BBC and the Troubles: 1968 — 1998
Campbell, Greg Scott
In 1985, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher declared publicity to be the ‘oxygen’ of terrorism. Speaking from within a climate of domestic terrorism, such a statement draws into question the nature of contemporary media coverage. The British Broadcasting Corporation, existing as a public sector broadcaster, occupies a unique position in the context of 20th and 21st century mass media. The BBC is central to the creation and direction of national and international news agendas, in the formation of worldwide public opinion, and the brand name and reputation hold connotations of honesty, accuracy and impartiality. It can therefore be positioned as a ‘a microcosm of some larger system or a whole society' (Gomm et al., 2000, p.99). Yet, the historical visual output of the organisation in relation to domestic terrorism emanating from the environment of the Troubles — a significant period in social, cultural, political, and media history — has never been subject to rigorous academic scrutiny. Grounded in the field of media and cultural studies, and drawing upon extensive archival research, this thesis investigates the representation of domestic terror by the BBC in news and documentary format over the three-decade period of 1968-1998 through two interpretive modes of textual analysis: content analysis and semiotics. Throughout, the representation of events is contextualised in relation to media theory, with the words and pictures broadcast by the BBC analysed. The framing of acts of terror as image events is considered, as well as the visual aesthetic, codes, and values, of news reports. Ultimately, this work argues that BBC coverage of the Troubles has clear and identifiable patterns and symbols. Initial outbreaks of violence, where no corresponding representational referents existed, trended towards the vivid and graphic. Gradually, however, there was an overt movement away from this form; with the notable exception of moments where a method of perception created a disjuncture to established means, coverage was dominated by generic media templates, the rhetoric of euphemism, a concerted lack of contextualisation, and empty symbolism of the absent image.