4 August 2005 Edition
IRA statement world news
ROBBIE SMYTH assesses how the IRA's historic announcement was reported in over 30 papers from Ireland, Britain, the USA and even as far away as Japan to gauge whose agendas were being carried in our print and internet news media and how was the IRA's statement being interpreted.
His findings show everything from bias to the bizarre, and that in some cases reality should never be let get in the way of journalists with deadlines to meet and corners to cut.
The front page headlines
From, "The End" (Belfast Telegraph) to "About Bloody Time" (Irish Star) there was a wide range of headline opinions about the meaning of last week's IRA statement. The shortest headline is a heat between the Belfast Telegraph carried above and the Daily Mirror's 'RIP IRA'. A close second with seven letters was the Scottish Daily Record's "It's over".
The longest headline, 14 words, belongs to the Guardian who weighed in with, "After 35 years of bombs and blood a quiet voice ends the IRA's war".
Of the 23 papers under examination here 14 specifically mention the IRA while two highlight Tony Blair, with the Daily Mail covering their bases telling us that Blair has cut a deal with the IRA. The Tory-leaning paper have got it both ways by one downplaying the role of any Irish political groups in the process. Blair has cut the deal and there are no quotes from Bertie Ahern in their coverage of the day's events. So if it all goes wrong they have it on the record that it was Blair's deal.
The other paper to mention Blair in their front-page headline is the International Herald Tribune which carries an article by Brian Lavery and Alan Cowell. A similar article by Lavery and Cowell appears in the New York Times except that in the New York Times it is titled "IRA renounces use of violence; Vows to disarm".
Perhaps the most off-course headline belongs to that of the Wall Street Journal which tells us that, "IRA tells members to disband", a word which is not mentioned in the actual text of the IRA statement.
If one were giving out plaudits for the most accurate headline, it would be a close run thing between Daily Ireland's, "A new phase" and USA Today's, 'IRA calls end to 'armed campaign'.' Considering that USA Today is often dubbed a 'McPaper' because it doesn't have the weight or depth of the other US broadsheets, it pipped many of them to the post last week.
Finally there is the rather ominous staged picture of a balaclava-clad person pointing a pistol at the reader, carried in both the Irish Independent and Daily Mirror.
The 23 headlines
Belfast Newsletter No more deceit, we want action
Belfast Telegraph The End
Daily Express IRA at last declares 'our war is over'
Daily Ireland A new phase
Daily Mail Blair hails historic deal with the IRA
Daily Mirror RIP IRA
Daily Record It's over
Daily Telegraph The cost of peace in Ulster
Evening Herald IRA Garda suspect beat dog to death
Financial Times IRA abandons armed struggle
Guardian After 35 years of bombs and blood a quiet voice ends the IRA's war
Independent The war is over, says the IRA
International Herald Tribune Blair welcomes IRA peace pledge
Irish Examiner Never Again
Irish Independent The day the provos gave up the gun
Irish News IRA ends the armed struggle
Irish Star About bloody time
Irish Sun Every gun will go
Irish Times Decommissioning expected as IRA ends armed campaign
Times IRA to destroy all arms by October
USA Today IRA calls end to 'armed campaign'
Village IRA Endgame
Wall Street Journal IRA tells members to disband
What's in a name?
The release of the IRA statement on a DVD read by former POW Séanna Walsh was a source of interest for many newspapers. It was also a good example of how newspapers can get the little things wrong, which makes you wonder about the big important stuff and what happens to it when the errors move from journalists' oversight into the editorial process.
For example Séanna becomes Seán for the London Times and the Sun. The Times tells us that Walsh was "an old comrade of Bobby Sands". For the Daily Record he is a "former terrorist". The Daily Mirror downgrades Walsh to a "former prison protestor" in a reference to his days on the blanket. In the Guardian he becomes a "former IRA prisoner", in the Examiner this is an "ex-prisoner".
It falls to the Irish Times to be the only paper to get it right on how Séanna's name is actually spelt. It has a fada on the 'e' and has two 'n's. The Examiner had the fada on the first 'a' while the International Herald Tribune and the Guardian spell his name "Seana". Lots of others called him just Seanna.
The Irish Times also tells us that the former POW was released under the Good Friday Agreement and was a cellmate of Bobby Sands. The Irish Star decide that Séanna is one of the "IRA's longest incarcerated prisoners" and a "close friend of Bobby Sands".
For the Evening Herald this it seems is all a bit too bland. Their Séanna is a "H-Block veteran" and a "hardline hawk".
An Phoblacht spoke to Séanna who told us he had not spoken to any other paper, (maybe we should break out the 'Exclusive' headlines) and that his name was spelt Séanna or Séadhna.
The editorial line
Editorials on the IRA statement range from the sombre, to preaching, to downright stupid. The stupid award must go to the Irish Mirror who tell us that the IRA must "have learned that it's no longer sexy to be a terrorist". The Star tells us to "Never forget the horror", but in their reality there was only one protagonist to the conflict and writes of the IRA's "vicious armed assault on the people of Ireland". In a similar vein the Daily Mail declares that "Weasel words are no enough".
However some papers offer a more positive interpretation of the IRA statement. The London Times, a Murdoch paper, declares that this is the "beginning of the end" and that the words used in the statement "leave little room for multiple interpretation".
Even the Sun tells us that, "It would be churlish not to welcome the IRA announcement". The Irish Examiner echoes this saying that, "The IRA was unequivocal in its intent".
For some papers the focus is now on the IRA actions convincing the unionists, The Daily Telegraph tells us that "IRA deeds must match it words" and that they have to now "convince the unionist community".
What was common to all these editorials was a refusal to see the IRA as only one party to the conflict. This was a common theme in a lot of the photomontages that focused almost solely on IRA actions during the conflict, not on the actions of other protagonists such as the British Government, their soldiers, armed police officers or the unionist death squads they infiltrated and supplied.
It would be hard to cover the IRA's statement without actually quoting from it and all papers have some mention of it, most carrying the text in full. But who else is a party to this story, who else merits a quote?
Looking at 17 national daily Irish and British papers, British Prime Minister Tony Blair is the only political leader who gets quoted in each paper, mostly with the well honed soundbite, "a step of unparalleled magnitude".
Gerry Adams gets a mention in 16 with the Daily Telegraph including a photo but no words from the Sinn Féin President. Ian Paisley gets quoted in 15 papers while Bertie Ahern manages ten quotes, the same number as George Bush and Catherine and Paula McCartney who are quoted and pictured extensively across the papers.
UUP leader Reg Empey gets seven mentions as does the Progressive Democrat Justice Minister Michael McDowell. McDowell whose contributions to peace in Ireland are wholly in the negative gets an airing for his line on alleged criminality and 'seizing IRA assets'.
Mary McAleese also gets seven mentions, Seán Brady, Catholic primate, gets six mentions, and nine for Northern Secretary Peter Hain. US special envoy Mitchel Reiss gets six mentions, five for John Hume, four for Mark Durkan.
In all there were 44 people worthy of a quote across these newspapers, excluding on-the-street vox pops. So how many of the 44 were Sinn Féin voices? Well, Séanna Walsh gets 12 mentions and his photo is used in lots of papers. Martin McGuinness who was in the USA gets quoted six times, once for Sinn Féin Vice President Pat Doherty who was in London. Former POWs Laurence McKeown and Danny Morrison's columns were carried in Daily Ireland and that's it, six out of 44 voices, and two of them were limited to just one paper.
Its not an allegation of bias, but it does show clearly the habits of Irish and British newspaper reporting that when major stories like this break their coverage is not entirely focused on the actual participants but on their selected commentators.
Ultimately this means that some voices are not being heard and as expected it's the republican ones who are discounted first.
Setting the Agenda
The news media delights in telling us of the well-oiled Sinn Féin publicity machine. The English Times called it "formidable" while the Daily Mail terms it a "slickly staged public relations package". So could there be other public relations packaging out there in the coverage of this story?
It is clear that the British and Irish Governments had a message to get across on the day, while Michael McDowell got substantial coverage for his line, but what about the news media themselves, could they be setting the agenda in how they report?
For a start there's the common terminology, the word "endgame" featured in a lot of newspapers, but the most used phrase was borrowed from Hemingway's A farewell to arms. It was used in straps, headlines and in articles across a range of Irish and British newspapers.
Then there was the need among journalists to decode the IRA statement. The Guardian, Irish Examiner and Chicago Sun Times all offered quite involved interpretations.
The Guardian gave us a guide titled "It's over —the message decoded". In the Examiner it was called "Between the lines" promising to decipher "what does the IRA statement really say". Associated Press (AP) provided the news feed for the Chicago Sun Times article titled "What it means".
Then there was the use of murals in photographs, and in particular a "Time for Peace" mural that is used in the English Independent, the Sun and the front pages of the Guardian and English Times.
In all out of 17 morning British and Irish papers, 14 had a mural photograph. Those that didn't were the Financial Times, Daily Express and Mirror.
Perhaps one of the more interesting bits of the news coverage of the day were the journalists from the Irish Examiner, London Independent, Times and CBS News who all found their way to Danny Molloy's bar in Ardoyne to give coverage to Harry McClafferty amongst others and his quote that "It's a bunch of crap". How did four journalists all agree that this was a news story worth covering? Or maybe there is strength in numbers when it comes to reporting from the streets of Belfast!
Already mentioned in the international print coverage was the Wall Street Journal who took it upon themselves to proclaim IRA disbandment. The Washington Post had a more reality-based "IRA says it will abandon violence".
USA Today had an interesting interpretation of the timeline writing that the IRA was ending "nearly 90 years of struggle".
IRA weapons get a lot of superlatives in both the international and domestic press. There were "vast hidden stockpiles" according to the New York Times.
Also quirky and erroneous are some of the interpretations of the conflict. An editorial in the Australian tells us that: "The days when the Catholic minority in Ulster need a militia for protection against the Protestant majority are past".
For the Hindustan Times the IRA statement was headlined "Renouncing arms a 'new era': Sinn Féin". SFGate.com titles its article "The 'new' IRA" and writes that the IRA, "an outdated remnant of seemingly endless struggles to free a corner of Ireland from British Governance, has taken the historic step of renouncing its arms".
Japan Today tells that, "Northern Ireland awakes to new era of peace — it hopes". CBS news is more negative and headlines its article "Irish skeptical of IRA disarm plan". The People's Daily Online in China declared that, "The IRA said all of its clandestine units had been ordered to dump their arms". The Boston Globe's Kevin Cullen has another angle writing that, "The IRA said its cadre of former assassins, bombers and kneecappers must devote all their energies ...through peaceful, political means" and then there was the New York Post's "An end to Irish Terror".
For a lot of the international media it seems that there was only a conflict in the Six Counties and that it was entirely religious. So it is interesting to note that after decades of the conflict in Ireland being covered in the international media, the level of real understanding is fairly thin on the ground. What does this say for British and Irish coverage of international news outside these islands?
Blogging for Ireland
So what can republican readers do about any of this? Well one quick solution is to get your opinion out there and it has never been easier, especially in the USA where more and more papers have readers' representatives whose job it is to respond to reader comment.
Snail mail letters to the editor still work, but most papers allow you to email the editor. Last Friday's papers were filled with letters that must have been e-mailed in after the IRA announcement.
Then there are the political chat rooms like Indymedia, Politics.ie and Slugger O'Toole. Go there and have your say. Finally you could start your own blog on a free, just Ireland or whatever political issues you think are being overlooked. So maybe with a keyboard in one hand and a broadband connection in another we can free Ireland!
An Phoblacht Magazine
AN PHOBLACHT MAGAZINE:
- The first edition of this new magazine will feature a 10 page special on the life and legacy of our leader Martin McGuinness to mark the first anniversary of his untimely passing.
- It will include a personal reminiscence by Gerry Adams and contributions from the McGuinness family.
- There will also be an exclusive interview with our new Uachtarán Mary Lou McDonald.