Reporting Northern Ireland: There's the truth and then there's the other truth

At the Cuirt International Festival of Literature in Galway, playwright Gary Mitchell attacked the media for reporting an "agreed truth" not the "real truth" about The Troubles in Northern Ireland. His remarks disappoint but come as no surprise to journalists who had the role of persuaders thrust upon them in the long struggle to find a peaceful settlement.

Even the smallest truth was hard to find in the fog of war and it will be many years yet before we know the whole truth, for the Irish and British Governments at first attempted to censor coverage, to withhold the "oxygen of publicity" from armed groups, and then joined the propaganda game. Reporters did their best to present an accurate account of events and a balance of opinions, despite dirty tricks employed by all participants. Most recognised they were prisoners of history and verifiable truth was a casualty of conflict.

Many of the visiting hacks have written tales of daring and danger about their time in Northern Ireland, but none have captured the dilemma of those who lived and worked here as honestly as Malachi O'Doherty. He began his career as a junior reporter at the height of The Troubles in 1972.

"I could see the boys of the IRA pass my living-room window with their guns, presumably going to a dump just yards away. I could hardly have exposed them any more than they were exposing themselves. And I had little faith that if I did bring the police and the Army into the area to raid safe houses and dumps they would not have arrested or killed innocents at the same time."

He left Ireland to escape the pressure. Many who remained paid a heavy price. Jim Campbell survived a gun attack in 1983, Martin O'Hagan was shot dead in 2001, others live with death threats.

In Ireland there is a tradition of moving from "guns to government" using the media to communicate "truth"

Eamon De Valera fought in the 1916 Rising and founded The Irish Press in 1931 to further his political ambitions and push forward the transition to a republic, finally declared in 1948. Senior figures in the unionist press, some of them involved in gun-running in 1914, were rewarded for their role in the 1921 election which secured partition and a parliament at Stormont. Trevor Henderson at The News Letter and Robert Baird at The Telegraph received knighthoods. Samuel Cunningham of The Northern Whig was given a seat in the Northern Ireland Senate.

Many newspapers refused to sit on the fence during The Troubles in 1969, often courageously. The Republic's largest selling daily, The Irish Independent, was consistent in its condemnation of the IRA while Britain's Daily Mirror called for "Troops Out" and resettlement grants for unionists. The Mirror and all three local dailies were damaged by bomb blasts. The News Letter, the daily paper of unionists, also paid a heavy price for supporting the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The world's oldest English language newspaper, it lost the support of many in the unionist establishment and thousands of readers.

It was broadcasting which brought the "truth" about life under a Stormont regime to the attention of the world.

Television footage of a beating meted out by police officers to civil rights protesters, taken by RTE in 1968, gave the issue an international profile. Television and radio reporters sought to present a lofty impartiality, but the BBC offended nationalists and unionists alike by referring to "Londonderry"

in the first reference and "Derry" thereafter. Radio Telefis Eireann fared no better. Fergal Keane was branded a "Free State sell-out" by republicans and "Fenian scum" by loyalists while working as a reporter in Belfast. Senior republicans and loyalists recognised the power of the media, however – they acquired suits and learned to play the "truth game".

Republicans split over strategy early in the conflict. The "Officials" moved into politics and media in the late Sixties.

The Provisionals' media campaign, which saw hunger striker Bobby Sands elected to Westminster in 1981, was a turning point. By 2005 Sinn Fein had perfected a publicity machine which included a new national newspaper – Daily Ireland. It survived long enough to play a role in putting the party into government in Northern Ireland and a cabinet post within reach in the Republic.

Ian Paisley launched his Protestant Telegraph in 1966, to oppose liberal commentary in the established unionist press, and, at the height of The Troubles, paramilitaries, including the Ulster Volunteer Force, openly courted journalists in an attempt to secure legitimacy. Paisley is now Northern Ireland's First Minister, a Westminster MP and a Member of the European Parliament and David, "Dictionary" Ervine secured an Assembly seat for the political wing of the UVF before his untimely death this year.

Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were latecomers to the game but became skilled players. They persuaded all major media organisations in Britain and Ireland openly, or discretely, to endorse The Good Friday Agreement before it was put to referenda, though there was considerable opposition among unionists. With the media "on-message" it was merely a matter of time and fine-tuning before a settlement emerged which the two leaders could trumpet to the world.

Peace, power sharing and economic progress have created a new and very different challenge for the press. The new Northern Ireland Assembly is a chamber without a formal opposition where decisions are made by a system of cosy agreement, not vigorous debate. It will require considerable scrutiny if the taxpayers of Britain and Ireland are to see value for money.

When Northern Ireland last had devolved government the Stormont press pack had diversity and hunger. Every major newspaper on both sides of the border, from the republican Irish Press to the unionist News Letter, employed experienced staff reporters to examine decision making. Today's press pack is much smaller and runs the risk of becoming spoon-fed, for it is greatly outnumbered by government press officers and party lobbyists. Editors on both sides of the Irish border and the Irish Sea appear content to take the bulk of coverage from the Press Association.

Recognition of the contribution to peace made by the media and journalists in Northern Ireland is long overdue, but the most fitting tribute would be vigorous, daily reporting of the Assembly. If truth was the first casualty of war, scrutiny must not become the first casualty of peace.

Maurice Neill was a newspaper reporter in Northern Ireland from 1978 until 2004 and is lecturer in newspaper journalism at Belfast Metropolitan College

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