Bobby Sands died on May 5th, 1981, 66 days into a gruelling and highly publicised hunger strike. In Belfast, close to 100,000 people attended his funeral, an event that was televised by dozens of news crews from around the world. Republicans carefully choreographed a uniformed honour guard firing a defiant salute over the grave of their comrade. Coverage of these seminal events caused tremendous consternation for the Thatcher government and its allies, who were convinced these images glorified the IRA.
In London, senior BBC managers and editors huddled to discuss coverage of the hunger strikes and the outrage it provoked. The conversation quickly turned to the slightly blurred photograph of Sands that had become ubiquitous around the globe. One senior editor noted that the grainy image of a boyish, smiling Sands and the fact that he was known internationally as “Bobby” helped catapult him to fame as an iconic martyr. The assembled editors were told that “Television News had tried very hard to get another photograph out of the Northern Ireland Office, but had consistently failed”.
According to Sinn Féin spokesman, Danny Morrison, the image was recorded on a camera smuggled into the prison at Long Kesh. The original was a group photograph but it was cropped and widely circulated when Morrison gave it to Pacemaker in 1981. In international news broadcasts the gentle, smiling face of the long-haired IRA leader was often juxtaposed with that of the grim, frowning, intransigent “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher. The fact that the Northern Ireland Office could not, or would not, produce another photograph of Sands for BBC staff suggests a remarkable degree of dysfunction or perhaps a stunning lack of sophistication in understanding the propaganda war the British state was losing.
The director-general, Ian Trethowan, warned staff that he expected the onslaught of criticism of the hunger strike coverage to intensify; pointing out that the BBC was being denounced in parliament and in the British press. In the House of Lords condemnation was quick and mirrored sentiment within the Conservative government, with Lord Monson leading the highly publicised charge a week after Sands’ funeral.
The 11th Baron Monson was a rather eccentric member of the Lords; he served as president of the Society for Individual Freedom, where his most famous campaign objected to the compulsory wearing of seatbelts. In the Lords he complained bitterly that on the day of Sands’ death the main BBC news broadcast devoted over half its programme to events in Northern Ireland while a subsequent Newsnight programme devoted 33 of its 50 minutes to the hunger strikes.
A sense of outrage permeated the debate as lords bemoaned the publicity that the IRA had generated throughout the protest. Lord Paget of Northampton, asked, “since the whole object of the hunger strikes is to attract publicity, why is it that we allow them to have publicity? Why do we not forbid any news of a hunger strike or what is happening to come out of the gaol? And, when the strikers die of hunger, why do we not bury them in gaol?” A sympathetic Home Office sent the BBC a copy of the debate, endorsing its tone and noting that the Lords expected a response from the United Kingdom’s public service broadcaster.
In this highly-charged atmosphere the BBC found itself accused of supporting terrorism, an all too familiar refrain that began with the outbreak of the Troubles in 1969. Throughout the 1970s, the BBC came under attack by Labour and Conservative governments alike; perhaps most famously in 1976 when the abrasive Labour secretary of state, Roy Mason, denounced the BBC as traitors who glorified terrorism.
The Tory-aligned print media also had a long history of lambasting the BBC and its handling of the hunger strikes provoked scathing editorials and opinion pieces attacking the broadcaster’s integrity. Paul Johnson, writing for the Spectator magazine, captured the anger of many by arguing that recent media coverage of the IRA had boosted its morale and served its recruitment efforts. Johnson compared the IRA to the infamous Yorkshire Ripper, arguing that the serial killer Peter Sutcliffe was a small trader in carnage while the IRA was in “wholesale”. He dismissed the chairman of the BBC board of governors George Howard as the “supine worm of Portland Place” in a vicious article titled “The IRA’s Best Friend”. Johnson denounced the BBC, maintaining that whenever the police seemed to be getting the upper hand in its battle against terrorists the BBC was there to support the IRA, often times by featuring an interview with a spokesman asking: “How would these ghouls have covered Auschwitz? Done a deal with Himmler for permission to film inside the ovens?”
Trethowan felt compelled to respond to this torrent of abuse by writing an extended defence of the BBC’s coverage of the hunger strikes in the Times. He pointed out that 30,000 voters in Fermanagh-South Tyrone had exercised their democratic right and elected Sands to the House of Commons. “When last did an elected MP starve himself to death? When last did someone starving himself to death receive a procession of international emissaries? The irritation of many viewers at being shown so much about Sands was entirely understandable, but however much they disliked it, the Sands affair became an international event which had to be reported to the British public.”
Senior staff in the BBC fully understood there was a propaganda war being waged in and about Northern Ireland and knew they were in a difficult position. In developing news and current affairs programming that criticised government initiatives, questioned security policies and debated controversial political decisions, senior managers, editors and correspondents were embracing the public service ethos of the BBC.
In that same editorial meeting that considered coverage of the death of Bobby Sands, Peter Woon, editor of television news, told his colleagues that the story had been “very well handled and that coverage had been sensible and not too panicky”. The only part of the broadcast that caused concern was “a slight insistence (on the part of the BBC’s political editor, John Simpson, in particular) that the IRA had won a great propaganda victory”.
But Simpson was right, Margaret Thatcher may have won the battle by standing firm against the IRA but the republican movement scored a major victory in the propaganda war that would eventually transform the political landscape of Northern Ireland.
The BBC continued to be targeted for threats, abuse and bullying by the Thatcher government throughout the 1980s. This constant pressure encouraged a degree of self-censorship within the BBC that troubled staff, especially journalists who were “on the ground”. However, the BBC continued covering difficult and often depressing events, challenging the narrative the British state was keen to promote.
By 1988 Margaret Thatcher decided Britain’s highly respected public broadcaster had to be reined in. Her 1988 broadcasting ban proved a crude effort to silence voices that although many times unpalatable were critical to help resolve a long and bitter conflict. In spite of these challenges, throughout some of the most difficult years of the Troubles, the BBC kept the issue of Northern Ireland in front of the British and, one could argue, the Irish public. The BBC informed their audience of events that were a difficult but important part of political life in both the United Kingdom and Ireland.
Prof Robert Savage lectures in Irish, British and European history at Boston College, US