaged public sphere at the very moment when debates about neo-liberalism, financial meltdown and social and economic inequality make it most necessary?

The propaganda of peace, as defined and identified in this book, has been reproduced in different media and cultural forms, supported and sponsored by various political, social and cultural agencies. Nevertheless, it has demonstrated a remarkable unity, narrowing the terms of political debate and shrinking the cultural imagination to promote two complimentary narratives about Northern Ireland’s bright new future. The first, most explicit and immediate narrative was about the need for an end to violence and the achievement of a political settlement between Catholic and Protestant, nationalist and unionist. The second, implicit and far-reaching narrative was about making Northern Ireland fit for integration into the global capitalist system or, as Tony Blair preferred to call it, the ‘civilised world’.

Seen in these terms, Northern Ireland is not only undergoing a peace process aimed at settling its constitutional position. It is potentially undergoing a process of pacification, a denial of politics upon which the free market depends. The construction of a peace process ‘consensus’ has somehow pre-empted the need or desire to question, re-imagine or propose alternatives at a critical moment in history.

Indeed, in his book, Globalisation, Democracy and Terrorism, Eric Hobsbawn considers the prospects for war and peace in the 21st century, pointing out that ‘the more rapidly growing inequalities created by uncontrolled free-market globalisation are natural incubators of grievance and instability’. He was writing at a time when the neo-liberal project still seemed unassailable but the credit crunch and the financial meltdown of September 2008 have thrown it into a crisis of legitimacy, giving rise to what Antonio Gramsci called ‘a great variety of morbid symptoms’. In the specific context of Northern Ireland, such symptoms include increasing sectarian conflict, social exclusion and poverty.  Journalist, David McKittrick, has reported that a total of 1500 sectarian attacks – an average of four a day – took place in there the space of one year (2007/08). Meanwhile, the number of families evacuated from their homes because of intimidation had also risen in that period. (Independent, 14 September, 2008). Yet these realities were rarely acknowledged in the media and cultural representations we looked at in this book. Instead, the overwhelming emphasis of the propaganda of peace has been a discourse of ‘no alternative’ – effectively a denial of politics in preference for domesticated consumerism – just at a time when what is really needed, post devolution, is politically engaged public discourse and active citizenship.

Post script

The Propaganda of Peace went to press before the recent upsurge of activity in the north by the Real IRA. Yet the public reaction to their shootings and car bombs in some ways underlines one of the key arguments of the book. It is as if the peace process has marked for Northern Ireland a cultural year zero, in which the history and politics of the conflict it apparently resolved has been sucked out of public memory, replaced instead with incomprehension and an inability to look at republican or loyalist dissidence, or indeed any other social, economic or political problem, as a sign that the framework of the political settlement is somewhat shaky, the foundations unsound.

The key themes of the book also resonate internationally.  For example, we show how the British state played a key role in helping transform the image of republicans from pariahs to peacemakers, reversing decades of anti-terrorist propaganda in order to justify face-to-face negotiations with them. It may have to do likewise if it is to negotiate with the Taliban in Afghanistan, an eventuality the state is at last coming to terms with. President Obama’s attempt to revive the peace process in the Middle East, between the Israelis and the Palestinians, and Spain’s response to the ETA’s recently announced ceasefire, will also dictate a radical shift in official positions if they are to bear any palatable fruit. Such contingencies demand that in each case the state provides cues and leads to the mainstream media, helping to transform the atmosphere and create the right mood music.

However, the lesson of the ‘propaganda of peace’ is that the role of the state and the media in conflict transformation is about more than just contingency. Ideally, in a post conflict society, they need to broaden their conception of peace as more than the mere absence of conflict. They need to play a part in accommodating competing visions of a new and inclusive civil society rather than just settle for a one-dimensional political system and integration into a global economy that has since been so fatally compromised and discredited.

Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker are lecturers in media studies at the University of Ulster and fellows of the University’s Centre for Media Research.

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  • Alan Maskey

    All very nice. Meanwhile, with Martin McGuinness on the edge, Suzanne Breen amongst otehrs wonder why Gerry Adams is asked no hard questions by the pussy cat media.

    The best tratise on this I saw was: Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War, The British Media and the Battle for the Hearts and Minds, Pluto Press 1984.

    Really excellent. Is there any need for us to buy this book? Probably not unles it blow torches those who must carry the blame.

  • joeCanuck

    the media played a significant role in persuading the public to accept this startling change.

    I’m unlikely to read the book but I’m wondering if they can justify this statement. Do they mean that the media went about that deliberately or just that their reporting of the to-and-fro between the parties play a part in educating the public.

  • Granni Trixie


    In many ways the Curtis book is excellent, v well researched etc. But for me it is spoilt by a very obvious bias (anti gov ) leaving you with the impression that she does not grasp the complexities of the NI situation.,

  • Brian Walker

    How comforting to know that the dear old Marxist world view survives. There we were,( McKittrick included btw) conspiring with the lackeys of capitalism to launch a phoney peace conspiracy and play down all the real problems on the ground including those attacks in Ardoyne,Holy Cross, Garvaghy Road, Short Strand, Lurgan etc etc.. And there we were too, denying the people a voice in their own destiny and a stake in objective reality.. oh please!! Sure you never heard a word about them at the time!

    Nothing like a theory so wide and wild to put innocent heads so far above the clouds that they can’t see what’s going on under their noses. As ever with the simplistic Left, globalisation has to be one dimensional and demonised. But never fear, at least NI wasn’t left out of the conspiracy.

    Most of this is tosh, as extracted anyway .Where did these people go to school? Real marxism presents a case to answer but creates terrible models.

    I’m not surprised that Liz Curtis offers a comforting critique to those who never had a hard editorial decision to take in their lives.

    Read her carefully and you will find two things. Many of the programmes or items she listed as banned outright were work in progress and made it to air. Second. without any malice at all, her version of fairness is largely limited to a Brits Out view where the British army were to blame for just about everything.

    I’m sure she believed this sincerely. Ive debated with her ( a long time ago) and found her likeable but somewhat deluded.

    There were of course many valid criticisms of pressure and pusillanimity about reporting the troubles but the Curtis book is far from a fair and balanced account.

  • A.N.Other

    Dear Brian,

    It may have been better had you bothered to read the book; or perhaps it is the case that by not doing so, you unconsciously highlight the fact that the real problem with the media during the troubles, was that those that controlled it, only saw what they wanted to see; or, indeed, were told to see.

    They never bothered to read the full book either.

  • Alan Maskey

    Curtis’ book was a good critique. It attacked the media status quo from one side, the right side, the side that was disallowed a voice.
    The current terror campaign against the people of Iraq and Afghanistan proves the point. The media play along: embedded journalists, our gallant boys, the yellow Press, the whole show all over again. When the war drums beat, the media lackeys fall into line. The truth, though it may or may not be the first casualty, sure hurts.

  • Brian Walker

    AN, Are you saying that the extracts are unrepresentative of the book – if so how? If not, what point are you making?
    Who told whom, what, when, where, why? Any evidence?

    Alan, As a matter of reason, this is tendentious from start to finish. Liz Curtis highlighted some valid critcisms but greatly exaggerated the degree of self and imposed censorship. Any one sided critique is by definition flawed.

    Iraq and Afghanistan proves what point? That there,as in NI there was no criticism of the status quo? Where have you been hiding? What about Robert Fisk, Patrick Coburn?
    They are ” the media” too.

    No “hurt”, only sadness at such unjustified self satisfaction with facile generalisations.

  • Granni Trixie

    Surely the jug and mug, top down or I seen hyperdermic needle image of how the media works is outdated, suggesting a passivity on the part of consumers.
    In the power struggle dont people fight back (as on this website you might argue). Power is redistributed with the help of the dissemination of values such as transparency,equality etc. Dont unrepresented individuals or community groups find ways to get their message out?

    A society as polticised as NI for instance examines minutely what they see in the news and come up with their own interpretation/version. This is why though stories usually follow a pattern,the unexpected twist changes the meaning.

    Plus, why assume journalists and media workers interpret the rules or even the story they receive as originated?

  • Granni Trixie

    OOps,should have been “I saw” ofcourse.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    I think Mr Walker makes a good point about the Trots and Marxists in the Media.
    The service patriotism provides for scoundrels is the same service Journalism provides for old Marxists.
    But I think Mr Walker over-estimates their actual influence. after all despite the best efforts of some journalists the Workers Party vote is derisory.
    Its undoubtedly true that many journalists ignored stories that were right under their nose until they recovered their memory or cojones.
    “Oh Bloody Sunday…..yes I might have been there 40 years ago. Saville was right. If only I had known……”
    Likewise Jean McConville, Claudy, Collusion…

    But I think the Journalist as fearless truth seeker making difficult editorial decisions (Mr Walkers view) and The “media lackey” view of Me Alan Maskey are at opposite ends of the spectrum.
    The truth is of course that journalist go with the flow.the nattative of the Peace Process dictated that journalists support it……and the contradictions implied in it. Even journalists felt the hand of history.
    With Peace being merely an end it self…..neither copper-fastening “the union” or providing stepping stones to a united Ireland……or acting as a great spur to the Overclass view on integration and one community thinking…… has proven to be something of a disappointment to those who actually thought it would lead “somewhere” or “anywhere”.
    Naturally the journalists will reflect this change while airbrushing out their own complicity in the Precess they now reject.

    But really in this week…..where Journalists favourite subject……ie Journalism has dominated the media (written by journalists)….we have two very real examples of Journalism at work.
    1……the News of The World story………does anyone seriously think that phone hacking and law breaking are not used by journalists who would be at the fore front of police doing the same thing.
    2……and this week our own local journalists were fearlessly exposing the short comings of our local politicians by…….playing football with them. And tee-heeing with them afterwars, contributing to the notion that there is an inner circle of politicians and journos who exclude the ordinary punter. Oh what larks.

    “Pass the sick bag Alice”.

  • Alan Maskey

    Brian: I read and reread Curtis’ book back in 1984 or 5. (I am sounding like McGuinness now). I read PSF’s excellent document on how to deal with the media some years earlier, late 1980 and early 1981 and passed it on to many others who took copious notes from it. It was far and awy the best pamphlet of its sort.
    They were part of my development much like Brendan’s Behan’s good works were. Behan is not up there with Tolstoy or Hasek. He is closer to Peig Sayers, localised and of limited utility.
    Curtis is the same. She makes a few good points that readers factor in and move on. She gave one of the first good (to me) critiques of the media in the 6 cos, McGurk’s bar and The Guardian etc
    I don’t agree with your few good men hypothesis. Hats off to Fisk etc but in some ways they are the Chomskys of the media. Largely ignored (maybe Chomsky should be ignored but let’s not go there). Fisk and osme others have made thier name by being the exception. Hanging around Beirut was not everyone’s cup of tea.
    Most journalists are hacks, towing the line, watching their job and trying to get ahead. That is not a damnable offence, just a routine fact of life. To get along, you have to go along. What is today’s big story: Peggy(?) Mitchell in EastEnders.
    I worked with “good” journalists in the 1980s. Some of them, reaonably well known, said their editors and mates warned them of, in their own interests.

    Granni: Good post but no self back clapping for the peole of the 6 cos or of all Ireland either. Most live firmly within their own myths and hear waht they are conditioned to hear.

    Eamonn McCann, a good Trot, put it well many years ago. He said he grew up with his da reading the dailey Express. When Eamonn said wtf, his da explained he cread the DE and thenj knew that the exact opposite was the truth.

  • I haven’t had a chance to read the book yet, so obviously this response is only based on what is outlined above.

    Maybe due to the limited excerpt, some of the analysis appears naive – the media wasn’t simply mobilised into propagating the propaganda of peace as if it had somehow been neutral in terms of articulating selected policies and values. Nor had those with commissioning or editorial roles been somehow awoken from some long endured political sterility. What can be taken from Liz Curtis’ work is as much that a survey of censorship, both actual and feared, suggests that the media actively promoted a narrative that coalesced with that forwarded by unionists and the British government. The subsequent deviation from that line that is derided elsewhere as ‘peace processing’ has been grudging and limited – and remained one-dimensional in its capacity to demonstrate a stretching of the media’s imagining of Northern Ireland’s history beyond it’s own limited political lexicon.

    Recent examples illustrate the currency of this – media deconstruction of the Claudy bombing has been reduced to an obsession around Martin McGuinness – mirroring vague standards of evidence that stretched from the media through to the courts where the word of a police officer was accepted as evidence (see the HET’s for a retrospective view of how sensible that was). Whatever Chesney ever did (and we don’t seem to have moved very far since 2002 in implicating him in anything other than Claudy), we currently have a somewhat anonymous letter, his alibi for a suspect whose car (but not his profile seemingly) matches that of the bombers and several admittedly odd details such as the Conway/Whitelaw meetings (in which he is described as a ‘bad’) and his meeting with McGuinness before his death (or on his ‘deathbed’ if you want to add colour and since it sounds more sinister). As with the previous ‘Infliction’ module inserted into Saville, it is clear that the media are happy to run with the vaguest of stories with regard to republicans. Indeed, if you are reporting on the rape of a girl by her father where the mother reports it to the police who appear to have made her recruitment as a political agent a condition of investigating the crime, you win media awards for pursuing the uncle but ignoring what the police did and didn’t do. Rather than ‘peace processing’ which is generally uttered with the same tone as ‘appeasement’, the media have remained consistently on message since the troubles began.

    To see if anyone could see the distinction, I flagged up the HET finding that the RUC gave the UFF the gun used in the Sean Grahams murders in 1992 on here. They failed to track it, recover it or employ their knowledge of the gun’s ownership to secure a murder. Even a potential defence of not pursuing individuals for ‘operational reasons’ looks idiotic in the face of they actually did. Here you have a PSNI team releasing a definitive statement on what was disastrous incompetence (if you want to be generous), or a clearly collusive act.

    Yesterday Mark pointed up politicised reporting of pipe bombs where bombs being left at schools are deliberately blurred with a bomb left at a police station where there was a school at some remove, thus merging the two types of incident into one. Where you stand on this or how you feel about it, or the other instances I mentioned above will pretty much be dictated by where you stand on the political map.

    I’m begining (probably belatedly as others may well have been sitting waiting for me to catch up at this point) to get a sense that there is significant synergy between the contradictions in the relationships between unionism, loyalism and the state, the public representation of events in the media and current attitudes to the past (which tend to gravitate around the idea of a truth commission of sorts).

    But I should go and get the book before I read anymore into it…

    [oh, and as for the non-local, capitalist stuff – we’ve past the end of history and even the credit crisis has so far failed to jump start it]

  • Brian Walker

    The discussion has certainly improved.. so much better when it’s based on cases than stale theory, generlisations and vague conspiracies. I won’t accept – for it isn’t true- that journalism was dominated by fear, self and imposed censorship, lackeydom and self serving. But I know in exhaustive detail instances were all of those occurred. Why should journalism be different from the general experience?

    I don’t see the thread in the cases John presents. Claudy is innately, probably permanently unsolvable. The media were reporting the McGuinness angle, just as they reported the police ombudsman’s offer to the families to re-examine the case. It is unreasonable to expect something definitive from the media when anger, continuiing grief and frustration and lack of clarity are the story.

    The Sean Graham gun story is hair raising and should be picked up. It reinforces my case for a full account to be written based on HET and police ombudsman cases.

    Mark’s twist on the Antrim pipe bomb tells me something valuable I didn’t know One up to the blogosphere and one down to the MSM. Yes there’s plenty of lazy journalism but don’t confuse it with barmy theories.

  • Stephen Baker

    Hello Brian

    I’m Stephen Baker, co-author of The Propaganda of Peace, and I’ve been reading the thread with considerable interest.

    Let me clarify one point. The Propaganda of Peace is not an indictment of journalists for being lazy, fearful or willing lackeys of the government, nor does it consider their readers as unwitting dupes. That would indeed be a naive interpretation. While there certainly is politicking and lies (Blair’s book says as much,) our book is interested in a deeper, more fundamental cultural shift that we identify as emerging during the peace process. For this reason we look further than the press, to consider public exhibitions of the past; forms of commemoration; film and television drama; situation comedy and radio. As you say why should journalists be different from the general experience? Journalism does not operate in a cultural vacuum and neither do these other media and cultural forms. In this respect, I think you will find that our conception of propaganda is less about censorship (real of imagined), deliberate lies and conspiracy and more to do with the general experience you refer to.

    We argue that the emerging cultural dispensation is anodyne and is working to truncate the political imagination, but it is by no means secure nor uncontested. In this respect we would agree with Granni Trixie: readers and audiences are not passive. In fact, a section of the book is given over to considering alternative perspectives on the process.

    Your obvious anger has been aroused, I suspect, because you have assumed the book is another story of how the media acted as the state’s poodles and conspired to hoodwink a gullible public. I can assure you that our book is nothing of a sort.

    Greg and I have never considered The Propaganda of Peace as the last word on the matter. We continue to debate the issues and try to refine the ideas we raise in it. We see the book as an intervention, or an attempt to try to begin a debate about the quality of public culture in Northern Ireland at this time. We are therefore open to any approaches to meet with you and your colleagues to discuss the ideas in the book further. We would very much welcome the dialogue.

    We can be contacted through the University of Ulster.

    Best Wishes,

    Stephen Baker.

  • Brian – I thought the thread was pretty obvious – the arc, weight of reportage and colouring of stories is clearly political. I am not offering a moral take on it, either – people may feel that it was and is justifiable and desirable. What they can’t do is deny that it is happening.

  • Granni Trixie

    How very brave of you to put your head above the parapet. I will certainly look out for the book.

    In analysing ‘the NI situation’ I have always thought that media representations were part of the equation. However there was a dearth in the literature.
    I think that a key likely reason is the sheer amount of material which can be unmanageable,making it particularly important to define the area for examination.
    Scanning in media accounts to document has been left to the libraries for this reason rather than say the unis. Also why probably it was left to Bill Rolston to corner the market in media analysis of the troubles.Your contribution is particularly welcome if it makes a dent in this imbalance.

  • Poolbeg

    I think it is admirable that Stephen should give his take on it here and that his colleague should give his take on his own blog. I agree with Trixie that it is brave of both of them.

  • Stephen Baker

    Grannie and Poolbeg,
    Your comments are very much appreciated.

    Bill Rolston’s work on the Northern Ireland media is invaluable. His work on wall murals in particular helped to inspired my own interest in the alternative press, looking beyond the mainstream to more ‘grassroots’ forms of media. Greg and I have published in this area also and there is a section in the book on it.

    There also been some great work done at the University of Ulster by some of my colleagues. Martin McLoone has written extensively and impressively about Irish film and culture generally. Sarah Edge has looked at the relationship between feminism and nationalism on screen. And we have a very busy research school with a number of PhD students working in the area.

    I don’t think this work gets the publicity it deserves, which probably has something to do with the disreputable reputation of Media Studies generally. The subject is routinely cited and indicted everytime some opinion former wants to demonstrate the end of civilisation as we know it and/or the dumbing-down of education. Yet the relationship between the media, the public and the political process lies at the very heart of democracy. Without healthy and open public debate, carried on through various media and cultural forms, the quality of our democracy suffers. And that is, in essence, what our book is about.

    Thanks again.

    Good Luck,

  • Granni Trixie

    Sorry Stephen, you seem brainwashed but I hope that your book shows that you are an independant thinker.

    I am familiar with all the works you cite and find them interesting too . But particularly in relation to Rolston (although we should not personalise if possible) I read his politicval agenda as strongly influencing all that he writes. For that reason in particular pity he has cornerned the market on murals as well as the medja (and possibly “transitional justice” now, I see). If more academics did so there is less danger of particular views being taken as “the truth”.

  • Munsterview

    John O’N

    “………..I’m beginning (probably belatedly as others may well have been sitting waiting for me to catch up at this point) to get a sense that there is significant synergy between the contradictions in the relationships between unionism, loyalism and the state, the public representation of events in the media and current attitudes to the past……”

    You but put in a more restrained and coherent way a proposition that I advanced on the second thread on Fr. James. I had been skimming slugger for years, giving it no more or less attention than I had certain other sites.

    I registered on slugger for a specific purpose in relation to a relative of a late leading republican, to express my support for her situation, and got involved in some of the arguments. I had in more recent times taken my cue from the academic / cultural Northerners that I in the main interfaced currently interface with, that attitudes had changed.

    A few weeks on slugger soon disbursed me of that view, while there may be reasonably civilized exchanges at times, the old agendas have not gone away. The views expressed in the two threads on Fr James could have been expressed in 2010, most could have come from 2005, 2000, 1996, 1990n etc.

    In fact most of the views on expressed on these two threads are no different to those expressed in the months or years immediately after Claudy by the respective ‘sides’ Leaving aside the obvious of Old State warriors, who these days look down a computer screen instead of a sub-machine gun sights, but ‘ who have not gone away either you know’ !

    For them the fight go on and always will. That mindset cannot be changed, it was there in the mentality of the ‘Good Old Smithies’ up to the end. De Gaul had use the French Army to get their kind out Algeria before there was any prospect of peace.

    Anybody on the republican who was involved in the mechanics of spin, in the seventies and eighties, could slot right in and resume business as usual in counteracting the same attitudes on the unionist side of the divide as they did back then. ( Well alright, shoot to kill is no longer advocated as unionist policy….or is it ? )

    As ‘ Big Maggie ‘ was honest enough to share with us, the old unionist realities and attitudes are still there……. just not expressed in polite mixed company now days!

    What I expressed may have been crude and more direct, ……

    “Lets keep to politics……. do you know that there is only room for one set of religious victims on this Island and these were always Protestant……. even when they ruled the political roost they never stopped crying across the water that they were all about to be murdered in their beds !”

    but yet it all distills to the same thing…….. narrative there is a popular Native historical narrative and a popular Planter historical historical narrative…… both wrong. The Catholic / Nationalist one has appropriated the most of the protestant cultured heros……. scratch that….. have appropriated most of the Historical Culture Heros who were Protestant.

    Both cultures are the worse for this, contemporary protestant / unionists are alienated from these figures while catholic / nationalists honor and sing of them without any appreciation what so ever of the radical protestant values that motivated these fine people.

    This current academic year I will again sit around tables where these things are discussed and taken as read….. indeed it is required historical and political literacy….. but that view will not go out into the general public.

    In a cultural event some weeks ago down here a lecture was given on Casement but exploring how his protestant values motivated him. That lecture was given by an English academic, the son of a former high ranking British Army Officer, most of the crowd there were Catholic / Nationalist in outlook yet spend a night exploring and a weeks after discussing aspects of the protestant connections.

    Almost every one at that venue has near relatives involved in the War Of Independence….. and grandparents who had plenty of horror stories from the old Landlord / tenant days…. they had every reason for resentment, yet there was no residue of old hatreds.

    Change is possible…..but not unless the desire for change is there. If there is a recognition of this need for openness and change in the protestant / unionist side, I have yet to see the need for it spelled out from this source with any degree of urgency or awareness, especially in slugger!

  • Hello Comrades/Friends

    Yes, I’m Greg, Stephen’s co-author. I intended my blog to be anonymous etc but folks are catching on so what the hell! I’ve come out!! 🙂

    Anyway, Stephen has put our case well enough without me adding to it. The only thing I will say is that we’re really very relaxed about criticism because it keeps us on the ball and avoids complacency – the killer for any writer. We’re also keen to take our ideas out of the ivory tower and into the real world no matter what reaction we get. It’s just the way we’re wired and if you can’t take a bit of stick then you really shouldn’t put yourself out there in the first place.

    So thanks to all for at least taking an interest, regardless what you think of the book. And thanks to Slugger for putting it out there.

    Now there’s a post elsewhere on the site I really must respond to! You know the one…about controlling what bloggers write. Outrageous!