Northern Ireland Information Service: Targeting Audiences

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This page consists of an extract from David Miller Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London: Pluto Press, 1994, p. 106-12 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

The most sophisticated targeting of different audiences via different types of media is the practice followed by the Northern Ireland Office. The NIO is the lead department in matters of PR strategy. It attempts to oversee the activities of the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC), Army, Industrial Development Board (IDB), Northern Ireland Tourist Board (NITB) and Central Office of Information (COI). This is not to say that such attempts at co-ordination work smoothly at all times, as we shall see below. The Northern Ireland Office operates what can be termed a 'hierarchy of access'. This general hierarchy though, is traversed by media type, and by professional and personal relationships. For example, there have periodically been complaints from print journalists that better facilities are offered to broadcast journalists. Indeed in late 1981 the then Northern Ireland Secretary Jim Prior was threatened with a news black out by the National Union of Journalists if the practice continued. (Belfast Telegraph 30 September 1981, Sunday World 1 November 1981) Additionally there are clear differences within as well as between media types, for example, between news reporters and features writers or TV documentary makers. Journalists may move between different positions as their careers progress or they may be simultaneously working in more than one capacity. The relationship of any given group of journalists' with the NIO is also constantly in flux. Nevertheless it is possible to categorise four main politico-geographical groups of journalists' who are dealt with according to the hierarchy. In the lower part of the hierarchy are: 1) Dublin journalists and 2) Local journalists, who work for regional newspapers, or broadcast outlets. The upper part of the hierarchy includes: 3) Journalists for London based media outlets (including both Belfast and London resident news reporters and TV current Affairs and documentary makers) and 4) International journalists (both London and home based).


Carrying on a tradition which goes back at least 30 years, Dublin journalists seem to be the least favoured of all those who cover the situation in Northern Ireland. This can perhaps best be illustrated by the treatment accorded to Garret Fitzgerald the former Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of the Republic of Ireland, when he worked as a journalist. In 1960 the Northern Ireland Information Service was approached by Fitzgerald in his position as the Dublin correspondent of the Financial Times for information on economic affairs in Northern Ireland. The Information Service tried to exert pressure on the Financial Times to drop Fitzgerald in favour of their existing Northern Ireland correspondent, who worked for a unionist paper in Belfast. The Director of the Information Service wrote to the Cabinet Publicity Committee arguing that:

Any Dublin writer wishing to become a commentator on Northern affairs should be discouraged as far as can tactfully be managed and that no special arrangements should be made to supply him with press releases. The fact that Fitzgerald is a very able economist and writer and that he has got a firm foothold in the Financial Times and the Economist Intelligence Unit as well as a link with overseas papers makes it all the more important that we should keep our services to him to a minimum in an effort to restrict his scope to the South. Whatever about economics being non- political, Fitzgerald's viewpoint and sympathies are Southern and this must colour all his writings. (PRONI CAB9F/123/72, Memo from Eric Montgomery March 18 1960)

The publicity committee chaired by the Prime Minister Basil Brooke agreed with the Director of Information and concluded:

the Director should continue to provide only the basic minimum co-operation with Dublin writers as at present. (PRONI CAB9F/123/72, Minutes of 97th Cabinet Publicity Committee meeting March 23 1960)

In the last twenty years there have been many allegations from Dublin journalists that they are denied information given to others. When the Director of Information Services tried to set up a lobby system in the mid 1970's it was Dublin journalists who were blamed for breaking it up. From the point of view of the NIO, a group lobby system was impossible because while:

the locals and to a great extent the Nationals obeyed the rules... there were others, particularly from the South of Ireland who simply didn't obey the rules and you got shopped. (Interview, Belfast August 1989)

The practice of the Information Service has been shaped by the perception that Dublin journalists are more likely to be critical of the NIO. They are, in effect, a lost cause.

Local Vs. British Journalists

When journalists who work for media in the North of Ireland are denied access by the NIO it is often in favour of those working for British national outlets, particularly TV Current Affairs or lobby journalists. I will therefore deal with local and British journalists together. Because the audience for the local media is by and large limited to Northern Ireland a journalist on a local paper is likely to be well down the hierarchy of access of the Information Service. As one senior Information Officer related:

Local journalists with the best will in the world are simply local journalists. Their interests are in the Northern Ireland scene and just occasionally they will ask, how is Northern Ireland going to be affected by Nuclear legislation, or whatever and so briefings for local journalists were simply about the nitty gritty of every day Secretary of State and Ministerial life and there was never any deep political probing... I haven't met one single Northern Ireland Journalist who was worth five minutes of my time (Interview, Belfast August 1989).

In an early example of the practice that goes with this view, Secretary of State William Whitelaw's PR officer, Keith McDowall, attempted to exclude all but the correspondents of London papers.

For several days towards the end of last week, Mr McDowall gave confidential "lobby" briefings about what the Secretary of State had been doing during the day. But these were confined to English reporters only. No Belfast based papers were invited to send reporters, never mind Dublin based Irish dailies or evenings. (Irish Times 6 April 1972)

Local Journalists often resent this treatment. Some protest to the NIO about the facilities they are offered. The proximity of local journalists to the NIIS means that they are much more often in touch with it as a regular source than journalists who work for network Current Affairs or even television news programmes. Local daily news reporters tell of their daily routine involving the regular 'ring round' of sources and half-hourly 'check calls' to the RUC press office. This means that the availability of the a regular flow of news items is more crucial on a day to day basis.

When access is denied to local journalists, it may be in favour of London based media outlets, with the emphasis on television current affairs programmes. In the hierarchy of access, media outlets which cover all of the 'United Kingdom' are more important for many messages. But public opinion in general may sometimes be an incidental target for image conscious Ministers. The suspicion of thwarted local journalists is that Northern Ireland ministers, none of whom are actually elected by Northern Ireland voters, can sometimes be more interested in their profile in government or in their own political party or constituency than the content of the message. More importantly the local media in the six counties of Northern Ireland are not read by the British establishment or the 'opinion formers' which the Information Service targets.

Current Affairs and documentary programmes are very high on the 'hierarchy of access' operated by official sources. This can allow the current affairs journalist more access to interesting and complex information and therefore the opportunity to interpret the information. This is precisely why official agencies attempt to elucidate the exact nature of queries and even of proposed programmes before permitting access. The access which is granted is heavily bounded by the interests of the sources, but in the end they are betting on slightly longer odds than with hard news stories which have less space and time and are less likely to do investigative reports. Thus Bernard Ingham, Press Secretary to Mrs Thatcher during most of her time as Prime Minister has described current affairs programmes as the 'main irritant' (Ingham 1991:355) in relations between Government and television. By the time he retired in 1990 Ingham:

knew of no Departmental head of Information in Her Majesty's government who would trust current affairs television producers any further than he or she could throw them. It was impossible to have confidence in any agreement reached with them (Ingham 1991:356)

The differences I have identified between the various local and national media can be partly explained by the strategies and priorities of sources like the NIO.

International Journalists

A final key area of interest for the NIO is international opinion. Information Work for journalists from other countries involves additional tactics not used for British or Irish journalists as well as messages which emphasise more heavily the 'positive aspects' of Northern Ireland.

Interest in overseas journalists is again subject to a hierarchy of access. Journalists from western countries are seen as more important than journalists from what was the Eastern bloc or the third world. Indeed journalists from Eastern Europe have, on occasion, even been refused official co-operation and prevented from setting foot in Northern Ireland. At the time of the H- Block protests in 1980, two Soviet journalists were told by the British authorities that they were:

Unfortunately unable to make available the facilities for interviews at the time requested and, in these circumstances... it was probably best that they should not make the trip. (Irish Times 19 March 1980)

Even amongst western Journalists degrees of access can depend on the importance to the British government of the country they are from. French and German journalists, for example, are higher up the priority list than their counterparts from Norway, Denmark, Sweden or Finland. When confronted with a Scandinavian TV crew, one Information Officer explained,

That gave me a real pain in the head, because I had no interest in what Sweden or Norway thought. I really didn't care, because it wasn't going to affect the situation of HMG one little bit... But Paris was different. French, Germans, in particular Parisian journalists, I used to make a fair bit of time for. (Interview, Belfast August 1989)

But the main target for information efforts overseas has long been the United States of America. This is because of the large Irish-American community in the US and its effect through elections and lobbying on US politics. America is an ally and can exert some influence on British government policy. It is also because the republican movement has many supporters in the US. One Information Officer explained the thinking of the Information Service:

The prime target as far as I was concerned were American journalists, because they were the people... we had to get to... because they really could influence policy in terms of [the] United Kingdom. Because here was the leading nation in the Western world [and] if the US government had thought that the United Kingdom was wrong in their policy towards Ireland... then somehow one had to get the opinion formers onside. And so I devoted a great deal of my time to the American journalists... to see if we couldn't possibly influence opinion there. And if you could influence the media then you could influence the senators, Congress and eventually perhaps, the Whitehouse (Interview, Belfast August 1989).

In London the major targets amongst American reporters were the heads of bureaux because:

I took the view that... they were high flyers in their own papers and if one got to know them while they were in London and if you never sold them a bum steer - some day somewhere at some time you might get to see them in America when they were bigger guys... And I must say that proved a very effective thing to do (Interview, Belfast August 1989).