Cecil Taylor remembered. A BBC News NI chief who kept his head and steadied the nerves of colleagues under attack throughout the Troubles.

 


Cecil Taylor in the tiny BBC NI Newsroom, 1960s 

My first boss in the BBC Cecil Taylor, BBCNI News Editor  at the beginning of the Troubles and an influential editorial figure in the Corporation for many years thereafter, died this week aged 96. His career  ranged from another world in the 1950s through the 1970s and 80s when all had changed utterly.   The pre-Troubles BBC reflected  the dominant forces of  the establishment  which were unionist with a liberal veneer and a light leaven of cultural nationalism. In  1968-69 like most people and every other institution in Northern Ireland, the speed and momentum of the Troubles  hit the BBC   like an earthquake that never seemed to end.  Cecil wrote in Chronicle , the account of BBC NI in the Troubles: 

First, it was thought in London that Northern Ireland was such a quiet place that only a little of my time would be needed for the network news and the rest of the time I could work on radio news in the region. Second, as there was no film industry here and no camera crews available to hire, I would have to learn to use a camera. That information was carefully withheld until I took up duty.

In 1955, the news department consisted of one journalist who was the news editor, Leslie Frankland, and one secretary/typist. The output was a daily five-minute radio bulletin at 6.15pm, plus a 10-minute report on Fridays on the weeks proceedings in Parliament at Stormont. At the selection board for the job, the Controller at the time, Richard Marriott, asked what I thought of the bulletins. I said that they sounded as if they had been written in the Government press office at Stormont and that they virtually ignored the one-third of the population who were Roman Catholics. On my second day on duty, Marriott sent for me and told me he expected me to ensure that the bulletins reflected a community divided by religion and politics. That was a green light for changes…

The first television news programme from and for the region started on September 30, 1957. It was called Today in Northern Ireland and lasted for five minutes…

But expansion, and with it a greater critical faculty, was on the way to challenge the political conduct of  ” the faceless men” of unionism.

If there was one story that confirmed the BBCs editorial independence, it was the coverage, in January, 1964, of Springtown camp in Derry. This had been an Army camp during the war and when the troops left, people who needed homes moved in. They were still there in 1964, living in poor conditions. I sent Alan Reid with a crew to do a substantial film story. He got no co-operation from the City Council so I went to Derry to see if I could help. One of the most influential unionists there, Gerald Glover, told me he would make sure that nothing about Springtown was broadcast. I told him we would cover the story, with or without co-operation…

Then, out of the blue, the demands for  reform that were to give way to catastrophe.

I had been News Editor for three years when the Troubles began in 1968. Austin Currie made his protest about council house allocations in Tyrone and the first civil rights march took place from Coalisland to Dungannon on August 24. A civil rights march in Derry on October 5 was banned and when the police attacked the marchers in Duke Street, pictures of flailing batons and bleedings protestors went around the world. The lid had blown off the pressure cooker and there was no way of putting it back. Northern Ireland had been destabilised and we were in for 30 years of seeing the country tear itself

Cecil’s firm grasp of editorial independence was vigorously tested when BBC journalists from London arrived in force to cast cold eyes on “John Bull’s political slum.” As violence increased and pressures on the media and the  BBC in particular began to  mount, Cecil’s greatest characteristics came to the fore. Although not the most creative of minds, he had a stolidity and  self confidence that helped steady nerves in the Belfast newsroom and in London HQ, coping with pressures  that verged on civil war and revolution. For unionists, why was the BBC not behaving  as the British Broadcasting Corporation and standing up for their cause?  From nationalists came complaints of  playing down army abuses, accepting anaesthetised versions of events and a failure of examine the root causes of violence,  which they held to be Partition.

These tensions were never to abate; indeed they increased and survive  in amended form today. Events were being dictated from outside the political system yet demanded coverage. To governments thrashing around for  effective  responses , coverage gave terrorists “the oxygen of publicity”. And their instinct was to turn off the tap.   (Incidentally l wonder how society and the media  would have coped if we had had  24 hour news and the Internet during the Troubles ).

This is not the moment to rehearse  the long and complicated story of the media  during the Troubles or different views of  impartiality and balance. But here is a  flavour of one episode when the BBC came under extreme  government pressure to reduce objective coverage  which amounted to a frontal  challenge to its independence. It’s known to many of us as the second Battle of Culloden, because it took place in 1976, in the Culloden Hotel near Hollywood between BBC chiefs and the then Labour Secretary of State Roy Mason and other members of the establishment. A strong flavour of the meeting was given in the Guardian’s 2006 obituary for Jimmy Hawthorne, then BBCNI Controller and Cecil’s immediate boss.  Cecil was the essential note taker whose testimony  helped to shape the BBC’s response to  government  pressure  to reduce coverage of  IRA activity and ban  interviews with them entirely.

A pompous Labour politician, Mason called him “Jimmy boy” and told him: “Bloody gentlemen of the BBC think they are above criticism … Airey Neave and Margaret Thatcher have come to see me and we’re absolutely agreed that there should be no increase in your licence fee unless you put things right…” Thatcher was Conservative leader and Neave her Northern Ireland Secretary designate.

Perhaps  the most penetrating assessment of  the second Battle of Culloden was written by the greatly  esteemed and  much missed Maurice Hayes, reviewing the best account of the BBC and the Troubles by Robert Savage. Maurice had been a member of the BBCNI Advisory Council before the Troubles,  a rare Catholic senior civil servant during them and later a key  member of the Patten Commission on police reform.

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

( I disagree with Maurice about the UWC Strike coverage.  Although hardly error free, its impact registered from near continuous radio coverage  for several days, like a  prototype 24 News service. The SDLP  objected but the stark fact remains: the strike, run really by the UDA, brought the place to a halt and overthrew an already fatally weakened fledging power sharing government. It can never be proved one way or another but I doubt  that  the coverage significantly emboldened them more than the failure of the security forces to take down the barricades. The army were determined to avoid ” a war on two fronts.”)

Maurice continues:

With renewed direct rule, the war went on between government and BBC. In what became the notorious Second Battle of Culloden, Mason assembled a cast of Unionist notables to batter BBC governors and 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 the 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.

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.

Amid all the  top level  excitement perhaps Cecil Taylor’s main achievement was to provide a big part of the shield to us in the rank and file from those top level pressures  to allow us to  get on with the essential job.  (In my very early days when I phoned him to say I’d just been criticised by a QC in court, he replied ; “ Go and get  yourself a good strong –  cup of coffee.” Not all BBC managers down the years had his self confidence and stolidity. Frankly, rightly or wrongly, I never gave a fig for Roy Mason. In  the era of social media when transparency and accountability are all the rage, that would be much more difficult today. Although absolutely an Ulsterman, Cecil Taylor could not be patronised as narrow minded.  Instead he was  valued and respected  as  the go – to source of  invaluable local knowledge and good judgement.  May he rest in peace .


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