U.S. Media Failed to Report Fully on Situation in Northern Ireland

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, February 1998 | Go to article overview

U.S. Media Failed to Report Fully on Situation in Northern Ireland


Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review


Northern Ireland is a country with less population than the St. Louis metropolitan area, but 30 years of violence there has had repercussions far beyond its six-county borders.

The impact of events in Northern Ireland is of special concern to U.S. political leaders and church officials. That concern prompted President Bill Clinton to send ex-Senator George Mitchell of Maine to Belfast to act as a commission chair of peace talks to find an end to the terrible strife.

The very fact that negotiations are taking place is a major step toward peace, but the talks have been at an impasse. The intractable positions of the parties to the negotiations are to blame. What's more, the peace talks are now in a precarious state because of renewed violence in late December 1997 and continuing into 1998.

American involvement in the peace talks in Belfast - and the spiral of violence that threatens to destroy these negotiations - have served to put events in Northern Ireland back into the focus of U.S. news media outlets. That renewed interest by the news media has also revived some familiar criticisms of media coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict.

To be sure, the battle lines in Northern Ireland are not always so easily discerned. And there are numerous political parties to reckon with - both on the Protestant Unionist side and on the Catholic Nationalist side. The numerous political parties are quite often overshadowed by the paramilitary groups, which have their own political power - growing from the barrel of a gun.

Beyond all these details of the immediate situation, there is still the ongoing debate among scholars of the region as to what the conflict is, indeed, really all about: Is it a battle over colonialism in which the British are faced with abandoning the last vestige of empire? Is it a liberation struggle that conforms to a Marxist paradigm in which an elite ruling class refuses to yield power? Is it a religious war pitting entrenched Protestant Unionists against a growing population of Catholic Nationalists?

Obviously, these kinds of questions and details are not easily sorted out even by veteran observers of the conflict in Northern Ireland. And this kind of battleground is particularly unyielding to the kind of "parachute journalism" that has typified U.S. news media operations since they began closing foreign bureaus two decades ago.

Having provided all of these alibis for U.S. news media performance, it is still a useful exercise to examine the criticism of coverage of the Northern Ireland situation.

The Unionist view

It doesn't take much conversation with unionists and nationalists, two sides of Northern Ireland's multifaceted conflict, to get an idea of the difficulties on the path to peace - and the difficulties for the news media in covering the conflict.

"I am British. My community has provided Britain with generals, foreign secretaries and prime ministers for over 300 years. I don't want to serve another country," declares David Brewster, a member of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Orange Order. Brewster clearly fears that "another country" could be a united Ireland.

"Gerry Adams and his IRA do not accept my right to be British," adds Brewster. "And when these people say can be solved when Britain goes home, they are really saying that things will be okay when my people can be overwhelmed."

Brewster's gripe with U.S. news coverage of the conflict goes to the fact that so many U.S. reporters also fail to recognize, much less comprehend, his "essential Britishness." Brewster and other unionists argue that the U.S. news media often see the conflict as a dispute between two factions of Irish people, whereas unionists see themselves as a distinct culture, with British roots, that has nothing to do with "Irish."

More important than the complaint that the U.S. news media fail to understand the complexity of the conflict, unionists like Brewster believe the American press is biased in favor of the nationalists, which include their arch enemies, the Irish Republican Army (IRA) and its legal and political arm, Sinn Fein.

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