‘Internment’ by John McGuffin (1973)

Chapter 15

To many people in Ireland one of the most disturbing features of the internment period was the consistent distortions, omissions and, in all too many cases, the downright lies of the media as to what was happening in the Six Counties.
     From the beginning the vast majority of the daily newspapers, in addition to both the BBC and ITV, slavishly accepted as gospel statements by the Unionist government and the British army. It became definite policy for most newspapers that 'our army' could do no wrong. Thus, for example, the Daily Mail on 19 August 1971 had the headline "Army Shoots Deaf-mute Carrying Gun". The inquest subsequently showed that Eamonn McDivitt of Strabane at no time had a gun and that the soldiers who gave evidence anonymously, contradicted one another. The Mail made no apology. Similarly, everyone shot dead by the soldiers must, of necessity, have been a gunman or mad bomber – even the unarmed 13 killed by the Paras on 'Bloody Sunday'. And if that fails to convince, obviously he or she must have been shot by the IRA, or 'in crossfire'. John Chartres of the Times even invented a new category: thus Danny O'Hagan of the New Lodge Road, shot by the army on 31 July 1970, was an 'assistant petrol bomber'. As Eamonn McCann pointedly asked "What do 'assistant petrol bombers' do? Hold coats?" In The British Press and Northern Ireland[1] Eamonn McCann details literally dozens of cases of flagrant distortions. Number 1 of Inside Story[2] provides several more. One of the most bizarre was the front page of the Daily Mirror of 23 October 1971. The screaming headlines proclaimed "Red Assassin shot dead in Ulster". The authors (rather than reporters) of this 'Mirror Exclusive' were 'Joe Gorrod and Denzil Sullivan' and they told how "soldiers in a patrol which stalked and killed a terrorist sniper identified him as a Czechoslovakian. He carried a Russian-made Kalashnikov AK 47 rifle, one of the most deadly ever produced and the one most favoured by assassins." The shooting was mysterious – the Mirror men could not say when or where it occurred. They also introduced another romantic element: "a man dressed all in black who was a Lithuanian firing with a Czech rifle."
     In fact, as the army were to admit in the Sunday News,[3] the entire story was "a bit of fantasy" which had "been going round for the past year." But then, if you're short of copy and too frightened to venture out of the bar of the Europa Hotel, any piece of rubbish will do for the readers of the Mirror.
     But rather than totally fictitious – and poorly constructed – stories, the more serious aspect of the media was that of censorship.[4] On 31 October two MP's, Bernadette Devlin and Frank McManus, devoted most of their speeches to instancing omissions and distortions of the press. Not one paper carried the story.
     Take the issue of torture allegations. On 15 October The Sunday Times published a 'sensational scoop' story on the third degree torture of internees. This was the first the British public had heard of torture. Yet what The Sunday Times published on 15 October had been common knowledge in Ireland for nearly two months.
     Most of The Sunday Times statements had been taken by the Association for Legal Justice in Belfast and distributed to the Press by 20 August. By the end of August all these accounts had appeared in the reputable Irish papers. In the first week of September all British papers, including The Sunday Times, were circulated with a ten-page dossier produced by the Anti-Internment League. Some of the cases eventually cited by The Sunday Times on 15 October were contained in that dossier.
     In fact, many British journalists adopted a policy of self censorship. What they did not want to believe, they did not write about. In addition, many editors brutally silenced those members of their staff who began to find the truth.
     More serious still was the clear evidence that came to light in November that both the BBC and ITV adopted a clear policy of censorship in their handling of affairs in Northern Ireland. Private Eye No. 258 contained extracts from internal memoranda circulated within the BBC. These documents were drawn up at the weekly meetings of the News and Current Affairs Group at the BBC. The chairman at these meetings was Ulsterman and Unionist sympathiser, Desmond Taylor.
     The minutes reveal that '24 Hours' was prevented from doing an in-depth programme on the IRA. John Crawley, Chief Assistant to the Director-General, said "Such a programme setting out the roots of the IRA would be unacceptable."
     An interview with Michael Farrell, prominent in the People's Democracy, was to have gone out on 1 September 1971. Farrell had just been released from detention. The interview was banned. Roland Fox, assistant to Taylor, explained: "It had not been possible to make the item's treatment defensible as a whole on the grounds of fairness;" it was "a description by an admitted extremist of conditions in the Crumlin Road prison."
     Waldo Maguire, BBC Controller for Northern Ireland, was particularly strenuous in his attempts to get censorship adopted, in particular a virtual ban on Radio Telefis Eireann material. Maguire is known for his fortright views. At an Irish Times reception in Belfast in January 1971 he was introduced to a member of the People's Democracy. Maguire reacted with a string of words which are of a kind undoubtedly censored on all BBC channels and he then threatened some of that violence for which television today is so renowned. In fairness to Maguire, The Irish Times had provided 'ample refreshments'.
     Such was the resentment generated within the BBC over this censorship that the Director-General had to admit that he could "see that the editorial staff did not relish being interfered with."
     Interference on ITV was, if anything, more ham-fisted and blatant. A 'World in Action' programme on the IRA in the Twenty-six Counties was banned from all networks on Monday 1 November. The programme had been approved by Dr. Rex Cathcart, an Irish Protestant who reviews ITV's Irish coverage. Who watched the programme again and then banned it? The answer is nobody; however, the Independent Television Authority, the ruling body of ITV, banned it without seeing it. It was enough for Lord Aylestone, Chairman of the Authority, to describe it as "aiding and abetting the enemy". So much for impartiality.
     The London Post Office Tower was damaged by a bomb on the night of 30 October. The only suggestion that any Irish group was responsible came in one anonymous telephone call. As 20,000 people marched in peaceful protest on Sunday 31st the papers and the news were full of accounts of an IRA terror campaign in Britain. On Monday 1 November The Telegraph led with the headlines "IRA Blast Post Office Tower". The Telegraph was just one of many.
     Both sections of the Republican movement denied any responsibility for the tower bombing on the Monday, through spokesmen both in Dublin and London; the police denied that they were looking for Irishmen. The Angry Brigade claimed responsibility, but, because the anonymous telephone call fitted the prejudices of Tory newspaper editors, the IRA threat held the headlines. Even on Thursday the Evening News reminded readers of the horrors of the war-time bombing campaign. They also included a piece of deduction: "It was significant that the bomb planted at the Post Office Tower was left in the women's toilet. There are more women IRA officers now than there were six months ago"!
     It was not long before Tory spokesmen jumped on this bandwagon. On Wednesday 4th Lord Carrington, Tory Defence Secretary, did his best to whip up anti-Irish feeling when speaking in the House of Lords. Talking of the Irish crisis he said: "It will almost certainly be that we shall see much more bloodshed and even an extension of it to this country." This piece of bloodthirsty wishful thinking was quickly snatched upon by the Daily Mail with the headline: "I.R.A. War Threat in England".
     Thus, in a week in which no IRA spokesman had advocated 'a terror campaign' and no Irish group had started one; a week in which by contrast Republicans had joined in a massive and peaceful political protest march, what were the British public told? The Tory leaders and their newspapers 'informed' them that the Irish in England had begun a bombing campaign. If such allegations had been made against coloured immigrants it would, quite rightly, have been described as incitement to race hatred.
     Eventually, official pressures became so repressive that some 200 leading journalists and broadcasters decided to meet at the ICA in London to consider what steps they might take to assert their right to tell the truth. Godfrey Boyle of The Irish Times reported on the meeting[5]:

"It's got to the stage where we're being repressed," was how Jonathan Dimbleby of the BBC's 'World at One' programme put it. Editors, he said, were now so worried about pressures from above that they tended to approach a story not with the aim of discovering the truth, but in a manner that would ensure that they didn't get into trouble. Shooting incidents, for instance, were covered merely as events, and little attempt was made to uncover the reasons, if any, that lay behind them.
Following The Sunday Times disclosures about 'ill-treatment' of detainees, BBC men, Dimbleby said, had been given permission to interview internees, but they were not allowed to interview witnesses such as doctors or priests who might have had evidence which would have corroborated internees' allegations. He also pointed out that the BBC's editor of current affairs had to listen to every item on Northern Ireland before it was broadcast, on the specific instructions of the DirectorGeneral.
ITV communicators had their problems too. The Granada TV men, who had had their programme on the IRA banned without its even having been seen, pointed out the significance of the recent attempts of Ulster Television to influence the ITA. UTV's managing director, 'Brum' Henderson, was, they pointed out, the brother of Bill Henderson, a public relations officer to the Unionist party and managing director of the Newsletter and had, therefore, a 'natural anxiety' about allowing certain programines to be shown on UTV. UTV had indeed 'opted out' of several programmes on Northern Ireland which had been networked throughout the rest of Britain.
In a passionate speech Keith Kyle of the BBC's '24 Hours' was scathing about current BBC policy on Northern Ireland, which, he said, could be paraphrased as 'Programmes as a whole must vindicate the BBC's detestation of terrorism'. And to those who claimed that a policy of censorship should be imposed in "the national interest", Kyle retorted that "there is no higher national interest than avoiding self-deception on Northern Ireland."
Another important point about censorship, according to John O'Callaghan of the Guardian,[6] was that if, as seemed quite possible, the Republican movement was defeated, then censorship would be seen by the Government as an important instrument in that defeat and, therefore, a powerful argument for an increase in its use in Britain.
The mood of the meeting was summed up in the 'declaration of intent' suggested by Roy Bull of the Scotsman which read: "We deplore the intensification of censorship on TV, radio and the press coverage of events in Northern Ireland and pledge ourselves to oppose it."

Despite 'passionate speeches', the new 'Free Communications Group' got nowhere and the call for a work ban by BBC staff sent to Northern Ireland to take effect from 10 January was a flop. The system ground on inexorably. Alternative papers such as Ink and 7 Days folded for lack of capital. The 'impartial' Daily Telegraph in a goodwill gesture gave £70,000 for colour TV sets for "our gallant boys in khaki" [sic]. In perhaps one of the most macabre scenes recorded on film, Granada TV's 'What the Papers Say' awarded a prize for "the best piece of investigative journalism" to The Sunday Times 'Insight' team for its inquiry into torture on internees, the prize being presented by Reggie Maudling whose Ministry must be held accountable for the self-same tortures.[7] Eighteen days later that paper was to tone down its 'radical crusader' image when it suppressed its own reporters' investigation into the shooting of 13 unarmed civilians in Derry by the Paras on Bloody Sunday. This was done on the grounds that the matter was sub judice because of the Widgery Inquiry – legally incorrect as The Sunday Times knew. When their toned-down report was eventually published it suggested that the army had lied and that some soldiers had acted with a reckless disregard for life.
     In Northern Ireland the position was that of The Irish News printing what the Catholic people wanted to read, while the Newsletter, far more bigoted and bitter in its coverage,[8] daily gave the story of the latest atrocity committed against its long-suffering and tolerant readers. It was left to the supposedly moderate Belfast Telegraph, the only evening paper available in the North, to give the game away. When the Compton Report was published it included a long list of papers which, Compton claimed, had been of assistance to the inquiry, The Belfast Telegraph was not amongst them. Furious, the editor summoned his reporters and demanded of them why this was so. Finally, one reporter dared to suggest that the reason that no use had been made of Telegraph files was that they hadn't published a single allegation against the security forces, of brutality, torture or even possible ill-treatment, despite the fact that every other newspaper in Ireland (with the exception of the Newsletter) had been headlining them for over a month. "How strange," said the editor.[9]
     As an instructive tailpiece to the Northern Irish press, it should be mentioned that at a special meeting of the Northern Ireland chapel of the National Union of Journalists called on 30 October 1972 a vote was taken to 'black' all press releases from the Civil Rights Association and Sinn Fein. Through an unfortunate oversight most journalists on 'Catholic' newspapers did not receive notification of the special meeting in time to be present, although five members of the British army who have 'press credentials' were notified. In effect it made little change since journalists on the Newsletter and Belfast Telegraph had been operating just such a ban for months.
     In the Republic of Ireland the press initially had a field day during the early days of internment castigating 'the old enemy', but that was not to last too long. Following pressure from Ted Heath, Jack Lynch in turn rounded upon RTE. Required by law to "maintain a balance of views," RTE was doing just that until Minister Collins issued a directive restraining them from putting out matter "which could be calculated to promote.... the IRA or the attaining of any particular objective by violent means.' Regrettably, RTE caved in without much of a fight and paved the way for right-wing eccentrics such as Gerry L'Estrange, to get away with hysterical utterances about (unnamed) anarchists and subversives in RTE." RTE's news coverage of the North dwindled rapidly from being the most comprehensive to having virtually no coverage at all.
     With the main daily papers in the South, with the honour-able exception of The Irish Times, shackled to the coat-tails of either Fianna Fail or Fine Gael, it is important that at least the radio and TV be free, but this has never been Government intention. For example, the then Taoiseach, Sean Lemass, stated:[10]

RTE was set up by legislation as an instrument of public policy and as such is responsible to the Government .... the Government reject the view that RTE should be, either generally or in regard to its current affairs and news programmes, completely independent of Government supervision .... the Government will take such action as may be necessary to ensure that RTE does not deviate from the due performance of (its) duty.

At length Fianna Fail went too far for even RTE. 'This Week', on 19 November, broadcast an interview with Sean MacStiofain, on the very day he was arrested, breaking, the Government said, the ban on allowing air-time to men of violence (Lynch was apparently in no way disturbed to hear 'Shoot to kill' Craig and his colleague John Taylor being interviewed almost weekly and issuing threats to all and sundry). Since the Government used this very interview to convict MacStiofain of membership of an illegal organization, it seemed, to many people, hypocritical for them to sack the nine members of the RTE authority and replace them with more docile functionaries. Kevin O'Kelly, the reporter who conducted the interview, was given six months for 'contempt' by the very special court which had used his evidence to convict MacStiofain. The personnel of RTE were sufficiently indignant to stage a 24-hour strike and they were joined the next day by the staff of the Dublin and Cork newspapers. Only one reporter, Kevin Myers of RTE, was disgusted enough to actually resign, and after their token protest and march the 'media men' returned quietly to work. Lynch went on to weather yet another crisis and successfully passed the Amendment to the Offences Against the State Act.
     So much for a "free media in a free state."
     If the crisis brought on by internment and the death days of Stormont has shown anything, it has exposed totally the polite fiction of "freedom of speech in a democratic country such as ours." Such a freedom is not merely a demand made by liberals, it is the sine qua non of a truly democratic society, such as does not exist in Ireland, North or South, nor in the rest of the 'British Isles'. Unless we are to be satisfied with the system today, so accurately described by Marcuse as 'repressive tolerance', we must fight strenuously to wrest control of the information centres from the hands of the personally-motivated few and place them firmly at the disposal of all.

Footnotes Chapter 15:

  1. Obtainable from the Northern Ireland Socialist Research Centre, 6 Cotton Gardens, London E2, 12p.
  2. March 1972. Obtainable from 3 Belmont Road, London SW4. 25p. This Week, Dublin, 21 September 1972, carried a lengthy article on the bias of British broadcasters, written by former '24 Hours' editor Anthony Smith.
  3. 24 October 1972.
  4. One of the most important items censored in all English newspapers by the ubiquitous D Notice system concerned the activities of the shadowy SAS with its 'Aden Gang'. (See Proinsias MacAonghusa in The Sunday Press, Dublin, 12 December 1971). The black propaganda squad, as recommended by Brigadier Kitson, continued to be active. ITN's second item on 23 August 1972 was a story about three tiny girls, aged eight, who had been used by the "unscrupulous IRA" to push a pram containing a huge bomb towards a military post at the back of the Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast. The "chivalrous soldiers were shocked and refused to lire, even at the risk of their own lives". The entire story was subsequently admitted by the British Army Press Office to be totally untrue. But ITN carried no denial. Similarly, the same week saw the London Evening News and The Sun, both unobtainable in Ireland, carrying lead stories about IRA gunmen bestially raping young girls at gunpoint in the Markets area of Belfast. Gruesome details were given to titillate jaded English palates. The black propaganda squad would appear to have gone a little too far that time in alleging that no fewer than four of the girls had become pregnant. Realizing, perhaps, that the 'super-potency' of the IRA in the area would be regarded with pride by some, the army got the RUC to issue a statement admitting that the story was completely false. Journalists in Belfast had hazards other than being fed false stories. The Civil Rights Bulletin of September 1972 revealed that the Europa Hotel, where most reporters stayed and entertained on expense accounts, was bugged. The CRA alleged collaboration between the hotel management, the army, the RUC and the UDA. According to the NICRA, a leading journalist received a threatening letter from the UDA, quoting verbatim what he had phoned from the hotel to his editor, two days previously. Several journalists had their notebooks taken from their rooms. Two days later these were returned to them by the management, who claimed that the "chambermaids had taken them in error". (See The Sunday Press, Dublin, 27 August 1972). For more sinister exploits of the SAS see The Irish News, Belfast, 31 August 1972. More detailed information is given in Hibernia, Dublin, 8 September 1972. In September 1972, Irishmen who had experienced the British army's arrest, detention and interrogation processes could be permitted a wry smile, perhaps, when they saw and heard on TV haggard British journalists describing what had happened them when they were expelled from Uganda by General Amin - himself an ex-British soldier. Outraged reporters told how soldiers "hurled abusive language at us"; "refused to tell us under what law we were being arrested"; "made us stand against the wail for hours"; "threatened us", etc. These "terrifying experiences" lasted all of 24 hours! To listen to the pressmen talk, one would imagine that all this had never happened anywhere else, still less on territory claimed to be a part of the UK. As late as 12 September 1972 the News of the World, London, was claiming that the Provos were responsible for the explosion in the London GPO tower, which the police accepted as the work of the Angry Brigade, and for the bombing of the Para headquarters in Aldershot, which was the work of the Officials. But then, the paper's correspondent was the former Unionist PRO Trevor Hanna.
  5. The Irish Times, Dublin, 24 November 1971.
  6. One of the very few reporters with enough integrity to resign after it had become clear that his paper's editorial policy was at variance with the facts.
  7. Was it coincidental that the English Press, with the exception of Private Eye which ran its own crusade, made virtually no reference to the fact that the man responsible for the treatment of prisoners in Britain's only internment camp was himself being accused in New York of complicity in a multi-million real estate swindle and that his close friend, Gerry Hoffman, was found guilty and sentenced to a term of imprisonment? Indeed, it was not until the Home Secretary's involvement in the Poulson scandal that the press turned the searchlight in his direction and the indelicacy of his position forced him to resign.
  8. Those readers unacquainted with the Newsletter, Belfast, who feel that this might be somewhat of an exaggeration, could do worse than read the editorial of 3 October 1972, after the Strasbourg European Court had agreed that Britain should face charges of brutality and torture by her 'security forces'. Under the heading "Lynch's latest absurdity" they pontificated: "At some expense, not least to her credibility as a good neighbour of England, Eire has scored what she believes to be a point ... the IRA and their sympathisers here bellowed loud and long about the brutality allegedly meted out to suspected terrorists ... if such potato-republic tactics were not so dangerous they would be funny ... the Strasbourg Court has come to be recognised as a toothless terrier ..."
  9. The first allegation that British soldiers might conceivably have misbehaved themselves did not come until 24 November. Then the victims were two Englishmen whom the army shot at and attacked as their car passed Palace barracks, Holywood, on 23 November. The army later apologised for this 'unfortunate mistake'.
10. In the Dail, 12 October 1966.

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