Loyalist violence - the story vanishes

Paul Donovan explains how the mainstream media's erratic coverage of loyalist attacks in the north of Ireland helps to keep people in Britain ignorant of what is really goes on there

The recent distressing scenes witnessed outside Holy Cross school in Belfast as little five- and six-year-old children struggled to run a gauntlet of angry Loyalists were beamed around the world. Education minister and Sinn Féin member Martin McGuiness hit the nail on the head when he pointed out on the BBC's Newsnight programme how the scenes exposed what was really going on to Europe, the United States, Africa and the rest of the world.

Finally it would seem that at least some of the violence perpetrated by Loyalist mobs over recent months against Catholics has hit the headline news.

While newspapers like the Morning Star have reported the ongoing loyalist violence against Catholics the mainstream in Britain has largely ignored the issue. Loyalist violence was seen as somehow not part of the equation, it was only hold the front page if republicans were involved in violent acts.

Compare for one minute the coverage given to a loyalist bomb found in Ballycastle car park in early September and described as having the potential to produce "one of the most devastating death tolls of the troubles" with the IRA men in Columbia story.

The former event was well down the national newspapers agenda appearing on page 8 of the Telegraph, page 9 of The Guardian and was not reported at all in The Times.

The Columbian story grabbed front page attention.

The Newsnight programme is an interesting barometer of how violence against Catholics is reported.

On the programme mentioned above Martin McGuiness was interviewed by Kirsty Wark, who did not take long to move the agenda away from frightened little children trying to get to school and back onto the legitimacy of Catholics to exist in Northern Ireland at all.

Despite the fact that the story was about loyalist thugs stopping Catholic children getting to school, Wark decided McGuiness should tell us about the attacks by Catholics on Protestants over the past few months.

It was the classic tit-for-tat reporting model adopted by London-based journalists to the question of Northern Ireland.

Where Northern Ireland affairs are concerned most journalists seem to have adopted some sort of distorted version of the quantum theory that for every action there must be an equal and opposite reaction.

Watching Wark in action it is not difficult to understand why Newsnight has reported so few of the 100-plus loyalist pipe bomb attacks against Catholics this year.

Attacks by loyalists against Catholics are simply not news in the run-of-the-mill coverage of Northern Ireland until things reach such a level that five and six year old children can no longer safely get to school.

I have learnt more about how the British media operates in reporting Northern Ireland at first hand over recent months courtesy of a story about loyalist pipe bomb attacks against Catholics.

The story began in April when I discovered that some 64 pipe bomb attacks by loyalists against Catholics over the first third of the year had not been reported in the British press.

The Independent newspaper commissioned me to write a piece on the subject involving going to various British newspapers and finding out why they were not covering these attacks.

The comments varied. Daily Telegraph news editor Richard Spencer said: "there was a lot of coverage of violence on the ground last year. It would be possible to report violence on the ground every day from Northern Ireland and we do from time to time."

The idea that the landscape of Northern Ireland and violence have become so synonomous that there needs to be some context to make news meaningful to a British audience is something that The Guardian picks up on.

"We need to find a thread and provide a context to these attacks because to just report them repeatedly does not make sense to people," said deputy news editor Paul Johnson.

The Daily Mail simply defers to its editor.

Deirdre Tynan, a reporter on the newsdesk of the Mirror in Belfast, explained that there is a higher violence threshold regarding Northern Ireland events. "Even in Northern Ireland people are not shocked by pipe bombs going through peoples windows. Against a background of 30 years of big bombs there has to be death or injury to make the headlines," she said.

The Independent editor was initially pleased with the piece and gave me a May date for publication.

The date came and went, so I rang and asked why it had not run. The paper still wanted to do the piece, I was told, but it had to be run past our Northern Ireland correspondent.

Given that the Independent Northern Ireland correspondent had not reported these attacks either I was fairly sure he would not be a keen supporter of the piece. Sure enough he blocked it.

I tried other papers but no one was interested in a story about why loyalist violence is not reported in Britain. I also tried the allegedly left-of-centre New Statesman and was told by the editor, Peter Wilby, that a piece about such attacks amounted to "mood music."

The really unfortunate thing about the British media frame of reporting Northern Ireland is that it does not tell people in the street what is going on and distorts the picture.

The exercise of censoring out items like loyalist pipe-bomb attacks against Catholics whilst literally blowing up any violent act committed by republicans does not help people to understand why for instance the nationalist community cannot accept the RUC.

Now at least the level and depravity of violence has reached such a level -- with school children in terror of attending classes -- that for a brief moment at least the issue has hit the news headlines around the world.

The one good thing that may come out of the scenes from Holy Cross School is that the wider audience will get to understand the level of loyalist violence against Catholics and act accordingly.

This article originally appeared in the Morning Star

October/November 2001

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This document was last modified by David Granville on 2002-02-04 13:32:15.
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