Spooks: the Battle for Belfast and the BBC

Never forget - BBC stands for British Broadcasting Corporation.

It has taken me several years to track these secret files within London archives, but I can now publish proof of a direct link between an infamous covert British psyops unit, the disinformation it manufactured regarding the McGurk's Bar Massacre, and lies published by the British Broadcasting Corporation's (BBC) flagship current affairs programme, Panorama, in the early 1970s.

These files also featured in an Information Tribunal the families were forced to take against the Information Commissioner's Office and Police Service Northern Ireland for withholding evidence in the McGurk's Bar Massacre 52 years after the atrocity.

The secret propaganda unit in question was the shadowy Information Research Department which ran psychological operations across Ireland and reported directly to the UK Representative - the predecessor to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland before the proroguing of Stormont in March 1972.

On February 7th 1972, BBC Panorama aired "Battle for Belfast" (watch below). It was presented by Michael Charlton, Australian-born but with a marvellous BBC British accent which is matched by the clipped accent of General Robert Ford, then Commander Land Forces, who was also featured.

It was very much filmed from the British Army's point of view but it is a fascinating study, albeit one that we may consider a flawed puff piece with the benefit of hindsight. Wars at that time were won and lost in the living rooms of the television-watching public. They still are to this day and our TikTok generation - on televisions, tablets and mobile phones.

To put the programme into context, it aired just over a week after the Paras under Ford murdered 13 Civil Rights marchers in Derry (a 14th civilian died a few months later). From a British Army perspective, "The Battle for Belfast" gave it a perfect platform to tell its story in Britain especially. Meanwhile, the people in this author's community are described as "wild mobs and hostile youths" who had "the prospect of destructive anarchy in the future."

Even in the excerpt below, Panorama framed the battle along sectarian lines with the IRA "entrenched" in the "Catholic heartlands". Charlton takes a birds-eye view of west Belfast in a British Army helicopter and then travels in a British Army armoured vehicle from "a British garden suburb" through "a housing estate which was taken over by Catholic squatters from some of Belfast's worst slums."

Obviously, this was only part of the wider history of the area and did not explain why the Irish Catholic community lived in slums or why it was displaced.

The "young hooligans" duly hit the Saracen with stones as the armed convoy passed through the streets.

Ford then discussed the "insurgency… making the most of the grievances there may be in the area". Charlton and Ford then frame the Civil Rights Movement as a vehicle for the insurgency with those insurgents "backing" the Civil Rights marches.

I have not found the following debate but even this excerpt is fascinating regardless. Take the time to watch it as a study in winning hearts and minds, but that is not why I write about it here.


McGurk's Bar Massacre

The Battle for Belfast opens in New Lodge, North Belfast, and the 2nd Battalion Royal Regiment of Fusiliers - you can tell that by their [red and white] hackles - and some "minor aggro" with some of the local youths.

The filming moves down New Lodge Road to North Queen Street at the Barrack wall and scans left to right from Churchill Flats (Teach Chú Chulainn) to the remains of McGurk's Bar and family home. The narration continues:

"The biggest single death toll in Northern Ireland so far was taken here when an IRA bomb exploded in McGurk's Bar - a Catholic pub - killing 15. The long memory for past events and hatreds in Ireland presumably must include this too."

The egregious lie that the Massacre was the result of an IRA "own-goal" and not a pro-state Loyalist bombing was transmitted to millions of homes across Britain and the north of Ireland.

Alf McCreary opened his "On Television" review in the Belfast Telegraph later that week (February 12th 1972):

"There is more than one way to lose a battle. One of the surest is to talk your way to disrepute on television. If the battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, the battles that matter in the twentieth century will be lost or won on the screen in the corner of your living-room."

It can also be won or lost between the pages of a newspaper.

His review of the David Frost Programme that week included his own opinion on the Massacre:

"The programmes showed the difficulty of unravelling the Northern Ireland tangle. David Frost, well-briefed though he was, made a serious error by implying that McGurk's bar had been blown up by Protestants. That is the kind of blunder that can destroy reputations."

Frost was correct and such a blunder has not destroyed McCreary's reputation as he still writes for the Belfast Telegraph.

He continued with his review of Panorama's Battle for Belfast:

"Michael Charlton presented a useful report on security in Panorama. He suggested that McGurk's bar had been blown up by an IRA bomb, which probed (post-Frost) that in the present situation you can believe what you like."

Indeed. McCreery did.

Source of the Disinformation

This casual criminalization of our loved ones by the state broadcaster followed a torrent of disinformation in the press which I have traced back to within around four hours after the explosion and a secret agreement between the infamous head of the British Army in Belfast and the sectarian Royal Ulster Constabulary.

At 1am on 5th December 1971, Brigadier Frank Kitson ordered his Brigade staff:

"RUC have a line that the bomb in the pub was a bomb designed to be used elsewhere, left in the pub to be picked up by Provisional IRA. Bomb went off and was a mistake. RUC press office have a line on it - NI should deal with them".

The police to this very day have not been able to substantiate their lies nor admit that they fabricated them - the provenance of the police lies lay at the heart of the Information Tribunal last week too but PSNI is still withholding evidence.

It was Kitson who had begun to overhaul the information units required to help wage war and win hearts and minds from mid-1970 onwards, realigning Information Policy to the heart of British military operations. Nevertheless, military information activity was reinvigorated in the aftermath of Internment and the Ballymurphy Massacre and the Compton Report into the brutality of the British Armed Forces against these first internees who were incarcerated without trial.

Archives show that British officials and their armed forces believed they were taking hits on the propaganda front and BBC was in its firing line - much then as it is now with the perfidious Tory party.

We now know too, of course, that the British authorities knew full well that the McGurk's Bar Massacre was not an IRA own-goal but instead portrayed it as such to protect its own interests. The main one being to protect its highly discriminatory Internment Policy which was waged solely against the Irish Catholic community at this time - Internment, it should be remembered, was used only against the Irish Catholic community until February 1973 and even after this, only a comparatively small number of Protestants were interned (around 5% in a population that was nearly twice as many).

We also believe that the British state was also protecting its agents then as it continues to do now.

In my previous publications, I have examined how this disinformation filtered into the client and compliant media and how it was even used to undermine witnesses and deceive the parliaments of Stormont and Westminster.

How could the august British Broadcasting Corporation - renowned, we are told, for its impartiality - and its flagship investigative programme, Panorama, allow their journalists to be mouthpieces for blatant lies. Either they were duped or they wilfully peddled the disinformation.

Witness Interviews

Nevertheless, on 6th December, BBC had interviewed two key witnesses to the bombing and you can watch them on BBC Rewind:

  • Young Joseph McClory, the newspaper boy who saw the Loyalist bomber plant and light the fuse to the bomb before escaping in a car;
  • Henry Davey, the man whose life Joseph saved when he warned him there was a bomb in the entranceway of the pub

You can watch these compelling interviews for yourselves and see how convincing their testimonies are.

We know now too that their testimonies had already been supported by the expert opinion of a British Army bomb expert the morning after the bombing - but this was NOT FOR PR, ie not to be made public; and the later confession of one of the UVF bombers, Robert James Campbell.

But then, a few short weeks later, the BBC had decided that these witnesses and the witnesses in the bar were worthless in comparison with uncorroborated disinformation from the state authorities.

The other witnesses televised by the BBC included emotional ones by Paddy McGurk and my grandfather, John Irvine - both of whom had appealed for peace. My grandfather's interview was filmed as he stood beside my grandmother's closed coffin.

This disinformation was not only handed over to individual journalists from uncorroborated sources but also peddled to the office of the Director-General of the BBC by a covert propaganda unit of the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) called the Information Research Department.

Watch Joseph McClory on BBC Scene Around Six, 6th December 1971
Watch Henry Davey on BBC Scene Around Six, 6th December 1971
"Not for Attribution"

On the same day as BBC Northern Ireland interviewed the two witnesses to the McGurk's Bar explosion, the IRD's Josephine O'Connor Howe sent a "background paper on the Irish Republican Army" to the Chief Assistant to the Director-General of the BBC, John Cecil Crawley.

It is a beautifully clipped letter couched in language one may not expect from a covert propaganda unit unless we consider that the IRD would not be overt in its aims in such a missive and we then read the background paper itself.

O'Connor-Howe writes:

"I do not know whether you are still interested in seeing the occasional background papers and if not whether they would be of interest to your successor as Current Affairs?..."

"For interest, however, I enclose a background paper on the Irish Republican Army; as usual it is sent for your personal background and is not for attribution."

IRD Letter to BBC John Crawley Cropped

The last sentence is my emphasis. You can read the letter here.

Crawley, of course, would have been in no doubt of the intentions and inference of this contact with IRD due to his position in the BBC, his career to date and his previous experience with IRD. Much of that contact need not have been contentious either but he would be aware that it was the British government's line - albeit covert and non-attributable.

Crawley was on BBC staff for 30 years from 1945 - 1975. He worked his way up to Foreign Correspondent in New York (1959-63), Foreign News Editor (1963 - 1967), Editor of News and Current Affairs (1967 - 1971) and then Chief Assistant to the Director-General 1971-1975.

He was also a member of British Military Intelligence during World War 2 and was awarded an MBE for his work in GS02 (Intelligence) 5 Corps HQ Italy. He was then awarded a CBE in 1972's New Year's Honours List a few short weeks later.

The IRD background paper on the IRA is not attached to this letter as we might expect, and its discovery also took many years but I believe I got it.

In an FCO file of Non-Attributable briefs I found other letters from O'Connor-Howe and what appears to be an index of "Papers on IRA - October 1971 - April 1972".

In the December 1971 background paper on the IRA followed one from October entitled "The Communists and the Irish Republican Army". The IRD was originally set up as a covert counter-propaganda unit against the Red Threat of Communism so it may be unsurprising that it made much of the IRA's socialist foundations and Leftist links.

Even the IRD's December 1971 IRA background paper opens with:

"Two rival IRAs have existed in Ireland since 1969: the breakaway Provisionals who are responsible for most of the indiscriminate violence in Northern Ireland [my emphasis], and the pro-Communist Officials."

Throughout this IRD history of the IRA, which I believe will be a copy of the one sent to BBC, McGurk's Bar is not mentioned but it opens and immediately regards the IRA's "indiscriminate violence" which is a constant theme of IRD Information Policy from the period.

As I published in my 2012 book, the IRD's information policy "themes" are recorded in a Two-Programme on Counter-Propaganda by Clifford Hill - or Cliff the Spy as he was called by contemporaries in Stormont. One of the four main objectives outlined in November 1971 was:

"… to disrupt and divide the various parts of the IRA and its associated bodies each from the other. Further, to divide the IRA… from its passive supporters among the Catholic community in Northern Ireland."

He continued with the tactics:

"The vicious, haphazard inefficiency of the IRA should be constantly stressed. The IRA's disregard for human suffering is the primary theme."

If the IRD's December 6th IRA background paper is the paper in the non-attributable IRD file, it does not mention McGurk's Bar explicitly but then again it did not have to as the mainstream media was already awash with the state's disinformation.

John Chartres published an article that day in the London Times - the British "newspaper of record" we are told:

"Police and Army intelligence Officers believe that Ulster's worst outrage, the killing of 15 people, including two children and three women, in an explosion in a Belfast bar… was caused by an IRA plan that went wrong… [The] Army believe bomb was in transit…"

Chartres, of course, was no independent investigative journalist. He was also a Major in the British Territorial Army and close friend of the IRD's Hugh Mooney who worked out of Lisburn HQ. Hill worked out of Stormont. Both Hill's and Mooney's roles were cover roles in the Information Research Department and ostensibly under the UK Representative.  Mooney's cover role was as Information Adviser to the General Officer Commanding Northern Ireland. In reality, he reported to the Director and Controller of Intelligence.

The IRD's December paper to BBC ends with a quote attributed to the Taoiseach Jack Lynch that befitted their own theme perfectly:

"Violence only begets violence, especially violence in which innocent people are killed and injured at the hands of both sides… The activity of the IRA, especially their indiscriminate bombing, causing the loss of innocent lives has not only alienated sympathy widely held abroad for the deprived minority in the north but could set the attainment of national unity back for many, many years. It is difficult to believe that the evil minds that plan these activities can be motivated by the ideal of the unification of our people and our country."

No need to mention the McGurk's Bar Massacre of that weekend as it was the single greatest loss of civilian life in Ireland in any murderous attack since the Nazi Blitz of Belfast and the disinformation mix was already in motion since the secret agreement between Kitson and the RUC at 1am on Sunday 5th.

In a subsequent IRD paper on "IRA Tactics in Northern Ireland", dated March 1972, the disinformation was now "received knowledge" and IRD wrote:

"The use of gelignite and the lack of properly designed time fuses and safety devices make the bombs unpredictable. By giving warning that they have been placed, the IRA hopes to escape too much censure, but since they often explode prematurely, such warnings tend to be useless. An instance of this occurred on December 4, 1971, when 15 people died in McGurk's Bar in Belfast."

Media Rights

The IRD-BBC media connection regarding the McGurk's Bar Massacre disinformation becomes explicit after the transmission of Panorama's Battle for Belfast.

We can see IRD's keen interest in this and other publications in an FCO file marked "Possible TV Films and Programmes on Situation in Northern Ireland." Panorama's Battle for Belfast is but one major programme under discussion between the IRD's Clifford Hill (writing under the Office of the UK Representative, Howard Smith), and the FCO's Guidance and Information Policy Department (GIPD), Eric Montgomery (head of Stormont's Government Information Service) and Donald Maitland, the British Prime Minister's Press Secretary.

All of these men had their bit parts in the dissemination of the McGurk's Bar disinformation but we are focused here on the Battle for Belfast specifically. The GIPD acted as an information liaison committee between the FCO, Central Office of Information and the Home Office. It was overt whilst IRD was covert.

The file includes a telegram from Alec Douglas-Home, former Prime Minister and then Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, to British Information Services in New York, Ottawa, Wellington and Canberra (with Washington and Belfast UK Rep's Office copied) which exclaims:

"We have obtained non-theatrical rights to 40 minutes of this current week's Panorama programme in which interviewer, Michael Charlton, talks to army unit commanders in Ulster and accompanies patrols through hostile Catholic areas. This is first class television which clearly shows soldiers as reasonable decent men with sympathy for Catholics. It also shows need for the Catholic minority to accept talks for political solution and makes good points regarding internment."

Alec Douglas-Home and the BBC's Battle for Belfast

The BBC's British Army puff piece the week after Bloody Sunday also included the egregious lie that the McGurk's Bar Massacre was the result of an IRA own-goal.

They established that they could have these non-theatrical rights for £800 from the BBC and PJ Fowler of the GIPD wrote to the Central Office of Information on 14th February 1972:

"This is an excellent film which makes very clearly and palatably some of the main points we wish to stress about the Ulster situation. It will be extensively and effectively used by many posts. Please use this letter as sponsoring authority for this purchase."

Television rights were then also secured and the GIPD recorded:

"BBC have made an exceptional and unprecedented effort to let us have these prints in time."

COI telexed their Information Officers in posts across the globe:

"FILM TITLE:                     PANORAMA - ULSTER PROGRAMME (shown  on BBC Television on 7th February 1972


PRODUCTION DATE:        1972

SPONSORS:                         BBC

LENGTH AND GAUGE:    16mm B & W Will be edited to 40 mins approx..

RIGHTS OBTAINED:          World non-exclusive non-theatrical (excluding UK)

Exclusive Commonwealth television (excluding Africa)

SYNOPSIS:                           A report by Michael Charlton on the situation in Belfast. Film sequences show soldiers on patrol in the New Lodge Road and the Ballymacarett area of Belfast, and follow-up interviews with men of the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers and the Queen's Own Highlanders. Also featured are interviews with Francis MacRory, Catholic community worker, and General Ford, Commander of Land forces in Northern Ireland.

APPRAISAL:                        The film is of great interest as it gives an honest assessment of the British Army's position in Ulster and explains just how the men react to their difficult and dangerous task.

RECOMMENDED USE:     In view of the great importance attached to the Ulster problem overseas and consequent publicity concerning the action of the British army, Foreign Office is anxious that Ios [Information Officers] bring this film to the attention of the Chancery. Where possible the film should also be used in conjunction with the British Council and local community organisations.

COI's Overseas Distribution Section (Films and Television Division) sent confirmation to GIPD on April 14th 1972 of:

"… the final list of posts - 69 in all - who asked for the Panorama Ulster Programme "Battle for Belfast".

The list is attached and shows that the programme was sent all over the world. I quoted Virgil's Aeneid in my book:

"Fama, malum qua non aliud velocius ullum." - Rumour, no evil travels faster than it."

Jonathan Swift wrote in 1710 how "Falsehood flies, and truth comes limping after it." (The Examiner No. XIV).

The BBC puff piece on the British Army which spouted the McGurk's Bar disinformation agreed by the British and RUC was heard across the globe before the British Armed forces lied to the failed inquest in June 1972. We are still fighting those lies to this very day.

Panorama Again

Panorama doubled down a few weeks later on 13th March 1972 in a programme on the "Ulster Initiative" which resulted in direct rule a few days later (link to BBC Rewind).

Michael Charlton hosted the BBC show and following discussion but he was aided and abetted this time by the local Member of Parliament, Gerry Fitt, then leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) although SDLP got rid of him later and has been great support to our families throughout the years.

Nevertheless, as I discovered a few years ago, Gerry Fitt, had visited the British Home Secretary secretly and informed him the McGurk's Bar bombing was the result of a deliberate IRA attack and cast blame on the younger victims: Edward Kane who perished leaving a young family; and Roddy McCorley who survived but lost a leg. Roddy went to an early grave after fighting the demons of that night too.

Fitt had been to Edward's funeral and knew well that the local community disputed the British state's claims that the atrocity was the result of an IRA own-goal.

? Listen to Gerry Fitt, Snake in the Grass.

Fitt later accepted a seat in the British House of Lords although he was called Fitt the Brit by many in my community long before that.

Specifically, Fitt had told Reginald Maudling days before Christmas 1971:

"… that the explosion in McGurk's Bar was the deliberate work of the provisionals (sic) and that if this could be proved  it would produce a dramatic effect on catholic (sic) opinion even to the extent of giving him the excuse to join discussions."

In this Panorama, Fitt talked to the BBC about these discussions and Heath's Ulster Initiative. The Panorama programme only discusses IRA violence and the threat of the "Protestant Backlash" as if organised Loyalist violence did not exist for the 5 years before that and Loyalists had not just weeks before perpetrated the most murderous civilian attack in the north's dirty existence since World War II.

The long interview opened in Ashton Street where the Kane family lived. Edward's wife and young family were put out onto the street in the early hours of the morning after the McGurk's Bar explosion when the British Army raided it. Her family was still looking for Edward at the time and they did not know he was killed yet.

The BBC reporter, Alan Hart, says (4:26 minutes):

"A lot of people who live around here were [IRA] activists as well. Some of them were your actual gunmen and your actual bombers."


"Yes indeed… This house over here, the first house. The young woman who lived there with four children lost her husband in the McGurk's Bar explosion."

He was standing opposite the Kane household and then pointed down Ashton (4:58 minutes):

"And in this area here, the Victoria Barracks area, there were fifteen people who killed in the McGurk's Bar explosion."

They walk past my father's family home in Lepper Street and through the gap in the wall behind Eithne House.

BBC Hart (12:15 minutes):

"What guarantees can you offer Mister Heath that you could deliver the goods, that there could be an end to violence."

Fitt placed the McGurk's Bar in the middle of IRA atrocities:

"When one thinks of the names: the Abercorn Bar, McGurk's Bar, the Red Lion, the Four Step Inn, The Mountainview, and all those areas that are only names now but they are more than names to the people who lost their relatives and the people who were so badly mutilated and are still living and will have to live with it for the rest of their lives - those are the people who will tell the gunman we no longer want this type of activity."

They walked past the Grotto and down the Seven Hills area towards Victoria Parade and my other grandparents' home.

Fitt (25:12):

"Yes, we hear a good deal of talk about the [Protestant] Backlash. I hope that there never is a [Protestant] Backlash. One cannot say with any degree of accuracy again that a backlash was ever on. We knew it was used to threaten successive governments at Westminster since Ireland was partitioned in 1920. But if one analyses a backlash, a backlash to me means that all the tragedy that we have had in Northern Ireland throughout the past two or three years would be multiplied a thousandfold and thousands of Catholics and Protestants will lose their lives."

He was opposite the Irvine family home when he said this.

The BBC and Gerry Fitt spouted lies about the McGurk's Bar Massacre and the absence of a so-called "Protestant Backlash". Fitt was right about the loss of thousands of more lives though as Heath's Initiative - Direct Rule from London - failed and the conflict tore on for another generation.

This Panorama programme ended with a discussion and British Tory MP, Angus Maude, concluded:

"The simple fact that you have a two thirds majority of Protestants in Northern Ireland who have hitherto been fantastically patient and if you go too far they will come out in arms."

We now know that the British state knew that pro-state Loyalists had attacked McGurk's Bar but they had in place an "Arrest Policy for Protestants" (link to Pat Finucane Centre) that ensured that Protestants would not be interned. This outright discrimination continued until February 1973, during which time organised Loyalist violence was denied, down-played and covered up by the British state. By the time Protestants too were interned, albeit in comparatively small numbers (totals around 95% Catholic, 5% Protestant), Loyalist extremists had murdered around 120 civilians, most of whom were Irish Catholics.

Could you imagine the British state allowing that to happen in Birmingham or Bristol as they allowed it in Belfast.

At best, the BBC was duped by British state disinformation and serious investigative failures led to it parroting the lies about our loved ones; at worst it was an instrument of the British state and war machine.

Regardless, we can now connect the Information Research Department, the BBC and McGurk's Bar disinformation. BBC badly served our community in 1971 and failed our families specifically.

BBC failed our families again 50 years later when it gave no coverage to the anniversary of Belfast's worst paramilitary outrage - the murder of 15 civilians including 2 children in McGurk's Bar. It marked and marks other anniversaries but ours was not worth a picture or a paragraph.

Never forget - it is the British Broadcasting Corporation and remains so - you can tell that by its output today as its local reporting begins from a Unionist baseline and its shows remain weighted towards the Unionist perspective.