Do you remember the days when editors or producers working in the newsrooms of New York, Washington or Los Angeles would contact their London-based “European correspondent” and ask him – or more rarely, her – to cover a high-profile story connected to the conflict in “Northern Ireland”? Throughout the late 1960s to early 1990s most American reporting in relation to the Long War consisted of items recycled from the British press, the journalistic neutrality of the transcribed pieces dependant on how long the recycler had been resident in Britain (the opinions and terminology usually revealed the ones who had “gone native” in the UK bureaux). For TV correspondents a simple head-and-shoulders report to camera filmed outside a well-known London landmark, with a few cut-away shots from Irish media or the archives, usually appeased the requirements of the network folks back home. However every now and again some hotshot, up-and-coming editor or producer in the States would take it into his or her head to uncover the “real facts” about the conflict in the north of Ireland, and with a heavy heart the veteran journalist would be forced to make the arrangements to leave his comfy Islington home and fly over to Belfast.
Such trips rarely yielded anything notable since most US journalists coordinated their visits with resident British officials in the “last colony” beforehand (and if they didn’t the British intelligence services soon warned their beleaguered colleagues across the Irish Sea of potentially unwelcome foreign guests). In a majority of cases the press officers of the so-called “Northern Ireland Office” (NIO), in co-operation with the British military and paramilitary PR people, had touring reporters wrapped in bubblewrap from the moment they stepped off their planes at the joint military-civil airport at Aldergrove (now Belfast International Airport). The journos would be whisked off to the once dilapidated Europa Hotel (“the most bombed hotel in the world!”, they would be informed just to add a further air of excitement to the whole occasion) where, if it was the 1970s or early ‘80s, they would be plied with copious amounts of food and drink (and drugs and prostitutes, should their inclinations run that way) over the course of two or three days; and all at the UK tax-payers expense.
Inevitably there would be the mandatory tour of a nearby fortified police or military base coupled with a ride in the back of an armoured-jeep around the slightly safer streets of North Belfast, and if the reporter was lucky perhaps a flight by helicopter-gunship over what the British termed “bandit country”, a propaganda-savvy description for those rural regions controlled by the (Provisional) Irish Republican Army (in reality most of the flights were a quick hop around counties Antrim or Down, well away from the “front”). Occasionally, when the visiting American press correspondents got too inebriated and hungover to produce any copy of their own, the NIO officials would be helpful enough to supply some ready-written materials which could be faxed on to their Stateside bosses, before the reporters returned to the placidity of London dinner-parties and shopping on Oxford Street. So worked US journalism during the first two decades of the “Troubles” (at least for the hackier end of the market; those with airs and graces were sometimes given the red carpet treatment at Stormont Castle).
I was reminded of all this following reports of the possible (if unlikely) downfall of the American conservative media demagogue Bill O’Reilly. Amidst a swirl of allegations and counter-allegations in relation to his journalistic career comes this from the Washington Post:
“In his 2013 book, “Keep It Pithy,” the Fox News host recounted, “I’ve seen soldiers gun down unarmed civilians in Latin America, Irish terrorists kill and maim their fellow citizens in Belfast with bombs.”
But in light of a week-long controversy surrounding other comments that O’Reilly has made about his career, those statements bear closer examination.
O’Reilly traveled to Northern Ireland in 1984 to research a book about the Troubles, according to Fox News. The book was never finished, and it’s not clear whether he covered the conflict for any news organization. At the time, he was working for a Boston TV station, WCVB, but his then-boss, Philip S. Balboni, said that O’Reilly covered only local news and did commentary for the station.
O’Reilly didn’t mention seeing any terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland during a radio interview with syndicated host Hugh Hewitt last week. Instead, he told a milder story: “We went on a raid in Divis Flats with the police. And it was a pretty intense situation. There was stuff being thrown, arrests being made, all of that.”
Were you in fear of physical harm?” Hewitt asked.
No, O’Reilly replied.
The long-since-demolished Divis Flats were infamous in western Belfast, occupied primarily by poor Catholic residents. The housing complex was considered a stronghold of the separatist Irish Republican Army and was the scene of many police raids during the decades of the Troubles.
Asked about O’Reilly’s statements Friday, a Fox News spokesman said that O’Reilly was not an eyewitness to any bombings or injuries in Northern Ireland. Instead, he was shown photos of bombings by Protestant police officers.”
Which, given what we know about how US journalists reported on the “Troubles”, is far more believable. Those who sought to report outside the British propaganda machine were few and far between.