The Times and the Northern Ireland Conflict

Article excerpt

Abstract: In societies in conflict the role of the media is supposed to be neutral and to report conflicts fairly and with balanced analyses. By their public debates on conflicts they are also supposed to take part in pacifying societies and in helping to bring peace. Cottle (1997), for instance, explained that even though some findings related to the British media and its reporting of the Northern Ireland conflict were relevant, he argued that they needed revision. Consequently, he proposed new paradigms of media studies. Elliott (1977) and Curtis (1996) showed that the British media concentrated on violence in general and on republican violence in particular. Moreover, they argued that the British media neglected social and political contexts in their reporting of the conflict. The aim of this paper is then to examine some aspects of how the British media cover the Northern Ireland conflict. We studied the coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict by The (London) Times (1990-1995). We used a discourse analysis method to study the paper's discourse structure in its representation of the Northern Ireland conflict.

Key Words: Media discourse, British Press, The Times, Reporting Conflicts, Northern Ireland Conflict.


Cottle (1997), in his research review based on most important works that informed the British media and the Northern Ireland conflict, divided all his predecessors' studies into three distinct paradigms. The benefit of his review is then to chart clear fields of studies so as to guide Northern Ireland media readers in their research.

The three paradigms presented by the author are: "international terrorism and propaganda war", "the representation of troubles" and "the state-media relations". His main concern was to demonstrate that some conclusions related to the Northern Ireland conflict needed revision. Thus, he argued that even though some findings were very significant, they could not be considered as general rules and applied to all British media coverage of the conflict. According to Cottle, the state-media relations are very complex and subject to frequent changes since they depend on different political contexts and laws (peace process, cease-fires, bans, censorship, recommendations to journalists ...). Our goal here is not to rehearse the various "critical" trajectories presented and defended by Cottle but to concentrate on two paradigms closely linked to our study: terrorism, and the representation of troubles. Cottle explains in his conclusion on "terrorism" that orthodoxy represents an important obstacle to understanding the concept of terrorism. He states that: "... From the criticism of the "international terrorism" orthodoxy, a more productive paradigm for the study of the mass media and insurgency emerges [...] "terrorism" on this account, is profoundly a matter of political judgement and interpretation, the key to which is so often the claim to political legitimacy. This is not to suggest that all acts of political violence have equal claim for our acceptance, as some clearly do not." (Cottle 1997: 285). However, if Cottle accepts the fact advanced by researchers that acts of state violence are neglected by mass media coverage of conflicts he contested the parallel often made between casualties caused by terrorism and those by governments: "[...] CIA figures for global non-state terrorist killings across the period 1960 to 1980, for example, amounted to 3,368; a figure in stark contrast to those numerous acts of states terror across the same period ..." (Cottle 1997: 283)

In his review Cottle also criticizes the theory developed by Curtis (1984, 1986, 1996). In fact, Curtis asserts that the Republican movement in general and IRA terrorism in particular are stigmatised by the British press and that the British army is presented as almost "above the fray". One of the earliest studies on the troubles in Northern Ireland founded on content analysis and conducted by Elliott (1977) showed that the media were attracted by violence, and particularly by the IRA violence. …