Family campaigners on legacy cases in the north of Ireland learn not to be precious about BBC media coverage, especially when the British state is involved in the murders and subsequent cover-ups.
On any other occasion, there are many reasons why a media outlet will not cover a story. In the fast-moving environment of the media, they may run out of time to report it or may miss it altogether. The outlet may not even consider it news, or it could be bumped by another article. This is especially true of a media organisation as big as the BBC.
If an article does not appear in any media channel, it may even just be down to human error or misjudgement; on our part, it could be poor timing or media management. We all make mistakes.
Last week, for example, our families were busy media-managing new evidence, a protest against police withholding evidence, and the build-up to the 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.
15 civilians including 2 children were murdered in the no-warning Loyalist bomb attack on 4th December 1971. Our families’ grief was compounded because the British state and its media blamed our loved ones for the bombing, so before we buried our loved ones, the British state buried the truth.
Our Campaign for Truth began the moment the bomb exploded as first we had to prove the innocence of the victims. Since then, mostly through our own legacy archive research, we proved that the British armed forces knew that McGurk’s Bar was attacked, but instead colluded to blame the victims to suit the British state’s own narrow, sectarian, political agenda. In general, the British media followed suit and published the lies.
Fast forward nearly half a century and the week before the 50th anniversary. We had a lot to tell the public in the run-up to Saturday 4th December and we launched our new website especially. We used a mix of web content, social media and press release. PR to the media specifically included:
(1) A complaint to the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman in London against the Cabinet Office and its failure to investigate new evidence we found – the first complaint of its kind in a legacy case we believe [link]
(2) New archival evidence recorded by the British armed forces within minutes which was completely at odds with the lies told to the press by the British armed forces about McGurk’s Bar [link]
(3) A protest two days before the anniversary at the Policing Board against the Police Service Northern Ireland’s deliberate withholding of evidence relating to police collusion with the British Army in creating the McGurk’s Bar lies and blaming our loved ones. We even named a key architect of this secret agreement as we have archival proof – it is the infamous General Sir Frank Kitson, former Commander-in-Chief, UK Land Forces and Aide-de-Camp of the British Queen [link]
(4) The subsequent snub by the Chief Constable at the Policing Board of our families two days before the 50th anniversary of the atrocity [link]
Now, we were conscious that this was a lot of information for the press and public to manage but the families wanted me to press ahead and release. Each press release staggered throughout the week highlighted the fact that the week led to the 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.
All of our other key local media outlets, including UTV, Belfast Telegraph/Sunday Life, Irish News, and North Belfast News picked up on these press releases during the week, as did the Morning Star and The Canary in Britain and the Irish Times and Village Magazine in the capital.
I spent most of Friday – the eve of the 50th anniversary – engaging with these outlets in time for the following day. I did not submit another press release on the day as we did not want to snowstorm the outlets and we had already drawn attention to the anniversary throughout the week.
Nevertheless, nowhere on BBC NI News was the 50th anniversary marked in the week before, on the day or thereafter.
I believe one of the religious ministers marked it during his Thought for the Day on Radio 4 which was very welcome, but to the best of my knowledge, nowhere on BBC Northern Ireland TV, Radio or Web was the 50th anniversary of the murder of 15 civilians marked in any way.
I believe that we are diminished by the death of every victim and our loved ones are no more special than another family’s loved one, but the McGurk’s Bar Massacre is notable [unfortunately] if only for its ferocity and the death toll in a single bombing – 15 souls including 2 children. Another 16 could have perished but survived.
The McGurk’s Bar Massacre remains the greatest loss of civilian life in any single murderous attack in Belfast since the Nazi Blitz in 1941.
The families’ Campaign for Truth is very much live and driven in the most part by our own intensive legacy archive research and new evidence which has been missed or buried by historical police investigators, academics, lawyers, and journalists over the last half-century. So, history, death toll, human interest, and notable anniversary could make for interesting copy.
Not for the BBC.
This was such a glaring omission by the British state broadcaster that the families reported their dismay to me, and I noted that unconnected citizens held BBC to task for its lack of coverage on social media and drew comparisons with the BBC’s extensive coverage of the anniversaries of IRA atrocities.
Our families also pay BBC licence fees and I act as an advocate for many of them as the manager of the charity Paper Trail (Legacy Archive Research), so I raised an editorial compliant with BBC on Monday 6th December:
“I would like to complain about and query the lack of substantive BBC coverage of the 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre in the week leading up to the anniversary and the anniversary itself on 4th December 2021, please. I’ve had a number of family members impacted by the massacre (and who pay BBC licence fees) request that I ask:
What were the reasons for the lack of BBC coverage?
Thank you in advance for your time.”
An answer arrived the following day:
“I’m replying to your recent complaint about BBC Northern Ireland (06 December).
We haven’t been able to find any email notification about the commemorative event on 04 December but have commissioned an online news report to mark the 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar bombing.
I hope this is useful and appreciate the time that you’ve taken to get in touch.”
That attempted to put the blame on us for not contacting BBC NI regarding the commemorative event and infers that BBC NI did not know about the anniversary but, of course, that was not my complaint. My complaint referred directly to the week leading up to the anniversary and the day itself, during which we had presented what we considered newsworthy stories and, importantly, each marked the upcoming 50th anniversary of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.
So, I replied immediately:
“Thank you for your response to the above. It’s most appreciated. Nevertheless, I do not think that my complaint was answered. My complaint regarded marking the anniversary and not necessarily reporting on the commemoration event.
For example, we released 3 separate press releases which referenced the 50th anniversary in the days leading up to it:
(1) new evidence; (2) protest at the Policing Board due to PSNI withholding evidence; (3) Snub of the families by the Chief Constable.
For the avoidance of any doubt, (a) can you email me whether BBC received these press releases as the mistake may be this end if not – I have BBC contacts in our mailing list and none bounced back but errors happen; (b) can you confirm whether the editorial team knew it was the 50th anniversary coming up or it wasn’t on their radar so it was not discussed; (c) can you confirm that BBC did not know that there was a commemoration event from other sources.”
I left room for human error and learning for me in the future as mistakes happen.
The following day, a BBC reporter contacted me to discuss the McGurk’s Bar Campaign for Truth and to mark the anniversary with the promised short article on the BBC’s website. This was 4 days after the 50th anniversary but still very much appreciated.
That article has not appeared online at the time of writing. I cannot find it anyway.
Again, that failure to publish is the BBC’s prerogative and I am not precious as I know that the articles I find interesting may not be of comparative interest to the general public. Personally, I find the vast majority of newspapers and the broadcast news schedule of little interest, mainly because of content and my personal interests, but also because of media bias.
I mean no disrespect to individual journalists as they are only doing their job, but the public must also look to who manages, owns and controls media outlets as a measure of the objectivity of each.
If we consider the legacy of our conflict as reported in the British media, a recent example would be the treatment of killer Dennis Hutchings in the press and any mention of his unarmed, civilian victim, John Pat Cunningham.
The British media bias in support of the killer was horrifying and this included a BBC interview with the killer before his trial began.
Read about that here in this RTÉ report.
This then can be assessed beside the lies that are told in the British press about the witch hunt against British Army veterans. All nonsense, but good copy for large sections of the British public which has gorged on Brexit and political lies for the last 5 years.
I also have hundreds of files relating to the cosy relationship between Britain’s covert propaganda unit, the Information Research Department, and various media outlets including the BBC around the time of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre. So, plus ça change.
Importantly too, I discussed the concerns I had with the BBC’s lack of coverage during the interview and the fact that BBC has skin in the game, not only with its reporting throughout the whole of the conflict, but also with the disinformation it reported in the aftermath of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre.
Weeks after the McGurk’s Bar Massacre and its cover-up by the British state, the BBC’s flagship “investigative” television programme, Panorama, promoted the RUC and British Army’s lie:
“The biggest single death toll in Northern Ireland so far was taken here when an IRA bomb exploded in McGurk’s Bar.”
The Derry Journal reported later that month (February 22nd 1972) on a complaint to the BBC made by a former British Royal Airforce Force man then living in Aberdeen, Scotland. Mr. Nicholl kindly took the BBC to task for its lie regarding the perpetrators of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre. The article reports that the BBC replied in 1972:
“Thank you for your recent letter which is being brought to the notice of a producer.”
Half a century later, I reminded the BBC reporter that BBC has yet to apologise for these egregious lies to the victims.
I also pointed to an article that I had published online less than a week before the 50th anniversary which examines this BBC lie about my grandmother and the other victims, and discusses the interesting analogy that a granddaughter of the other main British Army architect of the disinformation at the time, General Officer Commanding Lt. General Sir Harry Tuzo, is a renowned BBC investigative journalist.
The fact that BBC is guilty of helping to promote the British state disinformation in the aftermath of the McGurk’s Bar Massacre may go some way to explaining its failure to mark the anniversary of the murder of 15 Irish Catholics including 2 children; but remember: whilst some laud BBC for its impartiality, it is the British Broadcasting Corporation – and the clue is in the name.
After the McGurk’s Bar Massacre, the conflict became more vicious, and no side emerged blameless. 1972 was the bloodiest year of the conflict so there are hundreds of other 50th anniversaries for families across our community to mark. There are two today killed by IRA, Sgt. Kenneth Smyth and Daniel McCormick; and another one tomorrow – the 50th anniversary of the IRA bombing of the Balmoral Furniture Company on the Shankill Road. Four civilians were massacred and two of these victims were babies. The photographs of the emergency services carrying their little bodies away in blankets remain among the most devastating images of the conflict in my mind.
The victims’ names are Harold King, Hugh Bruce, and babies Tracey Munn and Colin Nicholl.
I remind the BBC that there are many more 50th anniversaries to come, so it better be more attentive. It has failed our families again and I hope it does not fail others, regardless of their national identity, background, or creed.