Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

The media deserves praise for its contribution to peace

Reporters had to climb a steep learning curve during the Troubles, but the criticism they faced was often unjustified, writes Maurice Neill

Even the smallest truth was hard to find in the fog of war and it will be many years yet before we know the whole truth.

The Irish and British governments at first attempted to censor coverage, to withhold the "oxygen of publicity" from armed groups, and then joined the propaganda game.

Reporters and analysts did their best to present an accurate account of events and a balance of opinions in spite of dirty tricks employed by all participants. Most recognised they were prisoners of history and verifiable truth was a casualty of conflict.

It was broadcasting which brought the 'truth' about life under a Stormont regime to the attention of the world. Television footage of a beating meted out by police officers to civil rights protesters, taken by RTE in 1968, gave the issue an international profile.

But in the electronic newsrooms there was a struggle for the Holy Grail of impartiality which often caused friction among journalists.

In 1969 Martin Bell "made a fool of himself" when he was persuaded to use the term "refugees" instead of "fleeing Catholics" because it was BBC style and policy to "calm things down". The entire board of RTE was dismissed by the Irish government in 1972 for permitting a broadcast with an IRA spokesman. Mary McAleese, now Ireland's President, was branded an IRA sympathiser by some RTE colleagues because of her open passion for a balanced view of northern republicans instead of the narrow wisdom of the political establishment in 1981. Most newspapers refused to sit on the fence, often courageously.

The Republic's largest-selling daily, the Irish Independent, was consistent in its condemnation of the IRA, while the Daily Mirror called for Troops Out and resettlement grants for unionists.

The Belfast offices of the Independent and the Mirror, and all three local dailies, were damaged by bomb blasts.

The News Letter - the daily paper of unionists - also paid a commercial price for supporting of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It lost the support of many in the unionist establishment and thousands of readers for backing power-sharing before decommissioning had taken place.

Many journalists paid a heavy price. The Sunday World's Martin O'Hagan was shot dead. His colleague Jim Campbell survived a loyalist gun attack. Peter Somersett of the BBC, Cyril Cain of the Mirror and Alan Lewis of the Daily Mail were injured by baton rounds fired by the security forces.

Many reporters still live with threats. Only last month the Sunday World's northern editor Jim McDowell was viciously attacked by a four-man gang in Belfast.

In Ireland there is a tradition of moving from 'guns to government' using the media to communicate 'truth'. Eamon De Valera fought in the 1916 Rising and founded the Irish Press in 1931 to further his political ambitions and push forward the transition to a Republic, finally declared in 1948.

Senior figures in the unionist Press were rewarded for their role in the 1921 election which secured partition and a parliament at Stormont. Trevor Henderson at the News Letter and Robert Baird at the Belfast Telegraph received knighthoods. Samuel Cunningham of the Northern Whig was given a seat in the Northern Ireland Senate.

Senior republicans and loyalists recognised the power of publicity early in the Troubles.

By 2005 Sinn Fein had perfected a publicity machine which included a new national newspaper - Daily Ireland. It survived long enough to play a role in putting the party into government in Northern Ireland and a cabinet post within reach in the Republic.

Ian Paisley launched his Protestant Telegraph in 1966 to oppose liberal commentary in the established unionist Press, and at the height of the Troubles paramilitaries openly courted journalists in an attempt to secure legitimacy. David Ervine secured an Assembly seat for the political wing of the UVF before his untimely death in 2007.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were latecomers to the game, but became skilled players when they knew the time was right.

It is time to stop shooting the messenger. Recognition of the contribution to peace made by the media and journalists in Northern Ireland is long overdue.

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