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CBS 60 Minutes on Gerry Adams: Rewriting history for prime time US viewers

The controversial CBS 60 Minutes documentary was an ideal opportunity to put Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams on the spot. Instead, it was a botched journalistic mish-mash masquerading as historical truth, says Malachi O'Doherty

Published 10/04/2015

Gerry Adams speaks during the CBS interview
Gerry Adams speaks during the CBS interview
Mary Travers with her father Tom and her mother Joan
The scene of the shooting in Windsor Avenue in which Mary Travers lost her life

The sad thing about the big 60 Minutes expose on Gerry Adams is how superficial it was and how incompetently it was done.

Of course, a lot of journalists have tried to fillet Adams and found it almost impossible to penetrate that smug reserve, but this did not surely need to be such an ineptly constructed account of the Troubles.

Take the simple description of the period as "a war between Catholics and Protestants" and "one of the longest wars of the 20th century". Reporter Scott Pelley talked of how the Catholics rebelled against British rule.

Different people from different perspectives will take issue with these simplifications in different ways.

I reject the use of the word "war", though I accept that others use it. The rules of war did not apply; the ordinary civil law did, though it was flexed and contorted.

There was no general rebellion against partition by the Catholic population. The nearest to a broad movement of protest was the civil rights agitation.

Yes, most of the members were Catholic, but they were not motivated by Catholic theology. And they were arguing for British rights in a part of the UK.

Now, maybe that is all a bit too much to encapsulate in a short link in a documentary film, but was an untruth required in order to summarise history as journalism?

Catholics and Protestants fighting each other is a gross misrepresentation of the Troubles. It implies that the violence of republican and loyalist paramilitaries was endorsed by the wider communities.

That simply isn't true. The republican movement was only ever able to win majority support among voting Catholics after the end of the IRA campaign. And the loyalist politicians were never able to represent more than a fraction of the Protestant community. Do these facts not matter?

On the one hand, CBS may argue that it had to simplify things for an American audience. Is there no value in their work having credibility among the very people it is about?

And, actually, they undermined their own case against Gerry Adams by presenting him as the leader of an organisation which fought for the whole Catholic population.

Adams is, himself, a practising Catholic, but many in the IRA were not. To describe the IRA as Catholic overlooks all the tensions between the republican movement and the Catholic Church. It also overlooks the whole revolutionary Left-wing thrust of the IRA under Adams' own guidance.

You would think from the programme that the only objective of the IRA was to get rid of the border, but for a time it was ardently socialist.

But the people who are most entitled to be insulted by this broad generalisation about the Catholic IRA are the ordinary Catholic people who opposed the IRA - the majority of them never supporting the IRA and some of them suffering horrific sacrifices for their tenacity in defending the rule of law and the conduct of civil society.

Take Mary Travers, a Catholic murdered by the IRA while coming from Mass. Scott Pelley's report would have you imagine that she was an anomaly.

The Historical Enquiries Team found that the two armed IRA hitmen who ambushed the Travers family tried to kill all of them. And why? Perhaps because Tom Travers, the magistrate and Mary's father, who was wounded in that attack, was due to resume his trial of Gerry Adams and others for disorderly behaviour while electioneering (that trial had been adjourned after Adams himself had been shot while travelling from the court for a lunch break).

But that's just the sort of complexity you get into when you try to bring nuance into your reportage of Northern Ireland. Best to stick to the simplifications, even if they match up with the most naive sectarian broadstroke bigotry and taint us all with the blame.

There are other huge blunders in the report. It is unfair to Richard O'Rawe to say that he "ran a hunger strike that led to the death of 10 prisoners".

O'Rawe was the PRO for the hunger strikers and tried hard to get the strike ended. Since then, he has written two books exposing the way in which the people who did run the strike prolonged it beyond a reasonable offer to settle on.

This was O'Rawe's heroic contribution to the writing of our history and for it to be not only ignored in the story, but glibly summarised in words that make him responsible is a cruel injustice.

But the point of the report is to put the whole credit for disclosure of the dirty machinations behind the Troubles on one source - the Boston College archive.

Everything would be fine but for that. The shooting stopped 17 years ago. Clearly, CBS knows nothing of the dissidents. Neither does it know much of the work of writers, journalists and better filmmakers than themselves, like the BBC Spotlight team, who have worked for decades clarifying and investigating.

The Boston College archive was a great idea. One of its greatest offshoots was O'Rawe's disclosure and his brave decision to make it public himself after telling it to Anthony McIntyre for the archive.

But it is a fairytale to say that the Boston College alone and uniquely threatens the peace and does so by undermining the credibility of Gerry Adams. Hands up who believes Adams was not in the IRA. Nobody. What's changed? Nothing.

Helen McKendry is also one of the champions of truth who have suffered greatly to tell their story. She didn't speak to the Boston College researcher. She wasn't what CBS calls a "fighter", or a "soldier".

It diminishes the value of the story she has told to give all the credit to Boston College, in the same way that it diminishes the death of Mary Travers and hundreds of other Catholics killed, or maimed, by the IRA to describe the republicans as a Catholic militia leading a Catholic rebellion.

And then there was the bit about the arrest of Gerry Adams and the line that "Protestants wanted to see him hanged". A lazy viewer will assume from that that we have the death penalty here.

The point at which Adams is viewed as having disgraced himself in the interview is when he says that the murder of Jean McConville is the "sort of thing that happens in war".

Well, actually, he is right, though he would not allow that to justify actions by his enemies, just his friends.

The point at which he might have been nailed with a thoughtful question was when he said that he defended the right of the IRA "and what it engaged in".

What? All of what it engaged in? The bombing of commercial targets? The shooting of workers?

How exactly did all that help, Gerry? You'd have been waiting all day for a question like that.

And, of course, he'd have wriggled out of it, anyway.

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