... the Bad and the Ugly: Good Guys after All? Representations of Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley in the English Press

Article excerpt

The quality, quantity and tone of media coverage in Britain of Northern Ireland affairs is especially important since previous research has shown that the vast majority of British 'mainlanders' rely heavily on newspapers and television for information on the region (Butler 1995), (1) and therefore media sources play an important part in the shaping of public opinion (Bracey and Gove-Humphries 2003). Consequently, this article sets out to examine media portrayals of the key Northern-Irish players in the light of the restoration of the power-sharing executive at Stormont, following an historic agreement reached between the leaders of the DUP and Sinn Fein (Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams) on March 26th, 2007, and culminating in the investiture of Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness as First Minister and deputy First Minister, respectively, on May 8th, 2007.

In his book The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland (1995: 126), David Butler remarks that once the IRA's bombing campaign had taken off in the early 1970s, the British media tended to attribute type-cast roles to the three main protagonists involved in the Troubles of the time, namely the British Army (representing the British state) in the role of the Good, striving to keep the peace between two warring factions; the IRA as the Bad; and the Loyalists in the supporting role as the Ugly (not quite as evil as Republicans, but troublesome nevertheless). This representation was in accordance with the British state's bipartisan approach to the conflict and its policy of incriminating endogenous agents. Media specialists such as Alan Parkinson (1998: 73) have underlined the emphasis on reporting violence at the expense of explaining the background to the conflict:

   The one-dimensional nature of the reporting of the Ulster
   situation--what's been called a 'shopping list of death and
   destruction' has been criticised for presenting the British public
   with 'a series of decontextualised reports of violence' which
   'failed to analyse and reanalyse the historical roots of the
   problem'. (2)

Parkinson goes on to quote the Irish historian F.S.L. Lyons (1978: 26) who spoke out for his fellow countrymen against this "onedimensional reporting":

English public opinion had little option but to take a view of Northern Ireland as a place where bloodthirsty bigots of various obscure sects murdered each other incessantly for reasons no sane man could fathom. I longed to say to them what I still say--show us the place as it really is, show it to us in all its human ordinariness, its integrity, show it to us, above all, as a place inhabited not only by evil men ... but also by decent human beings (Parkinson 1998: 73).

This emphasis on evil men has obviously had a long-term impact on the way English people perceive Northern Ireland and the Northern Irish. It has proved a barrier and prevents them from overcoming the stereotyped and ingrained opinions of the Irish in general as irrational and unreasonable, and from looking at the wider picture (Miller 1994). (3) Parkinson claims that Sinn Fein has been the main focus of media attention during the Troubles: "Great attention was paid to Sinn Fein leaders' speeches and actions. Indeed, Gerry Adams was, for many years, the most profiled, non-elected politician in Europe" (1998: 75). However, it would appear that just because the media have focused their attention on violent republicanism, this does not translate into a greater understanding or awareness of the issues by the mainland public.

During the Thatcher era, rules on reporting Northern Ireland tightened considerably, with the 1988 Broadcasting Ban famously prohibiting live interviews with proscribed groups, including Sinn Fein and the UDA (Curtis 1998: 279-299). (4) The aim of this ban in Mrs Thatcher's famous words was to "starve the terrorists of the oxygen of publicity". Many programmes were censored, postponed or modified during the period from 1988 to September 1994. …