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Wednesday 27 March 2013

*Northern Ireland only: Why is the BBC ghettoising the Troubles?

Why is excellent TV about the Troubles, the war in Northern Ireland and Britain, only shown in Northern Ireland?

This month the BBC broadcast a fascinating and moving documentary, from which the above image comes. It is one of the most famous photographs of the whole war. It shows the priest Fr Alec Reid administering the last rites to a dying soldier, who had strayed into the wrong place and been beaten to death and shot by the IRA.

The documentary was '14 Days' and covers a fortnight during which the British state shot three IRA members in cold blood in Gibraltar, then their funeral was attacked by a Loyalist gunman and then two soldiers were killed. When he was administering to the soldier Fr Reid had in his pocket a letter which he was carrying in his capacity as a go between. Reid was one of the earliest actors to attempt to bring together key parties to try to get a ceasefire, that letter was from Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams to the leader of the 'moderate Catholic' SDLP, John Hume.

The film uses the device of those two weeks and the focus on one man to try to tell a bigger story of how individuals can have great impacts during momentous times, times when all hope appears lost. It's cinematic and has many powerful images like the one above, the capturing of which itself forms part of the narrative.

'14 Days' is not without its problems.

Professor John D Brewer writes that Reid's pain as he relives this time is seen in his face but it isn't properly explained in the film:
I am certain that what peaceful future Northern Ireland has is down in no small measure to the courageous individuals like Father Reid in the churches who brought paramilitaries, politicians, civil society and others together in sacred spaces.They were not all Catholic clerics. Many were Protestants. We glimpsed in 14 Days the equally seismic role of clergy like Harold Good, Ken Newell and others, working alongside or in parallel to Father Reid.

But there was one thing we didn’t get from this otherwise excellent programme. The Catholic and Protestant clergy more or less acted on their own authority, outside the conservative, cautious institutional church. They were mavericks, independents, easily left out on a limb when the secret back-channel dialogue they were facilitating became public and the institutional church disowned them.

Father Reid was pilloried by the Catholic Church – as was Ken Newell by some of his fellow Presbyterians. Only the Methodist Church gave its peacemakers something approaching official backing. And that is why Father Reid paid such an emotional price for his compassionate commitment to peacemaking.


The institutional churches did not perform with honour in trying to establish peace and relegated themselves to burying the dead and comforting the widows. The job of getting their hands dirty was left to a select brave few and it is appropriate to echo that never before was so much owed by so many to so few.
Mick Fealty, aka the blogger Slugger O'Toole, spoke with me about the film and echoed Brewer's criticism. Fealty said that a "more penetrating documentary would have looked in more depth at the context and the deaths of the three on Gibraltar to see where the political story was."

In that famous photo, Reid was carrying, says Brewer, "the first draft of the eventual blueprint that evolved later into the Downing Street Declaration and thence the Belfast Agreement." The 1998 Belfast Agreement, also known as the Good Friday Agreement, reestablished devolved government on the basis of power sharing.

But this version of history leads on to another problem, says Fealty, and one which comes back to the problem of British TV viewers not hearing about Northern Ireland. "I think it ['14 Days'] suffers from 'Peace Processism'", says Fealty. "This place is in a sustained state of cold war."

Brits don't want to know

Neely, Taylor, Adie, Bell
In another BBC Northern Ireland (BBC NI) show unseen in Britain four leading BBC journalists returned to review 'As Others See Us'. In this programme, veteran reporter Kate Adie made the observation, in a discussion recorded for the web, that when the war was hot it was understood that if the main BBC evening news led with "and today in Northern Ireland .." 20% of viewers would immediately switch off.

The four - Martin Bell, Kate Adie, Peter Taylor and Bill Neely - recall not just political and bureaucratic interference but too often a conscious pandering to British audiences understood to be disinterested, something they regret participating in. They bemoan the ratings culture which so many others have complained about infecting the BBC during the past fifteen years or so.

Yet we are talking about a civil war fought in the UK. One which cost over 3,000 lives and effected hundreds of thousands. Over 100,000 were injured. If the equivalent ratio of victims to population had been produced in Britain in the same period some 100,000 people would have died, and if a similar level of political violence had taken place, the number of fatalities in the USA would have been over 500,000, or about ten times the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam War.

The title of this programme suggests what the root problem is. 'As Others See Us' literally means 'us' and 'them', when we are all citizens of the same country. And we have a current situation in Northern Ireland which bears a resemblance to peace but which is 'peace' only if you discount the odd murder, defused bomb, sectarian attacks, mass rioting, 'peace walls' etcetera. More like the "cold war" Fealty speaks of.

Fealty says of '14 Days':
The core image in that programme is one that many journos in Belfast have talked about for years. The blood stained document from SF [Sinn Fein] with its intention to sue for peace. That is an emotional image, but it also tells you the main business was already complete by the time the two men died.. It's not the truth of the situation.

Real investigation is what many people are looking for, and are not being given. Largely for the reason that the peace settlement might not be sustainable if all the senior figures in the conflict were investigated fully ...
That's a question for the BBC in general, not just NI BBC. The 'Brits' also have something invested here -- Why shouldn't we see something like a show with star reporters on how the BBC covered this war? Why is that of interest only to viewers in Northern Ireland?

Not only do we deserve better coverage but, I would say, the BBC Charter demands it. We should surely be better informed about this 'cold war' going on in part of our country -- and how we got into it.

BBC Ghettoisation

'14 Days' may not be perfect but it is an extremely well made film. It holds up alongside a mass of other storytelling documentaries, the likes of which BBC Four especially broadcast and all of which could be criticised in one way or another.

Looking at TV which is about the Troubles, BBC UK (Britain) has broadcast very little over the past decade. There was a BBC Two drama last December, Fifty Dead Men Walking. Then back to 2008 for a BBC One 9pm documentary, The Day the Troubles Began. Film Titanic Town got a BBC One 1am screening a year ago, and 9pm BBC Two in 2007. Five Minutes of Heaven was a BBC commissioned film shown on BBC Two in 2009. Last July the Country Tracks series visited the border and discovered "how the Northern Ireland Troubles have shaped rural life."

Most recently there was a documentary about the Derry band The Undertones on BBC Four. Which wasn't just about the Troubles and had more to do with The Undertones having produced what's widely regarded as the best pop song ever. I could find a solitary example of a BBC NI documentary crossing over the Irish Sea, one shown also on BBC Four about "three former bomb disposal officers who served at the height of the Northern Ireland conflict, return for the first time in 30 years to revisit the defining moments of their careers, and the moments when they almost lost their lives."

'Memory Man' Peter Heathwood
BBC NI have made many great documentaries. Here's one, shown last September, on Belfast's Europa Hotel, famous for being one of the most bombed hotels in the world.

There have been a series of excellent BBC NI half-hour programmes such as an amazing, moving one about Peter Heathwood, who has recorded every single BBC news bulletin for thirty-odd years and whose archive is now an immensely useful resource available for the "around half-a-million people in Northern Ireland [who] consider themselves to be victims and survivors of The Troubles." The experiences of one of those half a million people, Kate Carroll, whose husband was shot dead by dissidents, is explored in an episode of the series Story of a Lifetime.

BBC NI are currently showing a fantastic three-partner on the Ulster Presbyterians, one lauded in this post. This "major new landmark series" has illuminated not just Ulster history but American (and Scottish). So given that, its quality and the fact that it ticks a BBC must-have box marked 'religious output' it should really be on BBC Four, if not BBC Two. But it ain't.

It should be noted that there have been a number of interesting looking programmes on radio but I searched and could find almost nothing in the entire output of BBC News 24, BBCs One, Two, Three, or Four, over many years. Sense a pattern here?

The 'BBC NI only' shows are (or were) all also on iPlayer, which is the reason I know about them at all as I often skim the 'factual' strand, I didn't find them because they were featured on iPlayer -- but that's no excuse.

Why didn't 'As Others See Us', featuring four BBC legends and which was engaging in much loved -- and much mocked -- BBC navel-gazing, get a screening on, even, News 24? It makes no sense except if you're noticing that stories about the Troubles are being deliberately shunted into a ghetto.

Comment was sought from the producers of '14 Days' as well as the BBC on why the film was NI only. No response arrived.

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