Phil Ramsey
Ulster University

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Robert Savage

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2022, 320 pages.

ISBN: 9780192849748

For many years, there was intense academic focus on the role of the media and journalism during the period known as The Troubles in Northern Ireland (NI). Books such as War and Words (Rolston and Miller 1996) and Don’t Mention the War (Miller 1994) dealt extensively with the subject, while Schlesinger’s (1987) inclusion of the subject in the midst of his treatment of the BBC made a hugely important contribution. Following the Provisional IRA’s ceasefire (1994), the signing of the Good Friday Agreement (1998), and the (unsettled) period of political devolution that has followed, academic scrutiny of the media in NI has slowed – as might be expected (albeit, there are a number of notable exceptions). Some texts have revisited the BBC’s role in NI during the Troubles in part (Mills 2016; Seaton 2017), but it is Savage’s (2022) work that marks the fullest and most thorough treatment of the period that has been published for a long time. Building on his own research on the subject (Savage 2015), he argues that while many other important works on the subject exist, many of them have dated, while “None were able to access or fully exploit the critical archival sources used in this book” (2022: 8). Indeed, his meticulous reading of archival material relating to a number of committees at the Corporation, such as the Northern Ireland Broadcasting Council, and his addressing correspondence between key players, makes this a very valuable work.

The period in history that Savage focuses on was an extremely turbulent time in NI. Thatcher’s tenure as UK Prime Minister (1979–1990) was marked by some of the most violent years of the Troubles. During this period, various key actors come within Savage’s scope: the UK Government, which engaged in extensive propagandistic activities to try to control the flow of news, and one of whose senior civil servants “submitted a detailed proposal to the BBC Director-General and Board of Governors advocating that targeted censorship be deployed in Northern Ireland…” in 1976 (Savage 2022: 2); the British Army, which was deployed in earnest to Northern Ireland in 1969 and worked alongside the local police force, the Royal Ulster Constabulary; the BBC, which, as the UK national public service broadcaster, had had a presence in Northern Ireland since 1924 – and was very much the broadcaster for the Unionist establishment (272); and the Republican and Loyalist paramilitaries, who carefully attempted to construct their appearances in the broadcast media so as to advance their causes.

As reflected by the fact she is named in the title of the book, Thatcher is a key figure in this study. In fact, the book opens with the quotation which is most associated with her approach to media relations during this time: “And we must try to find ways to starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend” (Savage 2022: 1). In the remainder of the quote, Thatcher goes on to argue that while censorship was not desirable, the British media ought not be giving support to the combatants within Northern Ireland. This quote is of course archetypal, as this approach would persist during Thatcher’s tenure: “British journalists, both electronic and print, were constantly reminded they were from a country whose soldiers are being killed by the IRA and that their programmes could and did give succour to the enemy” (Maloney 1991: 13).

Savage then takes the reader on a very-well-structured account of the events that followed. Taking a thematic approach in his chapters (chronological within each one), he surveys subjects such as: the impact of the Troubles on Britain’s image and standing in the world, and how diplomats sought to improve it (Chapter 2); the rise of Sinn Féin as an electoral force in Northern Ireland through the 1980s, and of how the broadcasting establishment struggled to respond (Chapter 3); the Real Lives: At the Edge of the Union controversy, which was arguably one of the most significant events throughout the entire period (Chapter 4); the unenviable task of BBC Northern Ireland’s Controllers – James Hawthorne, and later the Rev Colin Morris – at Broadcasting House in Belfast, as they faced down one crisis after another. They were placed under continual pressure vis-à-vis what relationship the Corporation ought to have with the British state, while at the same time trying to be an independent public broadcaster aiming to maintain its editorial integrity and credibility (Chapter 5).

Early in the book, the events around the IRA Hunger Strikes and the death of Bobby Sands are explored in particular, with the BBC’s Director of News and Current Affairs describing “the atmosphere in the region [as] electric” (Savage 2022: 17) at this time. In this period, Savage recounts how the UK Government (in the form of the Northern Ireland Office) instead turned its attention to US television to try to influence the reporting narrative, having decided that to do so for the BBC and ITN “was futile” (2022: 21). The episode reminds of the international attention placed on the events in Northern Ireland at this time, with some 700 news personnel representing twenty-three countries sent to cover Sands’ funeral (2022: 23). Savage turns here to archival material by way of viewer complaints sent to the Independent Broadcasting Authority, showing how one correspondent suggests that the media’s attention was simply publicity for the IRA (27) – though the BBC’s position at this time was “to report on events in Northern Ireland even though this meant giving ‘the men of violence the very exposure they seek’” (Savage 2022: 33-34).

Savage turns to the Broadcasting Ban in Chapter 6, where his account of it is arguably the most extensive in scholarship to date. The ban – which was in force in Northern Ireland from 1988–1994 (alongside one in the Republic of Ireland from 1971–1994) – was put in place to primarily limit Republican, and to a lesser extent Loyalist combatants, access to the airwaves. In Northern Ireland, the events leading up to the ban are thoroughly set out (185-191), with Savage pointing out that the BBC’s Chairman, Marmaduke Hussey, communicated to the Home Secretary that the BBC would not agree with such an imposition, but privately “he could see some attractions of proceeding in this way” (2022: 188). In so doing, he suggested that still being able to report on events was “welcomed” (2022: 188). Savage states that Hussey’s response here was “extraordinary”, given “his thanking the Home Secretary for allowing Britain’s public service broadcaster to continue to report ‘events’” (2022: 188). Indeed, the BBC’s lead actor on governance, charged with maintaining the independence of the Corporation, was simply acquiescing to direct government censorship of what could be broadcast. Confusion reigned over how the Ban should be applied: for the most part, the voices of people such as Gerry Adams were over-dubbed by actors, repeating their words, though there were some exceptions to this (Savage 2022: 192; 200), where various clauses applied to who an individual was speaking on behalf of. For Maloney, the implications of the Broadcast Ban are far reaching: “A watershed had been reached in government relations with British journalism – never again could the boast be made that Britain enjoyed complete freedom of speech” (Maloney 1991: 10). Later in Chapter 7, Savage returns to the far-reaching implications of the Ban for the BBC, as it faced extensive opposition from the USA, and shows how figures from within the BBC led a fightback against it in 1993 (including from Tony Hall who would go on to lead the Corporation). In September 1994, the ban eventually came to an end (Savage 2022: 270).

Throughout the book, we see that the BBC is never placed in a straightforward position. For example: it struggled to increase coverage of Gaelic Athletic Association results, despite earlier compliance with requests not to report on it at all (Savage 2022: 59-60); at times it stood up to the prevailing political opinion by turning attention to injustices in how the legal system had dealt with Republican combatants (2022: 69-70); and its coverage of Paramilitary funerals was endlessly contested by one side or the other (2022: 76). Perhaps the extent to which the events of the Troubles almost constantly engulfed the BBC is seen in an anecdote from the career of Stuart Young, then Chairman of the BBC. Upon attending one meeting of the Northern Ireland Broadcasting Council, Young declared that “he was feeling slightly shell-shocked” (Savage 2022: 97) by the different perspectives in Belfast compared to what he was used to in London. The Corporation continually faced between multiple competing voices, was under vast political pressure from Governments on which it relied for the continuation of the licence fee, it saw changing expectations from its audiences, and even personal threat to its staff. Reading Savage’s account, it is difficult to conceive of a management in BBC Northern Ireland that was required to carry on with the day-to-day remit for broadcasting, producing thousands of hours of content entirely unrelated to the Troubles. Despite this, Hawthorne – who does not escape criticism in the book – persists, and deserves what must surely be the greatest amount of academic scrutiny given to his time in the role.

It is interesting to note that Savage provides context for the work at the outset by suggesting that while he acknowledges the work of media and cultural studies academics on the subject, he writes “as a historian” (2022: 8). However, while a number of media studies sources are drawn on in places throughout the book, the extent to which Savage leans on them is somewhat limited. Further engagement might have improved the overall political and cultural nuances around some of the events, though Savage is absolutely exhaustive in his attempts to understand the events. Indeed, he never shies away from taking on the controversial subjects, and his detailed and reliable authorship ensures that this book has made a very substantial contribution to the literature.

Works Cited

Maloney, ed. (1991). “Closing Down the Airwaves: The Story of the Broadcasting Ban.” The Media and Northern Ireland, edited by Bill Rolston. Basingstoke: Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd. 8-50.

Miller, David (1994). Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda, and the Media. London: Pluto Press.

Mills, Tom (2016). The BBC: Myth of a Public Service. London: Verso.

Rolston, Bill and David Miller, eds. (1996). War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader. Belfast: Pale Publications.

Savage, Robert (2015). The BBC’s ‘Irish Troubles’: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

Schlesinger, Philip (1987). “The Reporting of Northern Ireland.” Putting ‘Reality’ Together. London: Methuen, Inc. 205-243.

Seaton, Jean (2017). “Northern Ireland: ‘The Right Amount of Blood.’” Pinkoes and Traitors: The BBC and the nation, 1974–1987. London: Profile Books. 59-86.