Throughout the life of the Glasgow University Media Group one shocking example of broadcasting bias topped all others: the political censorship of reporting of the conflict in the six occupied counties of northern Ireland. All television reports on Ireland were subject to the ‘referral up’ system, and were more censored than any other subject. And for a quarter of a century, the Glasgow University Media Group (GUMG) managed to say nothing about that conflict at all, not in More Bad News, nor even in War and Peace News (1985).
In 1988 David Miller started work on a GUMG analysis of media coverage of the conflict that was eventually published under the title Don’t Mention the War. In Don’t Mention the War Miller argued that coverage of the conflict was kept out of the media by a mix of compliance and coercion. Of course, ‘Don’t Mention the War’ was a pretty good description of the GUMG’s approach to the northern Ireland conflict, too. Miller did trail his research for Don’t Mention the War, in the Irish current affairs magazine Magill with an article on the Gibraltar killings, and in a photocopied report in 1990.
Don’t Mention the War, the GUMG’s first substantial piece was published at the end of 1994 after the IRA ceasefire of that year brought the war to a close. Or as the artist Marcel Marien said of the Belgian resistance, ‘that was after the war’. Anyone who wanted to see through Britain’s propaganda war while it was taking place would have to read the Irish Freedom Movement Handbook (1983), or Living Marxism, or Liz Curtis’ Ireland: the Propaganda War (1984).
In Don’t Mention the War, Miller argued ‘The guiding light of British policy over the last seventy-five years has been to try and push Northern Ireland to the margins of British politics’ (p 2). A postscript to Miller’s book explained that the change in British policy had undermined the thesis of Don’t Mention the War:
‘One key change in government strategy is a move from trying not to mention the war to the presentation of an intense diplomatic activity and to use the media as part of the negotiation process, in a sort of megaphone diplomacy’ (Pluto Press, 1994, p 283-4)
How, after six years study, did Miller fail to see the story in front of his nose, the end of the war in Ireland? He was, after all, talking to most of the protagonists in the conflict, but still could not hear what they were telling him, that the war was over. Already, six months earlier, Mark Ryan’s book War and Peace in Ireland, also published by Pluto, had pointed out:
‘At the heart of the Downing Street declaration [of December 1993] lay the proposal that, were the Irish Republican Army to declare a cessation of its long-running military campaign, leaders of its political wing, Sinn Fein, could – within three months, according to informal assurances – have a place at the conference table.’ (2)
Far from not ‘mentioning the war’, the media and government filled years of broadcast time, and acres of print with the negotiations and decommissioning process. The Peace Process in Ireland became a central part of the promotion of British interests not just in Ulster but worldwide. Tony Blair’s grandstanding with Bertie Ahern and the flirtatious dance between Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam were all part of the presentation of Britain’s ‘disinterested’ and ‘ethical’ foreign policy.
David Miller played his own small part in the renegotiation of British strategy in northern Ireland. Miller used his GUMG research to argue that the policy of ‘starving the terrorists of publicity’ was failing. ‘The five-year-old broadcasting ban has failed to halt terrorist bombings and killings’, he lectured readers of the Independent, promising that he had a better way to disarm opponents of Britain’s occupation of the six counties of northern Ireland. The real tragedy of the broadcasting ban, Miller claimed was that ‘it has succeeded in hampering Sinn Fein, a legal political party’ so that it could not ‘operate in a normal democratic manner’ (‘Northern Ireland: a story stifled’, Independent, 13 October 1993.
Here, Miller was only repeating the view of Britain’s security services, who had been trying to get the Sinn Fein leadership tied down in constitutional wranglings, in the hope that they would disarm the freedom fighters, where the British had failed. Miller agreed with BBC Executive Tom Hall that ‘the ban is damaging … to Britain’s reputation as an upholder of free speech.’
When the Broadcasting Ban was introduced, it was not the GUMG, or David Miller who protested against it, but Living Marxism and the Irish Freedom Movement – something for which he has never forgiven them.