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22 February 2001 Edition

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Media decommissioning bias exposed

BY FERN LANE

     
There were a total of 216 references to decommissioning during November in the three publications and that 172 of these were in relation to republican arms only. In only 35 instances was decommissioning applied to both loyalists and republicans and loyalist decommissioning alone was mentioned a mere nine times
Ever since the term `decommissioning' was coined by the last Conservative government and was applied solely to the IRA's weapons, the term has continued to be almost exclusively used in the same context by the Labour government, unionist politicians and the media.

Very often those same parties have also employed the word for the same strategic purpose as did the Tories in their time; as a stalling tactic. Nothing could or would happen, ran the argument, until the IRA had surrendered. Despite the monumental efforts on the part of the republican movement, the same tired and pointless argument continues. Further, most of this insistence that the IRA must surrender its weapons to the British has continued against a backdrop of a firmly observed IRA cessation and more and more determined efforts by loyalist paramilitaries to attack the Catholic community and each other using a variety of weapons which no one is insisting should be decommissioned, least of all unionist politicians.

The phrase which has almost invariably accompanied such arguments about decommissioning of weapons is ``illegally held'', a term vital to unionists because it makes the very firm statement, reiterated over and over again, that there will be absolutely no decommissioning of the 180,000 or so `legally' held weapons in the Six Counties - most of which, as we know, are in unionist hands - and which David Trimble fought so hard to have excluded from both the legislation banning handguns in the rest of his beloved Britain and from the negotiations around the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, unionism generally has been very successful in stifling any debate whatsoever on the matter of licensed guns and the fact that over the last two or three years the number of weapons held under the same number of licenses has increased significantly.

In response to the willingness of much, if not most, of the media to accept this insistence that decommissioning refers only to the IRA, the Pat Finucane Centre (PFC) in Derry has produced a study entitled `Decommissioning in the News' which has quantified and analysed the use of the term `decommissioning' or related terms in the media.

The report's authors use as their starting point the statement by General John de Chastelain that ``the decommissioning process should be mutual'' and an unusual editorial which appeared in the Irish News on 1 November last year, the day after the Ulster Unionist Council meeting and the deaths of two men in the loyalist feud. The editorial observed:

``From start to finish, the Ulster Unionist Council meeting at Belfast's Waterfront Hall last Saturday was dominated by the question of republican arms - Many unionist figures have gone out of their way to give the impression that the only threat to the stability of Northern Ireland comes from republicans. This is a point of view which cannot be sustained, and it is essential that a degree of balance is brought to the wider debate.''

The PFC decided to put this stated need to bring ``a degree of balance'' to the test by monitoring the use of `decommissioning' and related terms in three Belfast newspapers over the month of November 2000. The papers chosen for monitoring were the Irish News itself, the Belfast Telegraph, and the News Letter. The results make for very interesting reading, and provide confirmation, if any were needed, of the Irish News' editorial comment that the debate focused on republican arms alone.

The authors discovered that there were a total of 216 references to decommissioning during November in the three publications and that 172 of these were in relation to republican arms only. In only 35 instances was decommissioning applied to both loyalists and republicans and loyalist decommissioning alone was mentioned a mere nine times. The report notes that ``References to loyalist decommissioning was 19 times less likely to appear in the newspapers monitored than references to republican arms. References to decommissioning which were neutral or included both parties still outnumbered loyalist references by four to one.''

The authors also comment that: ``References to republican decommissioning in general specified the IRA. In many instances the actual term used was `Sinn Féin/IRA'. The muted debate around loyalist decommissioning rarely specified any illegal organization. Perhaps more striking in the political dialogue was the complete absence of a comparable reference to UDP/UDA or PUP/UVF.

Broken down by individual newspaper, the figures revealed some rather interesting statistics. The Irish News for example, despite the exhortations for a balanced debate in its editorial, went on to refer to republican decommissioning 61 times compared to 6 occasions for loyalists and both 18 times. ``This means'' says the report ``that decommissioning was reported in reference to republicans ten times more often than to loyalists and over three times more than to decommissioning of both loyalist and republican arms.''

The differential in The Belfast Telegraph and the News Letter is even more striking. The Telegraph made 34 references to republican arms, 2 to loyalist arms and to decommissioning of both on 7 occasions. In other words, loyalists were 17 times less likely to be mentioned in the context of any report containing reference to decommissioning.

The ultra-unionist News Letter was, not surprisingly, the worst offender. The report found that republicans arms were referred to 77 times whereas loyalist arms were mentioned just once throughout the entire month of November; ``clearly a discrepancy of fully 77 to 1''.

The report also shows that such one-sided coverage occurred not only in editorials, but also in general reporting and particularly in the writings of columnists. For example Mervyn Pauley in the News Letter mentioned republican decommissioning 12 times during November without mentioning loyalist arms once. David Trimble and Dermot Nesbit as guest columnists also neglected to mention loyalist arms at all compared to eight and five times respectively for republican arms.

But, as can be seen by the Irish News, it is not only unionists who are guilty of such a bias. During November, Seamus Mallon managed to raise the issue of republican arms five times and yet did not refer to loyalist decommission on a single occasion.

These findings will not come as any surprise to republicans (who have known from the beginning that `decommissioning' was an ideological and political imperative, not a practical consideration) but they should also not surprise the newspapers themselves. Editorial choices are made and implemented and the focus on republican weapons is not accidental. It is a sure bet that if similar monitoring took place over, say, a year, the proportion of republican to loyalist mention should remain largely the same.

The Finucane Centre report concludes: ``Given the levels of loyalist violence in recent months many people are asking; where is the degree of balance referred to in the Irish News editorial? Newspaper coverage reflects the contemporary political discourse. The problem is that the contemporary political discourse does not reflect the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement or the reality of ongoing loyalist violence.''

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