A question of balance
by the editor
A KEY element of the strategy employed by successive British governments since troops first arrived in Belfast, initially to protect the nationalist population from a ferocious loyalist pogrom, has been to portray the British as neutral arbiters in a dispute between illogically irreconcilable warring communities.
This myth, which successive British governments have assiduously cultivated over the last 30 or so years, remains central to the way in which a majority of people in Britain continue to view what goes on in the north east of Ireland.
Nowhere is the active promotion of this myth more apparent than within the news and feature pages or broadcasts of Britain’s mainstream media outlets, whether the generally respected coverage of the BBC, the supposedly liberal Guardian or the trashy tabloid journalism of the Sun. Of course, there are some honourable exceptions, such as the British labour movement paper the Morning Star, and a regular smattering of ‘balancing’ feature material aimed at satisfying the ‘thinking end’ of the market.
Despite this, most British news editors follow the official script laid down by government propagandists in the security and intelligence services over the years, effectively allowing successive British governments to avoid any responsibility, in a majority of the public’s eye at least, for the conflict in Ireland.
No clearer example of the distorting effect of the imposition of the British-generated myth can be found than the media’s recent treatment of the sectarian violence in parts of north and east Belfast -- usually described as ‘tit-for-tat’ and for which republicans and loyalists must share equal blame and equal responsibility.
In the quest for supposedly balanced reporting, daily loyalist attacks on the embattled residents of Short Strand, where a community of 4,000 predominantly Catholics and nationalists is surrounded by 60,000 Protestants and loyalists, are regularly portrayed as both sides attacking each other. The fact that Catholics have been prevented from accessing local health services and shops rarely turns up in media reports.
Incidents of stone-throwing and rioting in nationalist/republican areas are regularly set against petrol or pipe-bomb attacks on Catholic homes -- to the extent that the reader or listener is encouraged to believe in the ‘equivalence’ of such acts, thus further adding to the impression that all such incidents are just opposite sides of the same sectarian coin.
The BBC is a past master as this type of misrepresentation. Its idea of balanced reporting appears to be to find as many people as possible to pass the opinion that ‘both sides’ are equally to blame for sectarian violence while ensuring that commentators such as arch unionist Ruth Dudley Edwards and Paul Bew are regularly on hand to assure listeners/viewers that, whatever the reality on the ground, republicans are ultimately responsible for whatever ills befall nationalists and Catholics.
Yet organisations monitoring all sectarian attacks, using criteria established by the Commission for Racial Equality, paint a very different picture of nationalist communities under siege.
Nobody is suggesting that sectarian attacks against Protestants don’t take place. But their number and seriousness pale into insignificance when compared with loyalist violence against Catholics and nationalists.
The stark reality is that there is no equivalence, no balance in this matter. Loyalists opposed to the Good Friday deal have been using sectarian violence against Catholics as a means of sabotaging the peace process. It is violence and intimidation with a political end and human consequences. Any genuinely balanced reporting on the situation in the north needs to reflect this.
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Copyright © 2001 Connolly Publications Ltd