By Colin Gannon
Irish issues have not been “properly explored or scrutinised” by the BBC since the Troubles ended, including it’s “limited” Brexit coverage, according to a former BBC radio controller.
Mark Damazer — who sat on the BBC Trust in 2016 and was responsible for oversight of the broadcaster’s editorial decisions during the Brexit referendum — says that the BBC should have invested more heavily in a Dublin base to allow it to better understand the “depth of feeling” in the country.
In a frank interview with the Irish World about the British public service broadcaster’s coverage of Ireland — since the Troubles, leading up to today — Damazer, a former BBC Radio 4 Controller, asserted that there are legitimate criticisms to be levelled at the organisation.
Trade, and the daily, frictionless movement of ordinary people across the Irish border, were not covered sufficiently, he says, with scant interest paid to how integral the EU was in promoting peaceful relations between the UK and Ireland.
“An awful lot of what happened since 1998 (Good Friday Agreement) — and leading up to 1998 — existed because Ireland and the United Kingdom were both members of the EU,” Damazer tells the Irish World. “That relationship has been ruptured and it is likely to cause Ireland immense economic difficulties, even greater than our own.
“Well, you might say, what do we care about that? It’s a sovereign country; it’s their problem and not our’s. It’s not quite that simple, it’s not just another country: We have a complicated and difficult history and it’s also a country that we have legal commitments towards since 1998.”
Around the time of the referendum, although almost entirely ignored by both campaigns during the divisive debates, it became increasingly clear that avoiding a hard border in Ireland would become a dominant part of the Brexit negotiations.
There were news packages done around how the trading relationship between the UK and Ireland post-Brexit might create tensions in Ireland, Damazer says, but they weren’t given enough prominence. “Many of them didn’t have much depth,” he adds.
There was, Damazer argues, a “massive disequilibrium” between the importance of the issue in Ireland and the UK, which in part can explain some of the misconceptions surrounding the backstop — the Brexit sticking point, an insurance policy intended to prevent a hard border reappearing in Ireland — in media coverage.
“EU membership for both the UK and Ireland was the mechanism that ensured relations would work both economically and politically,” he says. “The fact we decided to leave, that was thrown out.”
Damazer contends that the root cause of the BBC’s lack of nuanced reporting on Irish issues can be traced back to a dearth of regular reporting of Irish issues — which were visibly less common in the aftermath of the long-sought-after peace process.
“For many years, the standard criticism of media coverage of Ireland, including the BBC, was that all they ever cared about were the Troubles. That we only ever turned up in Northern Ireland when it featured extraordinary violence and terrorism,” he says. “Like all these kinds of criticisms, there were elements of truth in it and elements of wishful thinking.”
Coverage of Irish issues after the Good Friday Agreement mostly waned, due in part to a lack of “immediate urgency” since terrorism and violence become less commonplace.
With the exception of social issues — namely two recent referendums on same-sex marriage and abortion, as well as stories stemming from Catholic Church scandals — little time was invested in Ireland, Damazer argues.
“There is a legitimate excuse that lots of other things are going on in the world, but it means you don’t have a strong Dublin base to begin with. So when you get what is a very, very important political and diplomatic story for Ireland — Brexit — you don’t have very much going on there in the first place,” he says.
“With hindsight, it would have been better to invest quite heavily in putting in infrastructure and a bit of expertise around Dublin politics, Dublin economics, Dublin trade — especially in relation to the EU.”
In Damazer’s estimation, although many within the BBC are conscious of the flawed Irish coverage, the issues persist. He highlighted last week’s 10 o’clock news as an example, citing some coverage of the Irish border under a no-deal scenario.
“They said: Here is the border, and people will take advantage of it in terms of security and customs. But it’s not the same as understanding the depth of feeling [in Ireland] — particularly in terms of the Republic of Ireland’s rather troubled relationship directly with the UK, and England in particular,” he says. “These issues have not shown the BBC at it’s very best and I don’t suppose many others have done it well either.”
A dedicated, rooted Dublin correspondent, who pops up outside the Dail to explain Irish political and economic issues, may have led to less flawed coverage, Damazer notes.
There would have been a realisation that Varadkar had true cross-party consensus and how that gave him leverage in talks; greater understanding of Ireland’s relationship with the EU; better analysis of the Irish public’s view towards the EU and towards Brexit.
“At a very early stage, Barnier made it clear that the Irish issues needed to considered right, front and centre. That was the moment — long before the first agreement was signed — when alarm bells for journalists should’ve started ringing,” he says.
“How are [politicians] going to solve it? As a bunch of serious public service broadcasters, we need to ensure that this issue is properly explored and scrutinised. I’m not sure that process ever happened.”
“[Irish issues] were not completely neglected or tackled, but what would not be controversial to say, is that the weight of the issue has now was in no way properly reflected in the national debate — very much including the BBC – during the campaigns.”
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