The Troubles: Is the media reopening wounds?

BY Adam McGibbon

13th Nov 2020 Life

The Troubles: Is the media reopening wounds?

Adam McGibbon asks if replaying Northern Ireland's trauma in the media is preventing the country from healing

“Do you feel the weight of your past?” The billboard asked me. “Is there conflict in your blood?” another interrogated. The searching words were enveloped in images evocative of Northern Ireland’s violent history. Faces of riot police shrouded behind shields, barbed wire, licks of flame.

The billboards for BBC Northern Ireland’s new series of documentaries marking the 50th anniversary of the beginning of "the Troubles" were lauded in the trade press. Creative Review described the campaign—aimed at viewers under 35—as using "provocative headlines… aimed to spark debate and conversation. A brave approach for the BBC to take with such a polarising and sensitive issue."

As someone in the target audience group, I didn’t feel polarised or provoked. Instead, it confirmed a feeling I’ve had for some time—that the way in which our media in Northern Ireland constantly replays our most horrific moments is re-traumatizing the people who had to live through it, and passing those grievances onto a new generation. 

In the streets during Bloody Sunday, when paratroopers opened fire on rioting Catholics in Londonderry, killing 13 people
Bloody Friday is the name given to the bombings by the Provisional Irish Republican Army (IRA) in Belfast on July 21, 1972

Marking our most terrible events has always been a big part of business for Northern Ireland’s media, drawing in huge audiences. For example, I, someone born in early 1988, can watch an hour-long 2013 BBC NI programme about the deadly cycle of violence of March that year—the Gibraltar killings, the Milltown Massacre and the "corporals killings". BBC Two later commissioned an hour-long film about the same event. A 2012 documentary looks back at the 40th anniversary of Bloody Friday, showing the chaos of that day when 22 car bombs exploded in Belfast within 80 minutes. Is a 50th-anniversary programme planned for 2022?

Even when these innumerable programmes disappear from BBC iPlayer, they’re freely available on YouTube. Specific programmes are uploaded by individuals depending on whose side’s narrative of victimhood they fit best, with millions of views between them all. 

Last year marked the beginning of the latest train of BBC commemorations—50 years since the upheaval started in 1969. A six-part investigative series was produced. Seven programmes called On The Frontline looked at the experiences of bus drivers, police officers, teachers, and more. UTV (ITV in Northern Ireland) commissioned a very similar series. 

"There is little focus on the peacemakers, and much more on the perpetrators of violence and their victims"

Now that we’re locked into a whole series of 50th anniversaries of our most terrible events, as we relive 1970, 1971, 1972, it’s the right time to ask—should we really be doing this?

There is an over-emphasis on all the awful things that have happened, the things that continue to shape Northern Ireland’s divided society. We’re not at war, but not at peace either. There is little focus on the peacemakers, and much more on the perpetrators of violence and their victims. For a society whose politics is still struggling to move past the Troubles, is this constant repetition actively harmful? Or am I just-overreacting?

In the streets during Bloody Sunday, when paratroopers opened fire on rioting Catholics in Londonderry, killing 13 people
In the streets during Bloody Sunday, when paratroopers opened fire on rioting Catholics in Londonderry, killing 13

I ask my parents, who lived through it from start to finish. They're on coronavirus lockdown in Belfast when I call. They’re coping fine, and with typical Belfast dark humour, say that lockdown reminds them of some of the darkest parts of the Troubles because “you aren’t allowed out!” 

Mum thinks I could be right, but says she avoids watching those programmes. Dad says he watches them, but wonders whether it’s good for him to watch them. He says that it often reminds him of some of the awful things he’s forgotten about.

But does anyone seriously believe that just watching TV can traumatise, or pass on hurt to a new generation? I contact Dr Alison Holman at the University of California Irvine. Holman is an intensive care nurse turned academic, who has written scientific papers on how, yes, trauma can be transmitted through the media. She has studied the media’s effects in a long list of horrific events (including 9/11, the Boston Marathon bombings, and wildfires. When we speak, she is about to start a study on COVID-19). She hasn’t studied Northern Ireland, but she tells me what I’m talking about might have some truth in it—watching traumatic events that happened in our collective past, even if we weren’t directly involved, can resurface feelings of hurt and distress.

“That coverage could certainly be creating some stress, creating distress, and helping to keep people focused on past events,” she says. Holman is keen to emphasise that this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t know our past—but it’s about the way in which these stories are re-told. “My concern would be that it would rekindle and re-energise feelings about these old events. That would rekindle the emotions and stress and that may have downstream effects.”

Royal Ulster  Constabulary policemen search for weapons and ammuninition in wasteland during the Troubles
Royal Ulster Constabulary policemen search for weapons and ammunition in wasteland during the Troubles

Holman isn’t alone in thinking this. A growing body of research links viewing terrible events via media to trauma and stress. Professor Amit Pinchevski from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem points out that there is a lot of research into "collective trauma"—trauma across a whole society, particularly when it comes to the children of Holocaust survivors and how hurt and trauma is passed on to a new generation. I've come across similar research about the 1965 Indonesian genocide, and how deeply affected relatives of the victims are by watching a documentary about an event that happened before they were alive. It makes me think of the similarities with Northern Ireland and again wonder what we’re doing to ourselves.

Professor Pinchevski has written a book, Transmitted Wounds, about the ways media can transmit trauma. He's clear that trauma in an individual isn't the same, psychologically, as collective trauma across a whole society but agrees that there could be some truth in what I’m saying. “You’re suggesting that there's a certain way in which you present and narrate history, which brings about a certain interpretation of it, a certain repetition of it.”

"A growing body of research links viewing terrible events via media to trauma and stress"

Suddenly it doesn’t seem so far-fetched—especially in a society with a rate of mental illness 25 per cent higher than the rest of the UK and half the mental health budget.

It’s not that there isn’t positive BBC NI programming, but the story we tell ourselves about our past is overwhelmingly negative. Peacemakers, a 2017 series about groups of people who worked in the hardest circumstances to make peace, is an example of the more positive side, but could have easily been longer than just three episodes. Another is the 17-minute short Two Angry Men, featuring Line of Duty’s Adrian Dunbar, examining a 1959 attempt to stage an anti-sectarian play in Belfast. 

Tellingly, neither of these are currently available on BBC iPlayer or YouTube, but the mountains of programmes about violence are available in spades. There is a rich, largely untapped past and present of peacemakers and bridge-builders, struggling for peace and reconciliation both then and now. There needs to be far more focus on them, and much more on the grassroots rather than elite decision-makers. Viewers need to see examples of people just like them, working for reconciliation. But right now, for every programme about our shaky peace, there are ten more about our war. 

Sketches on a wall in Falls Road, one of the Catholic quarters of Belfast in 1993
Sketches on a wall in Falls Road, one of the Catholic quarters of Belfast in 1993

Part of the problem is that these programmes about our violent past are hugely popular. When we speak, both Dr Holman and Professor Pinchevski ask me why. I believe it’s because we are, all of us, young and old, transfixed by our collective troubles. Like a car crash, we're darkly fascinated by the horror of it all. This collective fascination makes sense to Pinchevski. "There’s an attraction to the outrageous and disastrous."

 Someone like me, who didn't live through most of the violence, can easily feel a gut-punch at seeing footage of Bloody Sunday from 1972. A feeling of dread seeing the replayed corporate killings footage from the year of my birth. And I know I'm not alone—the BBC’s Ads on the Frontline replays 1990s Troubles-related TV ads to selected present-day viewers, leaving some of them in tears. 

"How can we move on, when our past can be instantly recalled online or through on-demand TV?"

These programmes are often excellent journalism. But we aren’t considering the impact this is having on our ability to move on. How can we move on, when our past can be instantly recalled online or through on-demand TV? Type "Northern Ireland" into YouTube and there’s plenty of dark documentaries, with no counterbalance about peace and reconciliation. I ask Professor Pinchevski if he thinks that’s something that's made worse by the internet age. “Absolutely. If it’s always in your face, so accessible and watchable endlessly, it makes it more difficult to put it in context. To take some critical distance, to put it in a process as part of a larger context in which to make sense. The ubiquitous nature of that presents problems—the extreme visibility paradoxically obscures some things.” 

So, yes—the instant ability to recall this is damaging us, damaging our society, even damaging our politics. It’s no exaggeration to say that people walk into polling booths with decades-old atrocities fresh in their minds. And our media, focused on sensationalism, is not helping us move on. The BBC thinks differently. They tell me they make these programmes with care and sensitivity, that they get high levels of audience engagement and in 2019 the overwhelming majority of their non-news content wasn’t about the Troubles. But it’s not about the quantity—it’s about the story we tell about our past, and how it keeps the old grievances alive.

Political mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Falls Road is famous for its political murals.
Political mural in Belfast, Northern Ireland, 2014. Falls Road is famous for its political murals

There are amazing stories, now and in our past, that need to be told. Trade unionists that went on strike to stop violence, who were the backbone of the successful Good Friday peace agreement campaign. Parents who rejected segregated education and risked everything to start schools where Catholics and Protestants could be educated together. Community workers who do the unseen work every day, promoting reconciliation street-by-street. A million untold stories where communities came together to fight common causes, despite the division. We need these stories to balance the horror of what happened, and to help us realise that we have a rich history of peacemakers not just war-makers.

Telling these stories, showing that our past isn’t entirely a violent one, helps to heal our present and build our future. So let’s tell them. n


Adam McGibbon is a writer from Belfast, Northern Ireland. He also writes for The Guardian, The Independent, The New Statesman and others.


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