Northern Ireland Information Service: Using other people

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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. 128-30 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

Off-the-record briefings are useful in disguising the source of an official statement, but they still indicate that information emanates from official sources. Early NIO broadsheets and leaflets often used the words of public figures who might be thought to be independent, or critical, of the state. For example, the then director of British Information Services in New York said in 1973 that:

Some of the most effective material in this context comes from Dublin: from the statements of the last Prime Minister, Mr Lynch, the Cardinal, Cardinal Conway, and the former Irish Minister of Justice, Mr O'Malley, particularly on such matters as denouncing the support given in the USA to the IRA in way of funds (Commons Expenditure Committee 1973:18).

The philosophy of this approach was explained in the confidential planning notes of the film Northern Ireland Chronicle which were leaked in 1981. It argued that statements about the criminality of those convicted for 'scheduled' offences would be 'far more cogently made by, say, a Catholic bishop than... by any on-or-off-screen Government spokesman'. Interviewees from the British Government might not be convincing, but, Unionist politicians too were out, particularly since the target audience for the film was the US.[1] The Unionists:

are the people whom the film's target audience... would be most inclined to reject. That Molyneaux would speak out against the IRA is obvious; that, say, John Hume or Bishop Daly would might be a revelation. These are the people who, in terms of the film, will carry the most authority and have the most 'muscle' (cited in Curtis 1984a:200).

On occasion the Northern Ireland Office will use journalists as proxies either by distributing their writings, citing them in publicity material, inviting them to social events or even to act as witnesses in court cases. The Belfast journalist, Martin Dillon, has recounted the British government's invitation to him to give evidence in the US at court hearings held to consider the extradition of Republican prisoner Joe Doherty. One 'classified' British government memorandum he received, while making a decision about whether to testify, revealed government strategy, outlined at a meeting in July 1983:

It would be prudent for the Northern Ireland Office during the peiod leading up to the defence's response to our depositions, th give thought to possible witnesses on the general situation in the Province at the time of Doherty's offences. It would be important for any such witness to be dissociated from the British Government, and for him to be able to paint a picture of declining violence and impartial law enforcement and judicial procedures. While such high profile figures as Conor Cruise O'Brien, Lord Fitt or Robert Kee could be difficult to land, the bigger the 'fish' the better (Dillon 1992a: xxvi).

In the event Dillon declined the offer and his place was taken by Professor Paul Wilkinson of St Andrews University.

The constant attention paid to the right message delivered by the right person is also influenced by the mode of delivery. Thus, 'for years the Foreign Office was criticised for failing to put across the government's case on Ulster, sending diplomats with plummy accents to defend the thesis that Ulster people really did want "the British to stay"'[2] The solution was to send the press officer from the Department of the Environment in Belfast on a four year secondment. Cyril Gray was clear about the advantages of not having a 'plummy' accent:

I find it quite remarkable the impact that an obvious Irish accent has on often very difficult Irish-American audiences. They may be many generations out from Ireland, they have a very imperfect, inaccurate knowledge of Ireland. Nonetheless, they do ask very detailed questions at all times and, to be frank, it's the only kind of detail you could know if you are yourself Irish and have been there.[3]


  1. An updated version of Northern Ireland Chronicle was made after the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 and is still (in 1993) on the catalogue of the London Television Service at the COI which produces films for the FCO to distribute overseas.
  2. Jenkins and Sloman 1985:83.
  3. cited in Jenkins and Sloman 1985:83.