chapter  4
29 Pages

The Northern Ireland Information Service and the media

Media images of Northern Ireland have been the subject of critical analysis by researchers since the early years of the current period of ‘troubles’. Many have argued that the media concentrate on violence at the expense of background or contextual information (Curtis 1984; Elliot 1977; Schlesinger 1987; Schlesinger, Murdock and Elliot 1983). The continuing flow of decontextualized and seemingly irrational violent incidents are assumed by many critics to ‘fit’ unproblematically with the psychological warfare strategies of the state and thus to allow official sources to dominate the news. Schlesinger has argued that one-dimensional coverage of this type ‘reflects, at least in part, the effective long-term strategy of attrition waged by the British state in its psychologicalwarfare campaign, one which has involved increasingly sophisticated public relations techniques’ (1981:92). However, these ‘sophisticated’ public relations techniques have, in fact, come in for very little study. Additionally most critical analysis has itself concentrated on how violence is reported with a consequent neglect of the role of other images of Northern Ireland. One reason for this focus on the coverage of violence by media critics is clear. National television and press reporting is dominated by violence or conflict-related incidents (Elliot 1977). A further reason is the ‘mediacentric’ (Schlesinger 1990) approach of many studies which concentrate on the production of news or on news content, with a consequent neglect of the perspectives and media strategies of powerful (and less-powerful) source organizations. Once we begin to investigate them it becomes clear that it is indeed only ‘in part’ that the coverage of violence reflects the long-term strategy of the British state. For example, the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) itself has criticized media portrayals of Northern Ireland in terms which are similar to some academic critiques: ‘Most people, dependent on the media for their information, see Northern Ireland as a community in turmoil-wracked by violence, bitterly divided, socially regressive. That perception is wrong’ (NIO 1989:72). Apparently, then, the NIO itself is not always keen on the type of reporting which is current in British news coverage of Northern Ireland.