The BBC's Northern Irish Troubles

From its inception as an unabashedly ‘unionist’ organization, the BBC in Belfast has had a problematic history. Has the corporation of today managed to shake off the dilemmas of the past?

Peter Geoghegan
Peter Geoghegan
5 January 2016

Broadcasting House, Belfast. Credit: Flickr / Man Vyi

In August 1969, rioting broke out in Derry. The unrest soon spread to Belfast. A young Catholic boy died after being shot by the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The British army was called in. Northern Ireland was on the cusp of 'the Troubles', a conflict that would last 30 years and leave more than 3,000 people dead. 

BBC Television in Belfast had the job of transmitting dispatches from the restive ‘province’ to the rest of the UK. As sectarian bloodshed broke out on the streets, local controller, Waldo Macguire, declared that the BBC should “modify the presentation" of the news "in a way designed to avoid extreme provocation".

That the Northern Irish branch of the BBC downplayed the scale of the violence in its early days – and avoided interrogating the root causes of the unrest – is laid bare in Robert Savage’s excellent recent monograph ‘The BBC's Northern Irish Troubles: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland’. 

Thirty years on, BBC Northern Ireland is hardly a mouthpiece of the British state. Yet it still struggles at times to articulate a distinct, post-peace process identity.

‘God save the Queen’

From its inception the BBC in Belfast was clearly tied to the unionist establishment, which held power unopposed in the Northern Irish parliament at Stormont since the creation of the state in 1920. Four years later, the inaugural first Northern Irish radio broadcast opened with ‘Belfast Calling! Belfast Calling!’, immediately followed by a rendition of 'God Save the Queen'.

As Savage notes, between the wars, unionist leaders saw the BBC as "a vital link to a British culture they considered their own." Local BBC director generals routinely rubbed shoulders with political leaders at the exclusive Ulster Reform Club.

The Catholic minority had limited access to the national broadcaster. A BBC Northern Ireland advisory council, set up in 1946 ostensibly to make the corporation more representative, had just three nationalists among its 20 members – despite more a third of the population being Catholic/nationalist. 

At the same time, the unionist hierarchy was wary of any journalism that would shine a light on the sectarian inequality that riddled Northern Ireland – and would later play an important role in igniting the Troubles.

While other nations in the UK were embracing the transfer of greater broadcasting control, unionist politicians rejected proposals for BBC Northern Ireland autonomy, fearing it could lead to more coverage of the divided nature of the local society.

That said, unionists were also wary of 'mainland' journalists, and the BBC didn’t always toe the line. In 1959, the popular broadcaster Alan Whicker came to Northern Ireland to make a series of short programmes. The result, broadcast on the BBC’s Tonight programme, bore Whicker's trademark style, peeking behind the curtain at the quotidian reality of ordinary life. There were shots of Belfast bars, ‘No Pope’ graffiti and armed police. 

Prime minister Terence O’Neill was furious, expressing “concern and indignation” at the “unbalanced” picture portrayed by Whicker's film in a statement read out in the Northern Irish senate. A loyalist crowd at a football match attacked a BBC camera crew.

Conflict and control

Against the backdrop of decades of decidedly soft-focus journalism, the BBC in Northern Ireland was woefully under-equipped to deal with the ‘Troubles’ when violence broke out in 1969. Many of the senior producers were English, and the station produced just five hours of TV content each week.

As the violence intensified –  and particularly in the wake of Bloody Sunday when the British army killed 14 unarmed protestors in Derry – the BBC came under increasing pressure, both within Northern Ireland and in its network-wide coverage of the conflict.

Indeed, when it came to Northern Ireland, the corporation's relations with the British state became increasingly ambivalent throughout the 1970s. RUC chief constables often attempted to force the press to assist in police investigations, putting pressure on journalists to name sources. At least once, a BBC film crew was roughed up by the notoriously heavy-handed police.

Broadcasts that questioned British policy in Northern Ireland enraged Labour and Conservative Governments alike. In 1981, then BBC political editor John Simpson was criticised for referring to the death of Hunger Striker Bobby Sands as “a great propaganda victory” for the IRA on network news. Simpson was right, of course – by the time Sands died after 66 days refusing food he was a Member of Parliament and an international cause celebre. An incensed Margaret Thatcher pledged to deny the IRA the ‘oxygen of publicity’. 

In October 1988, the infamous ‘broadcasting ban’ was introduced. This rather farcical legislation prohibited the voices of representatives of Sinn Fein and other republican and loyalist organisations from being broadcast on TV or radio in the UK. Actor Stephen Rea was among those who provided voiceovers of Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams on nightly news bulletins. The ban was only lifted in 1994, in the wake of the Downing Street Declaration and the start of the peace process.


Gerry Adams was banned from being broadcast. Credit: Sinn FeinMoves such as the Broadcasting Ban were aimed primarily at the BBC and its UK-wide broadcasts. But within Northern Ireland itself the outbreak of the Troubles highlighted that the corporation's regional coverage was no longer fit for purpose.

In the wake of the massive loyalist Ulster Workers' Council strike, which brought Northern Ireland to its knees in 1974, the old BBC Radio 4 opt-out was finally replaced with a dedicated station, BBC Radio Ulster. Radio Foyle followed a few years later on the other side of the country, in Derry. 

Through the 1980s and 1990s, as Northern Ireland remained the biggest domestic story, the BBC's presence in Belfast continued to grow. At the same there was recognition in London that the Belfast wing of the corporation needed to have more local control of its output, with more Northern Irish-only content produced. 

By the early 2000s, the peace process had largely bedded in. But Belfast remained the largest newsroom outside London.

London still calling the shots?

Since the turn of the millennium, however, BBC Northern Ireland has faced a serious of cutbacks. Some £19 million has been shaved off budgets during the lifespan of the current licence fee.  Sectarian conflict is not the headline grabbing story it once was – as the paucity of Northern Irish coverage on network news bulletins attests. In the absence of political and security stories, the number of BBC journalists has been scaled back. Staff are down 22 per cent since 2007, with further job losses likely in the coming years. 

BBC Northern Ireland’s funding comes from London, which brings with it a sense that head office still calls the shots in Belfast. “The BBC here still looks to London for its editorial policy. Which has a psychological effect. There is a lack of confidence,” says a former senior BBC Northern Ireland producer.

Northern Ireland does not have control of its own programme slots, which are still released to the station from the BBC HQ London. Any proposed local-only programmes must add at least 2 per cent onto the average network share – a high-bar that can discourage risk-taking.

Unlike other arms of the BBC in Scotland and Wales, Northern Ireland has largely struggled to attract funding to create network content. One programme that is regularly made in Belfast is Panorama. Around a quarter of the BBC’s flagship current affairs strand is produced in Belfast, but local subjects rarely, if ever, feature.

Behind the times

Meanwhile, Northern Ireland outside Broadcasting House in Belfast is changing. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the media, where investigative websites such as The Detail look as much to Europe and the Republic of Ireland as they do to events on ‘the mainland’. Independent Northern Irish companies are springing up – in 2014 the BBC in Belfast commissioned almost £5.5 million worth of programming from indies. Co-productions with southern outfits have become more common.

Irish media north and south is increasingly integrated. How Sinn Fein fare in next year’s Irish general election will be the biggest political story of the spring on both sides of the border. The local BBC, in contrast, is still seen by many as a ‘small u’ unionist organisation, even if this claim says more about the broadcaster’s institutional history than its current output. 

Back in August 1969, Waldo Macguire said that if the BBC did not “modify” its presentation of the sectarian violence on the streets then it would have to report the news as if it “were taking place in a foreign country”. The controller rejected that idea out of hand, but more than three decades on, how to adequately reflect the complex reality of Northern Irish life remains a very real challenge for the BBC in Belfast.

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