Drama shows best how much Northern Ireland has changed

The distinguished  Arts commentator Mark Lawson has an interesting blog post in the Guardian pegged to the new BBC2 thriller series “The Fall,” set in Belfast and launched on Monday night.  He uses it to discuss the impact of  “British ” in  the  BBC. He rightly observes the big change, that it’s now  Scotland with its independence  debate where the  “British” in” BBC” expresses more of an issue than it does in today’s Northern Ireland.  However I think he gets “The Fall” slightly wrong, although the headline lets him down.

Unless Mark knows more than I do as a mere viewer, this show is shaping up as the grim story of a serial killer that has nothing directly to do with the Troubles other than making deft references to the place, its new middle class and its history. Perhaps the thirties- something male killer whom we have already met was traumatised by some Troubles event as a child; we shall see. The show portrays  Belfast as a small Chicago, more or less normal but with an undertow that evokes a delicious thrill about a terrible past. The series is grist to the mill of creating Belfast as a voguish backdrop for film noir treatments that boost its improbable appeal as a tourist destination. To this exile anyway, it also emphasises how so much has changed.

Mark is right to differentiate between the local audience and viewers further afield. Locally did we do  so badly down the decades?  Government pressure is often a favoured explanation for deficiencies but  that’s  too easy.

The truth was often more practical and mundane.  Locally – and this is a part- explanation not an excuse –  the blunt fact was that  a small staff was swamped by  the daily flood of terrible incidents and understandably lacked the perspective to stand back at first. It took years – too long – for Spotlight to develop and UTV to rival it. .  RTE with its own preoccupation south of the border, likewise. (Spotlight’s first editor Jack Watson died this week at 89. Bernard Cornwell ( Wiggins) his successor and the author of the Sharp history novels recalled Jack’s contribution in this Chronicle piece).

We were also starved of airtime. It was over six years into the Troubles before Radio Ulster was launched.

There were lots of other explanations for whatever shortcomings there were : recoil and horror at what was going on; too much reliance on the police for reporting incidents – ( but it would have taken a small army to check them all out );  struggles with personal biases and beliefs. Emotional impartiality is not that easy to achieve. Editorial impartiality can become the lowest common denominator.

In the early days, national network reports implied devastating criticism of loyalist sectarianism and one party rule that shocked and dismayed much of the unionist community.   Reporters were sometimes physically attacked. But overall the audience quickly learned to apply their own filters to what they saw and heard, for good or ill. The BBC’s record was traced memorably in the 1980s by the late Rex Carthcart. The verdict stands I believe, that the BBC won widespread acceptance across the community and the world  as a prime news broadcaster. But thank God we had rivals and competitors.

As “the long war” became partly covert between insurgents and the British authorities, did we duck issues? Never entirely but we often failed to do them justice. You can read about it in what remains the most searing indictment of  the whole electronic media in Liz Curtis –  still compelling if overdone on British conspiracy theories. There were paramilitary conspiracies too,  just one or two.  With so much that was covert on all sides it’s inevitable that charges can be made that can’t be fully proven or refuted. Hindsight is a wonderful thing and it’s misleading to represent the story of 30 years of broadcasting mainly through its peaks and troughs.

Mark has a point when he says : “the best analyses have inevitably come during the period since the peace process” Paramilitaries and even “securocrats”  felt freer to talk. But programme makers took risks routinely well before 1994, not all of them incurring the high costs of Death on the Rock and Real Lives:   On the Edge of the Union.

Drama tells a different sort of truth.  We could turn to it with relief not only for escapism and wit but to show how people coped with political turmoil while going through the same social changes as elsewhere.   I believe local people by and large loved feeling the pang of recognition they experienced for the first time when they watched the Billy plays.  If drama ever creates a problem it is that the glamour of “struggle” can overshadow its degeneracy, even if nemesis is the result in the end.

Some years ago Robin Wilson presented  powerful criticisms of how the media were too content to continue travelling along sectarian ruts.  If they still  do, it’s  largely a failure of imagination that keeps them there. When local politicians attack the media they know how little direct leverage they have.

But broadcast journalism has its own limitations aside  from the obligation of impartiality. The media  – certainly the BBC – cannot depict an ideal society divorced from the dominant reality. News’s fundamental values are those of philosophy’s idea of “ the reasonable person,”  a civilised construct that  is never entirely fulfilled.  Broadcast news cannot set its own independent agenda whether progressive or not.  While it can look under the surface for better ways, it is also bound to reflect the structures and conventions of the society it serves.  These can be  – and are –  questioned  elsewhere than News. It was and remains a godsend that  governance for local broadcasters  was and remains  finally in the wider  UK context and would be concerning if this was  radically to change. However not all is perfect.  Robin Wilson quoted Maurice Hayes bang on with a  criticism that still has echoes today.

Among the less endearing traits of the Ulster people in relation to their present conflict is a lack of humility and a poor sense of proportion. We take a perverse pride in the length and intensity of the struggle—no conflict is better than ours—and we find it difficult to understand how Northern Ireland does not dominate the headlines in the world press … In part, this results from the introverted and narcissistic immediacy of the local media in publicising the daily bomb, eternally recycling the views of a small number of politicians and continually examining the entrails for political comment, and concentrating on local issues to the exclusion of everything else.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London