Belfast Telegraph

BBC NI 'had bias against Catholics' during Troubles, claims veteran journalist Dillon

  • Amazed that top execs held Twelfth 'drinks parties'
  • Colleague joked about being 'the token Catholic'
  • 'Criticised' for coverage of Anglo-Irish Agreement

By Claire McNeilly

A legendary BBC NI journalist has accused his former employers of being biased against Catholics and nationalists during the Troubles.

Martin Dillon, who worked as a reporter and producer at the corporation during the worst years of violence, claimed that the BBC "paid scant regard to nationalist culture or social injustice" at that time, so much so that one of his colleagues described himself as the "token Catholic".

The renowned author also revealed that, on getting to Ormeau Avenue, he was amazed to witness senior BBC NI executives holding an annual drinks party with unionist politicians to celebrate the 'Twelfth' parade marching past the building.

And Mr Dillon, an 18-year corporation veteran who introduced the then groundbreaking Talkback programme to Radio Ulster over 30 years ago, further claimed that the Beeb's Northern Ireland newsroom "relied almost exclusively on information supplied by RUC and British Army press offices".

His explosive claims, in a new book about his career out on Monday, were challenged by ex-Radio Ulster chief Don Anderson, who told the Belfast Telegraph that it was actually loyalists, not nationalists, who believed that the BBC was biased against them.

Mr Dillon left Northern Ireland 25 years ago following death threats from paramilitaries and now resides in the USA.

He wrote in Crossing The Line: My Life On The Edge that BBC NI tended to appoint mostly high-profile unionist figures - including a former NI Prime Minister's wife - to the role of Governor, and further accused them of needlessly destroying precious archive film footage of the early days of the Troubles.

"I always felt the BBC did itself a disservice by appointing heavily politicised figures from one community to the role of overseeing broadcasting in Northern Ireland," he writes. Recalling his attempts to retrieve BBC archive film of the late Brian Faulkner, who would become Northern Ireland's most senior politician, marching through a predominantly Catholic area of Co Down in the Fifties - because he "believed the footage of Faulkner provided a singularly potent image of how Unionist and Orange Order triumphalism of the period asserted itself" - Mr Dillon said he was "reliably informed" that it had been gifted to his wife when she retired as BBC NI Governor.

He adds: "I informed Lady Faulkner I needed to locate the film. She was not helpful. At the same time, I discovered that most of BBC Northern Ireland's archive film footage of past political events, including the early days of the Troubles, had been destroyed in the 1970s."

Mr Dillon said that when he mentioned this, "others hinted the archive was destroyed 'by mistake'". They also said "'somebody' had given permission to get rid of unnecessary archive files, and the person charged with the task destroyed a large number of files representing a vitally important record."

Another of the 'Shankill Butchers' author's claims is that a senior BBC NI editorial figure was well-known for refusing to interview a priest in case he upset his friends in the Orange Order. And he reveals: "Others saw Catholics as the source of the violence. These views had the cumulative effect of ensuring BBC news personnel had no lines of communication into the Catholic community."

Mr Dillon said his then boss, Cecil Deeney, "was one of a small number of Catholics working in BBC NI programming, and that "there was some truth" when another colleague, Terry Sharkey, once joked about being a token Catholic at the Corporation.

He admits that he was "amazed" when BBC bosses gathered with unionist politicians and dignitaries to celebrate the Twelfth on the sixth floor of Broadcasting House.

And, during the Ulster Workers Strike in the Seventies, he recalls being "asked by Dick Francis and Ronald Mason to use my paramilitary contacts to acquire UDA passes to get BBC executives through paramilitary roadblocks".

But the award-winning Falls Road native reserved some of his harshest criticism for the late James Hawthorne, BBC Controller in the late Seventies and Eighties, whom he claimed tried to influence the way he reported the contentious Anglo-Irish Agreement.

"A year had passed since the implementation of the Agreement," he writes. "Unionists bitterly opposed it and I found myself facing criticism from some BBC figures for allowing unionists to appear on the airwaves to voice their opposition to it.

"One evening, James Hawthorne summoned me to his office to express his displeasure with my coverage of the Agreement. He stressed that I should not forget I was employed by the British Broadcasting Corporation.

"Without issuing an editorial edict, he was in effect telling me, in an underhand way, to get in line with British government policy."

Don Anderson, who was Mr Dillon's immediate editorial boss at one time, told the Belfast Telegraph that "loyalists did not like the BBC".

"Reporters and camera crews working on the streets were quite often attacked by loyalist crowds because they believed the BBC was biased against them," he said.

"When I was a reporter I was shot at by a loyalist with a revolver. Luckily, it missed."

Mr Anderson added: "Only Martin can say whether or not James Hawthorne told him to adhere to British policy when it came to reporting on the peace process."

Dr Hawthorne, who was controller from 1979 to 1989, died in 2006.

Mr Dillon, now in his late 60s, is one of the foremost chroniclers of the Troubles.

A former Belfast Telegraph reporter, he wrote his first book, Political Murder in Northern Ireland, when he was still working for newspapers.

He joined the BBC in the Seventies as a reporter and was later promoted to programme editor. His books include The Shankill Butchers, The Dirty War and God and the Gun.

A BBC spokesman said: "BBC Northern Ireland is proud of its role in reflecting and serving the entire community.

"Accounts of people and events in the past will sometimes differ - and may even be disputed. We cannot comment on the specifics of an unpublished book at this stage."

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph