Public Service Imperialism?
Public Service Broadcasting confronts Nationalism and Separatism in Northern Ireland, Quebec and Scotland


Public service broadcasting has as one of its most important functions the responsibility to serve regional areas, developing local interests. Another of its primary responsibilities is to serve the national interest – fostering unity and a sense of national identity among the diverse people of the nation it serves. Sometimes these two goals can seem almost mutually exclusive. One example of this is when a significant percentage of a region's population does not wish to be a part of the nation. How can a public service broadcasting organisation balance the functions of honouring national sovereignty while giving deserved respect to the distinct culture, traditions, and possibly language of such a region?

One of the most difficult cases of this challenge is in Northern Ireland, where the British Broadcasting Corporation has confronted the most violent internal strife on British soil since broadcasting began. This paper will focus mainly on Northern Ireland, but two other situations will serve as a comparative backdrop. The first of these demonstrates the BBC's actions in a less extreme environment: in Scotland, where there is significant fervour for independence from Britain, but no violence on the scale of that in Northern Ireland. In the second comparative situation we can see some of the problems of separatism that the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation faces in Quebec.

This paper will view each of these situations from three angles. First of all, I will look at the beginnings of broadcasting in each place, in order to provide historical perspective on broadcasting there, and perhaps to find in the past some roots of present problems. Second, I will discuss specific efforts of the broadcasting corporations to deal with these places as regions, with distinct and valid cultures. After I have presented this necessary background I will specifically address the specific challenges to broadcasters in nationalism and separatism in Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Quebec.

Historical background

This section looks at the roots of BBC broadcasting in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and of CBC television in Quebec. Northern Ireland is unique among these three, because nationalist ideals there do not only involve Northern Ireland's separation from Britain, but also its joining to another nation, the Republic of Ireland. I will therefore begin with a review of the development of Irish broadcasting, which was shaped both by BBC influence and the Republic's specific desire not to be too involved with Britain.

The island of Ireland itself has played a significant role in the development of broadcasting, specifically in radio. Radio inventor Guiglielmo Marconi's first experiments with ship communications were off the coast of Ireland. Even more importantly, in the Easter 1916 Rebellion 'the Irish rebels used a ship's wireless to make, not a point-to-point message, but a diffused broadcast in the hope of getting word out to some ship that would relay their story to the American press.' (McLuhan, cited in Savage, p. 1) The Irish, therefore, were possibly the first people to use the radio as a broadcasting tool... and it was used in the cause of independence from Britain.

Though the Irish were wary of any strong connection with British broadcasting, the BBC model was emulated in Ireland from the beginning of radio. Both the BBC and the Republic 'were interested in encouraging the development of a stable state that would not be susceptible to radical republicanism. The BBC remained very interested in influencing the development of radio and television in Ireland.' (Savage, 5)

Rather than allow the Republic to develop a commercial television system in co-operation with U.S. interests, the BBC wanted to encourage public broadcasting in Ireland. The commercial plan involved broadcasting into Britain, against the BBC's self-interest. The BBC wasted no effort to get Ireland to follow the BBC public service model of broadcasting. This was, eventually, the model that RTÉ followed, but partly because of the debate surrounding it, the Republic did not have its own television service until 1961, making it one of the last Western European nations to do so.

Though it followed the BBC model, one of the driving forces in the development of the Republic's own broadcasting service was the unwanted influence of the BBC on the people of the Republic, coming in through transmitters in Northern Ireland. In 1953, the first BBC television programmes in Northern Ireland were broadcast from Belfast, just in time for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, and a number of viewers in the northern parts of the Republic were able to see that before they saw any television from the Republic itself. The Irish government was well aware of this. Northern Ireland was enjoying television provided by the British, while the Republic, which idealised eventual unification with the North, could only receive 'fallout' signals from there. (Savage, 24)

This was both embarrassing to the Irish government, and frustrating for the people of the Republic. Some claimed that, due to its broadcasting in the North, Britain was able to influence Irish opinion and even offend Irish sensibilities. Much in the BBC, from celebrations of royalty to its attitude toward sex, wsa offensive to many Irish people. When the time came to decide on a line standard in the Republic, it adopted the 625-line standard; ostensibly this was because of its higher quality, but Robert Savage argues in his history of broadcasting in Ireland that it was also largely because the BBC used a 405-line standard at that time. Televisions made to receive the Republic's 625-line broadcasts were unable to pick up Britain's broadcasts from Northern Ireland. (Savage, 141)

'It should be noted that a[n Irish] national service was defined as one that would cover the twenty-six counties of the Irish Republic, and not the six counties of Northern Ireland.' (Savage, 134) One member of the Irish Television Commission even suggested that people in Northern Ireland would not be interested in broadcasts from the Republic. Many nationalists living in Northern Ireland felt somewhat neglected by the Republic as a result. The Stockholm Plan, meanwhile, to which Ireland had agreed earlier, allowed Britain stronger transmitters than it allowed the Republic. This meant that 'while the BBC and later ITA programs could be received in a considerable part of the Republic, the Stockholm Plan precluded a powerful Irish station from broadcasting directly into Northern Ireland.' While television from Britain made its way to Dublin, television from Dublin was never able to broadcast very far into Northern Ireland. Savage writes that, in the Republic, 'it was clear that where television was concerned, the border defined the nation.' (Savage, 135)

The original BBC plan for eight radio stations in Britain did not include a station in Northern Ireland. Rex Cathcart, in The Most Contrary Region, writes that this may have been for political reasons; radio equipment could easily be used by rebel forces and the political situation in Northern Ireland in the early 1920's was still barely stable. 'Wireless equipment,' writes Cathcart, 'even when it was in the hands of politically reliable persons, represented a security risk because it could be seized by subversive forces.' (Cathcart, 17) The plan, however, was amended, and there were nine original stations: one in Northern Ireland, two in Scotland, one in Wales, and the rest in England. Once the Belfast station (2BE) began in 1924, the Government of Northern Ireland had the right to stop transmission at any time, and talks from 2BE were not to be political in any way.

During World War II, the relations between Northern Ireland and the state of Eire (later the Republic of Ireland) were strained, as the Northern Ireland Unionist Government disapproved of Eire's neutrality in the war. Britain wanted Eire to join in the war and attempted to use the Belfast station as one way to entice Eire to side with Britain. Because of the sensitivity of the situation, any programming having to do with Ireland had to be cleared by the Regional Director, George Marshall. Britain wanted all programming to stress the common bonds between Ulster and Eire. When a programme for the 20th Anniversary of Northern Ireland's existence was suggested, it was turned down, so as not to bring up the subject of Irish division. One BBC executive actually wrote that ' "I do not think in these days we want to stress the tragic division in Ireland itself."' (Cathcart, 117)

After the war, many at the Belfast station claimed that Marshall only wanted final approval of all broadcasts relating to Eire because of his involvement with the Ulster Club, a loyalist organisation. ('Loyalists' in Northern Ireland are loyal to Britain and against unification with the South.) John Irwin, a Dublin man, suggested that Marshall actually had wanted to 'vilify' Eire. The post-war BBC, meanwhile, arranged for collaboration with Eire to go through the Overseas Service like any other overseas collaboration — not through Marshall.

BBC Television, when it officially came to Northern Ireland in 1953, was generally a regional development, and so it will be mostly discussed in the next section. Like radio, television tended to shirk controversy and instead wanted to stress the things that people in Northern Ireland had in common. When Ulster Television – the Northern Ireland branch of ITV – came, it 'explicitly declared that it was in the business of reconciliation and bridge building.' (Cathcart, 187)

Like Ireland, Scotland can be credited with some important developments in broadcasting. A Scot, John Logie Baird, is said to have invented television, and Lord John Reith himself, the man who shaped the structure of the BBC in its early years, was born and educated in Scotland, the son of a Church of Scotland minister.

As in Northern Ireland, television in Scotland was largely a regional phenomenon, to be discussed in the next section. The early development of radio provides some background for the regional issues which later arose in television. From 1923 in Scotland there were two local radio stations in Aberdeen and Glasgow, which were given up in 1932 in favour of the BBC's regional scheme. Under the regional plan, most Scottish programming came from Glasgow. Listeners in Scotland could choose between the national BBC programme and the regional programme. Reception in much of Scotland, however, was bad; listeners in 'the highlands and the islands' had trouble picking up radio signals, and even more trouble with television when it came to Scotland in 1952.

W.H. McDowell writes in his History of BBC Broadcasting in Scotland that, 'by 1962, television was available to ninety-five per cent… of the population of Scotland. This masked special problems, such as viewers in South-West Scotland who received their programmes from the BBC's North Region… or from Northern Ireland… and so were unable to receive BBC Scotland.' (McDowell, 162-163) When BBC2 was beginning, people in the highlands and islands insisted that they get basic television service before the rest of the country got an additional channel. (McDowell, 163) This is only one of many problems that the BBC encountered in its Scotland Region; such challenges will be further discussed below.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was a public network, but was affiliated with some private stations and cannot be said to be a 'pure' public service system. Its efforts in Quebec are still worth examining from a public service standpoint, however. From the very start of television broadcasting, there was French programming in Montreal. The first Canadian experiments in television were also in Montreal, and it was the first city in Canada to have television in 1952. (Peers, 3-4) Quebec City, the other major city in the province, did not fare so well; a station there was initially rejected by the government. According to Frank W. Peers in The Public Eye, it took an unusually long time for Quebec City to get a television station, but when it did, it created a French language network in Quebec.

Regional and linguistic developments

Northern Ireland's and Scotland's television services were both part of the BBC's regional scheme, in which Britain was divided into three 'national regions' — Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — and several regions within England. This section does not only discuss the regional scheme; it also looks at issues of cultural distinctiveness in Northern Ireland and Scotland, and in Quebec.

On St Patrick's Day 1925, just a few months after Belfast's radio station 2BE began broadcasting, came the test of just how Irish this station in Northern Ireland could be. Rex Cathcart writes that, in 1925, 'it all went well,' with Irish music and an Irish cultural flavour to most of the programming that evening. (Cathcart, 32) In the following year, however, according to the published broadcasting schedule, 2BE actually had less Irish programming for St Patrick's Day than did several other British stations. Some of the scheduling was changed so that when the Day itself came, there was more Irish programming on 2BE than had been scheduled. Even so, the schedule and the changes — regarded as a fiasco by much of the Northern Irish press — was demonstrative of the balance which 2BE was fumbling to find. It did not want to be too Irish and alienate the Protestant, Unionist majority, but also it wanted to be sensitive to the Catholic, Nationalist minority, and not be too British.

In 1936, the BBC launched a regional service for Northern Ireland. Cathcart writes that this was 'at a time when the population had begun to grow accustomed to living within the confines of the political entity created in 1920. In other circumstances broadcasting might have contributed to the formation of a regional consciousness and pride,' but the divisions within the community in Northern Ireland thwarted some of those efforts. Indeed, during the 1930s many of these divisions became more, not less, sharp. The BBC tried to distance itself from such divisions, and did not allow politics to be at all involved in its programmes. (Cathcart, 60)

Cathcart also claims that the BBC was insensitive to local conditions. 'Programmes did not reflect the expectations of considerable sections of the audience.' (Cathcart, 33-34) The Nationalist newspaper Irish News wrote in 1936 that 'the main drawback about the Northern Ireland Station is that it remains un-Irish in character. The Northern, Western and Scottish regional stations in Britain are definitely in the character of the area they serve, and the Dublin Station is unmistakably Irish; by anyone tuning in to Belfast might take it for just another English station.' (cited by Cathcart, 78)

During World War II, the BBC Regions had been replaced by a single Home Service, for fear of the regional wavelengths being used by the enemy. Northern Ireland, like the other Regions of the BBC, had been given back its regional status after the war – but only as a 'half region.' It shared a frequency with the NorthEast England region, with air time divided between them. Not until 1963 did this sharing system cease. Cathcart writes that Northern Ireland's return to full Region status went 'almost unnoticed. The major gain to the listener then was not additional regional programmes but a rescheduling of existing programmes to more satisfactory times and the removal of some programmes emanating from the BBC's North Region, to which the Northern Ireland audience had never really objected, and their replacement by London programmes.' (Cathcart, 185)

Programming in Irish also took a long time to come. As early as 1936, the Gaelic League had requested programmes in Irish in Northern Ireland, like Scotland's Gaelic programming. Regional Director George Marshall refused, saying the Gaelic-speaking population in Northern Ireland was too small to make it worth it. (Cathcart, 85) There continued to be no Irish-language broadcasting in Northern Ireland at all until 1981, when a magazine programme in Irish began on BBC's Radio Ulster. (Cathcart, 249)

When it was suggested that Northern Ireland have its own broadcasting commission in 1951, the BBC decided it was not yet time for it to happen. The bulk of programming in Northern Ireland was still coming from London at that time, and it did not look like this would soon change. The BBC Advisory Council did not want 'a Commission over-developing regionalism and degenerating into parochialism.' (Cathcart, 166) Instead of a Commission, the Council unanimously voted to have a Northern Ireland Governor on the Board of the BBC.

There is still no Commission. However, because of expansion in the BBC Northern Ireland region, which has largely been due to the Troubles (see below), the service in Northern Ireland has become 'on par with Scotland and Wales.' (Cathcart, 257) Whereas the BBC office in Northern Ireland used to be seen as a 'dumping ground' for staff that the BBC no longer wanted in the mainland, the years of violence have forced BBC governors and executives to give the Region considerably more attention since 1968. This attention will be further discussed below.

In the BBC's regional plan in radio, the programming output of the Regions was to deal with 'purely local matters,' while the national service from London would take care of everything else. According to McDowell, this meant that 'the BBC in Scotland tended to focus on more traditional programme material and items not covered in the National Programme.' (McDowell, 23) The Regional broadcasts from Scotland came from the BBC studios in Glasgow. Listeners had a choice between the regional and national services. 'Interestingly,' writes McDowell, 'the historic rivalry between Edinburgh and Glasgow resulted in a decision [in Edinburgh] to receive most programmes from London rather than from Glasgow.' (McDowell, 18) He also writes that in the beginning of regional broadcasting, despite the efforts of the BBC and the producers in Glasgow, 'local and regional culture tended to be diminished at the expense of metropolitan culture.' (McDowell, 14)

One aspect of this could be found in the accent of most voices on the air. The BBC favoured a upper-middle-class, educated, southern English accent. Scots did not entirely appreciate this, and in their regional programmes many were irritated that even Scots on the air had watered-down, nearly English, accents. Indeed, some English-speaking Scots complained that they could not understand what these English-ish accents were saying!

Another frustration was that the BBC used the term 'Region'; many Scots wanted to be called a nation. The BBC argued that they did call programming from Scotland 'Scottish' rather than 'Scottish Regional,' but that did not appease many Scots. (McDowell, 59) Additionally, Scotland had no television studios when television broadcasting came to Scotland. 'The BBC believed that it was better to concentrate production resources in London and give priority to the geographical extension of television. On this basis, studios could be provided at a later stage.' (McDowell, 80) Since there was only one BBC television channel, the only programming outlet for all of the Regions was to contribute to that national network. (McDowell 124)

Some hoped that the advent of commercial television would mean more diversity in Scottish broadcasting, and another outlet for Scottish programming. The nature of commercial television, however, was not to cater to minority interests. 'The Scottish Advisory Council agreed with the BBC view that commercial television would be of no benefit to Scotland, partly because it would only cover populous areas, and partly because programme content would be English-dominated.' (McDowell, 109) Even so, the BBC wanted new regional strategies to compete with ITV. In Scotland, the ITV competitor was STV, Scottish Television. The day before STV broadcasting began, the BBC began broadcasting a five-minute summary of Scottish news, and soon the BBC opened the first television studios in Scotland, in Glasgow. Perhaps, therefore, the advent of commercial television did bring an outlet for more Scottish broadcasting. In itself, STV tended to be more network-oriented than Scotland-oriented; 'the main competition for the BBC in Scotland tended to emanate from network programmes shown on STV rather than from STV's own programme output.' (McDowell, 129)

A 1974 survey 'indicated that BBC and ITV programmes in Scotland were regarded as less professional, less experimental and less controversial than network programmes, and that life in Scotland was not adequately represented by broadcasting output in Scotland.' (McDowell, 213) Critics said that the BBC in Scotland presented a stereotyped image of Scotland. Scottish broadcasting had a 'tendency to look backwards' into history, presenting an image of Scots themselves as being backward and more rural than was the case. (McDowell, 214) Because of problems like these, many Scots, who tend to prefer Scottish newspapers to English ones, also have tended to prefer the network broadcasts to their own BBC Scotland broadcasts, according to McDowell.

In 1952 Scotland, alongside of Wales and Northern Ireland, had been given its own Broadcasting Council. (McDowell 98) 'In its Annual Report for 1961-2, the BCS [Broadcasting Council for Scotland] stated that it was seeking to achieve an output of ten hours a week on television from Scotland by 1970.' News and documentary staffs in Scotland were a big need; up to then, English reporters had been covering major Scottish events for the network. (McDowell, 155) Another area was programming in Scots Gaelic; the first Gaelic television programme went on the air in 1962.

When BBC2 came along, it was in part designed to increase Regional contributions to the BBC network. 'The new Royal Charter of 1964 stated that each national Broadcasting Council would have [an] additional function which would be exercised with full regard to the distinctive culture, language, interests and tastes of the people in the BBC's national Regions.' This meant that the Regions would finally be able to control programme content and policy. (McDowell 154)

McDowell argues that, because of the BBC's centralised nature (which Lord Reith, born in Scotland, adamantly favoured), it was always difficult for the Regions to get any authority to broadcast on their own. 'In practice, the BCS [Broadcasting Council for Scotland] was not consistently successful in safeguarding Scottish interests,' he writes. (McDowell, 280). The increase of nationalist sentiment in Scotland in the 1970's helped prompt the BBC to give more responsibility to Scotland and the other Regions.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has no such Regional scheme. It does, however, have a French network for Quebec, which began with the linking of Montreal and Quebec City when the latter got a television station in 1954. French language programming had existed from the very start of broadcasting there. At first 'in Montreal, just over half the programs were in French, the others in English, and this alternation did not satisfy either part of the audience.' (Peers, 31)

Quebecois heavily favoured the CBC because of this French network, saying that French Canadians, more than any other group in Canada, would be threatened if the market were dominated by American (strictly English-speaking) interests. The CBC actually produced more French-language programmes than English-language ones, because French programming could not be acquired from the United States. 'The people of Quebec became fascinated viewers…. By the end of 1954 more sets had been sold in Montreal than in Toronto.' According to Peers, television strengthened the strong sense of cultural, linguistic, traditional, and historical identity of Quebecois. He writes that the CBC was more important in French Canada than in English Canada, and that politicians from Quebec 'were often the strongest supporters of the CBC, no doubt because without public funds French-language broadcasting would have been minimal in the predominantly English-speaking North American continent.' (Peers, 144)

Nationalism, separatism, and ways of coping

In 1949, the BBC designated Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland as National Regions. The quality of their programmes was to be on par with that of national programming. The challenge was to find out exactly what that meant for a Region – especially for a Region like Northern Ireland, which was thrown into the chaotic violence commonly known as 'the Troubles' twenty years later.

Sir Gerald Beadle, station director of 2BE from 1926-1932, had originally thought that controversy was avoidable as long as his station avoided controversial programming. Not offending anyone and not causing further division between Nationalists and Unionists, proved more difficult than that. 'Cultural assumptions inherent in a programme could at one and the same time enthuse some listeners and enrage others,' writes Cathcart. 'The divided communities were adopting their preferred cultural positions. Broadcasting was undoubtedly a catalyst in the process of cultural differentiation.' (Cathcart, 45)

Ironically some of the more overtly controversial programming content did less to irritate viewers on both sides of the fence, than did certain seemingly 'harmless' material, such as music programmes. In 1936, there was a radio drama about the siege of Derry in 1688-9. The siege is still a touchy topic for all sides in Northern Ireland. The programme was not the disaster some feared, and was considered a breakthrough: a broadcast which contained controversial elements but did not blow up in the face of broadcasters. (Cathcart, 83) Nonetheless, when the BBC adopted the Regional scheme, Regional Director George Marshall attempted to enforce a ban on overtly political broadcasts and some sectarian or cultural broadcasts which he deemed to be 'covertly political.' (Cathcart, 85)

There was pressure for the Region to broadcast at least a little of the political debate about Northern Ireland, but Marshall consistently refused, wanting to stay out of controversy. Marshall, 'in his long period of office had become ever more cautious and hesitant about programme innovation,' explains Cathcart. Worse, he had become associated with Unionists and was accused of using broadcasting in Unionist interests — hardly the 'balance' for which the BBC strove. (Cathcart, 144)

According to Cathcart, no-one was very sorry when Marshall left the Region in 1948. The Director General of the BBC, Sir William Haley, wrote to Marshall's replacement, the new Controller Northern Ireland, Andrew Stewart, saying 'Northern Ireland is the only region in the BBC in which, out of exacerbation from broadcasting, people might kill each other and that you must avoid.' (cited by Cathcart, 146) Instead, the ideal for broadcasting in Northern Ireland was to move toward reconciliation between the Nationalist and Unionist communities in Northern Ireland.

Those who worked at 2BE before World War II had been 'grateful that politics were excluded from broadcasting, although somewhat inevitably they tended to support the Unionist regime because their existence in Ireland depended on it.' (Cathcart, 102) As early as the late 1920s, the 2BE station had offered assistance to the Northern Ireland Government, for anything apart from party politics. That offer was consistently turned down, because the Government tended to think of broadcasting as a potential political problem to keep under control, rather than as a possible aid to its own interests.

By the 1949 election, the 'BBC NI' was ready to introduce party political broadcasts to their schedule. The Unionist, Nationalist and Labour parties could not agree on the number of programmes for each. (Cathcart, 160) This continued for several years; for three elections the issue arose, and each time the Unionists had demands for a higher ratio of the available broadcasts. Finally in 1958, after much heated debate, the arrangement was six broadcasts for the Unionists, one for the Nationalists, and one for the Northern Ireland Labour Party. This was considered a major defeat for Nationalists, and may have contributed to their feeling of being marginalised in Northern Ireland politics. The scenario shows how delicate the political situation was, and how adamant the parties were that they get what they want; for two elections there were no party broadcasts, simply because the parties could not agree. Unionists — those faithful to union with Britain, who had the majority in Northern Ireland's Parliament — proved to be the most difficult and demanding group in this area. (Cathcart, 173)

The next three Controllers encouraged political debate, but were still wary of allowing extremists on the air. This did not prevent some embarrassing incidents. In 1954 an English Bishop mentioned on a national BBC programme that Northern Ireland was inferior to England in the area of religious tolerance. The Northern Ireland Government complained to the BBC and the BBC published an apology, saying that the comment had been pencilled in and not approved by the programme's producers. (Cathcart, 179-180) The BBC also carried an American programme, hosted by Edward R. Murrow, called Small World. On one episode, actress Siobhan McKenna spoke against the partition between the North and South of Ireland, and nearly praised IRA fighters. Attacks came against the BBC and a subsequent episode which was to feature McKenna was replaced by a repeat episode. (Cathcart, 194-195)

Some controversial topics proved not to be so damaging to the BBC. In 1962, a radio play called The Renegade, about mixed (Catholic-Protestant) marriages in Northern Ireland, went on the air with minimum public outcry. Writes Cathcart, 'Such broadcasts would have been inconceivable a decade earlier.' (Cathcart, 197)

When the Troubles began in 1968, some asked whether the BBC had done its job in uniting the communities of Northern Ireland, or if, because of its hesitation to wrestle with controversy, it had 'failed to alert the population to the real division which remained and to the extremes on both sides.' (Cathcart, 201) Another question, which is frequently asked about media organisations, is whether the BBC's subsequent coverage of the Troubles actually heightened tensions between the communities there, and exacerbated the trouble itself.

Waldo Maguire became the first Ulsterman to be Controller, and it was he who had the job during the beginning years of the Troubles. When it was suggested that BBC coverage was projecting a bad image of Northern Ireland, he said that 'regrettably it was one's duty to report what was happening and if there were riots the world wanted pictures of them.' (quoted by Cathcart, 204) Several BBC reporters came in from London to help cover the Troubles, making Maguire's job no easier and involving people who had never experienced the local situation firsthand. 'The relationship between Waldo Maguire and the London staff, especially those working in the current affairs area, was unlikely to prove comfortable.' (Cathcart, 212)

BBC news teams were often in difficult situations and onc a cameraman was seriously injured. Some Northern Irish were openly hostile to BBC reporters, especially English ones, and 'Reporters and cameramen, being obviously in the front line, seemed most at risk from violence.' Covering sectarian and political marches often proved to be the most dangerous. One vehicle with two BBC engineers in it was even blown up in 1971. (Cathcart, 220)

Some said such marches would not be so contentious if the BBC was not covering them. The BBC was also coming under attack from Republicans and Catholics who accused the BBC in Northern Ireland of being Unionist-biased, and Unionists who accused it of giving too much air-time to Republican terrorists. As a result, a kind of self-censorship developed within the BBC News teams. Martin Bell, one of the London reporters, said that there was 'a general sense of responsibility of the effect of what you report. If you get something wrong, you can very well be responsible for a riot – and you know it.' (quoted by Cathcart, 212) 'The outcome of the controversy over BBC coverage in Northern Ireland in November 1971 was to strengthen editorial procedures within the BBC on all items to do with Northern Ireland.' (Cathcart, 225)

The Question of Ulster, a national BBC broadcast about Northern Ireland, 'had a remarkably large audience in Northern Ireland, as well as in Britain and the Republic of Ireland.' Cathcart calls it 'a significant occasion when the BBC asserted its independence of government and successfully resisted considerable pressures,' since the government and political forces in Britain and Northern Ireland were in favour of the BBC shirking such controversy, and attempted to put pressure on the BBC to that effect. (Cathcart, 227) The Question of Ulster meant more than that, however; it also marked the beginning of the era, which continues today, in which most of the political debate regarding the BBC in Northern Ireland is focused in London rather than in Belfast.

Political control of Northern Ireland was also handed over to London in 1971. Officials in London argued then that 'the British Broadcasting Corporation should be part of the State's propaganda machine and the pursuit of the campaign against the republican paramilitaries should have priority over other considerations. The opposing extremists should be neither seen nor heard; for if they are, the exposure constitutes a propaganda advantage to them. Critical investigations into the conduct and practices of the armed forces, troops and police, engaged in the campaign against subversion are not only inappropriate but unpatriotic and treacherous. In general, film of republican demonstrations, such as parades and funerals, is unwelcome and interviews with republican paramilitaries are anathema.' (Cathcart, 229)

Cathcart continues, 'successive Westminster governments since 1971 have been most reluctant to accept the BBC as an autonomous member of the fourth estate at least as far as Northern Ireland coverage is concerned.' (Cathcart, 230) The government in Britain instead encouraged self-censorship in the BBC; rules such as that against hearing a paramilitary's voice on the air (which was sometimes circumvented by dubbing an actor's voice over the picture of a gunman) resulted. Roy Mason was an example of the political pressure that the BBC faced; he became the Labour Secretary of State in Northern Ireland in 1976. 'He believed that the media were playing a significant part in sustaining the violent situation,' writes Cathcart. 'Within a few weeks of his arrival he was expounding to local journalists his conviction that a system of D-notices whereby the Government could impose blackouts on newspaper, radio and television coverage of certain events would soon bring an end to the Troubles.' (Cathcart, 233)

The BBC responded by increasing self-censorship When the Prevention of Terrorism Bill was debated in Westminster in 1976, a suggestion to include a clause to 'inhibit broadcasters from aiding and abetting terrorists' (Cathcart, 237) was deemed unnecessary. After an embarrassing affair in which a reporter saw a masked IRA gunman in the street and took the opportunity to ask him a few questions, which then went on the air and gave voice to 'elements of terror' in Northern Ireland, 'reporters and producers were required to seek permission from senior executives before they made contact of any kind with paramilitaries. Previously the requirement had applied only when they intended to seek an interview.' (Cathcart, 239)

In 1980 the BBC had to cover a hunger strike by IRA prisoners. The strike 'was a form of protest which was calculated to win maximum news coverage. Apart from its intrinsic interest to the media, the hunger strike provided the pretext for a variety of sympathetic demonstrations which were newsworthy.' (Cathcart, 240) The BBC could not please everyone; the strike was newsworthy and the failing health of the strikers demanded attention, but people on the other side said that it was giving them too much attention. 'It was frequently asserted that the media were keeping the Troubles going.' (Cathcart, 241) If coverage waned, the Hunger Strike Committee said it was inadequate. Maybe partially due to BBC coverage, 'the hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 were commonly perceived to have polarised the two communities in Northern Ireland.' (Cathcart, 245)

Many have believed, and some still believe, that Northern Ireland is in a war. The public image and propaganda aspect of that war were vital, and the BBC has had to struggle with such issues. Cathcart concludes that 'the public interest is best served by those who assert their determination to find out, whether they be journalists in the field or in executive positions.' (Cathcart, 255) The BBC itself says that 'Nowhere is fast, accurate and impartial journalism more important and vital to our audience.' (BBC Site) The BBC's job in Northern Ireland may be getting easier, now that the Stormont agreement and cease-fire are in effect. The question remains whether being fast, accurate and impartial is enough, or if the BBC needs additional sensitivity and wisdom in handling this difficult situation.

McDowell's claims that, in Scotland, the BBC has lacked some sensitivity, and that Scotland has never been given enough autonomy in broadcasting. This is also, not surprisingly, the position of the Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP), though they tend to state it in a more extreme fashion. The BBC, however, has been 'opposed to the creation of separate broadcasting authorities answerable to Assemblies in Scotland and Wales, for fear that the latter would bring political influence to bear on programme content.' (McDowell, 231)

The SNP's memo to the Beveridge Committee in 1949 'stated categorically at the outset that [it] wished to see the establishment of a separate broadcasting system for Scotland: a system which originated in Scotland, was controlled in Scotland, and which was funded from within Scotland.' (McDowell, 71) According to the SNP, the BBC was a fundamentally English organisation, with English ideas, outlook, and control. In general, the position of the SNP has been that the BBC 'was treating Scotland as a province of England rather than as a nation.' (McDowell, 143)

The situation in Scotland, however, has few of the immense complications that the BBC faces in Northern Ireland; there are no known risks of BBC reporting causing people to kill each other, for instance. Further contrasts between the two Regions will be discussed in the Conclusion.

The situation in Quebec is also not generally a violent one, and the CBC has not had all of the problems that the BBC has had in Northern Ireland. It is however interesting to examine the CBC's role in Quebec as having possibly contributed to separatism there. E. Austin Weir, who himself played a significant role in shaping Canadian broadcasting, writes that 'the separatist movement in Quebec is based to no small degree on the desire to escape submergence in the great American tide of radio, television, films, and allied influences – to save their language and customs while yet there is still a little time.' (Weir, 450) This points to a connection between separatism in Quebec and broadcasting media.

Aside from the desire of French-speaking Quebecois to 'escape submergence' in English-language programming, there have been specific internal political problems at the CBC which may have contributed to alienating French Canadians from English speakers. Over several months in 1958 and 1959, there was a strike by CBC producers in Montreal. The strike formed a split in the CBC which never quite healed. Peers writes that this occurred 'at a time when Quebec society was undergoing rapid transformation, characterized by a growing distrust of established authority [and] development of a new form of French-Canadian nationalism.' (Peers, 182) The strike arose when some Montreal producers wanted to affiliate with the Canadian and Catholic Confederation of Labour. Because the CBC did not want to connect itself to partisan interests, it denied their request, and the producers went on strike.

The French-speaking community supported the strikers, while the English-speaking community showed less sympathy. CBC meetings regarding the strike were conducted in English, since the acting CBC president and the chairman did not speak French; Quebec nationalists resented this. (Peers, 186) After two months, because the CBC heads in Ottawa and the Canadian government were not doing more to resolve the situation, some French Canadians accused them of deliberately allowing French Canadian culture to weaken, since French Canadian television was, essentially, temporarily non-existent.

Though it was settled in early 1959, the strike brought the CBC 'a loss of respect from many articulate groups within the country.' (Peers 192) It also made French Canadians feel isolated and misunderstood by the English-speaking majority. 'Some who had not thought of themselves as nationalists before, like René Lévesque, came through the experience with bitterness.' (Peers, 193) Lévesque stated that the CBC was fundamentally an English institution. French Artists' and performers' unions withdrew from the Canadian Council of Authors and Artists, further dividing the communities. Weir writes that 'the negotiation team named by CBC management at Ottawa had among its six members only two who spoke French, and only one of the two had been a resident of Quebec.' He continues: 'The striking [French] producers were joined by the French performers, a development that had the unhappy side-effect of breaking up the national performers' union…. The French producers did not have the support of the English producers in Quebec, another unfortunate break in what had been a pleasant and harmonious relationship.' (Weir 412)

The CBC did not neglect Quebecois in programming. The CBC had helped 'to give French-speaking Quebeckers a self-awareness and confidence greater than ever before.' (Peers, 425) The English and French programming, however, was by and large kept separate, and there were suspicions about how well the CBC was doing in its public service obligation to unify the French and English audiences. 'It had been imagined that the pictorial qualities of television might help to bridge the gap, but they had failed to do so.' (Peers, 426) The government was aware of the growing separatist movement in Quebec. In the 1968 Broadcasting Act, therefore, the Canadian Government specifically clarified that one of the purposes of the CBC was to "contribute to the development of national unity and provide for a continuing expression of Canadian identity." (cited in Peers, 436)

Nonetheless, trends continued to be toward Quebecois' distinction from the Canadian majority. This was shown in part within educational broadcasting. Separatists opposed a bill which would give the national network more authority for educational broadcasting, saying that 'education was a provincial responsibility, and… television was something in which Quebec had a special responsibility in safeguarding French cultural interests.' (Peers, 406) The bill was still approved, creating increased resentment in nationalist Quebecois.


Though I had begun this investigation looking for similarities between public broadcasters' strategies in these three situations, I found that the situations themselves are quite different, and must be compared on a general level. One general conclusion is that the CBC may have favoured local interests in Quebec over the national interest of Canada, and therefore inadvertently encouraged separatistism in Quebec. The BBC, meanwhile, has tended to go the other way; even with its regional scheme, in which it takes much pride, there are complaints in Scotland and Northern Ireland that the BBC has been too centralised, and too English, of an organisation.

In all three regions, there have been problems throughout years of broadcasting with insensitivity of the majority, whether it be English journalists attempting to cover Northern Ireland's Troubles or Canadian broadcasters holding vital meetings about French-speaking producers in English. Peers writes of the CBC that 'A broadcasting organization's performance' in creating national unity while serving local cultural awareness 'is hard to assess, and whenever Canadian unity was in jeopardy, the CBC was likely to come under critical attention.' (Peers, 437)

The same could be said for the BBC in Northern Ireland, and to some degree in Scotland. The BBC had avoided controversy in Northern Ireland. When the Troubles made that avoidance impossible, the BBC was accused of portraying Northern Ireland badly and actually increasing division between the Nationalist and Unionist communities there. In Scotland, meanwhile, it has been accused of not paying enough attention to issues of Scottish identity and Scottish nationalism.

Scotland's definition and development as a BBC Region has not sprung from a violent situation, as has Northern Ireland's modern status with the BBC. The BBC's website shows the contrasting focus of the BBC for these two Regions. The site for Scotland has a map of Scotland, an alphabetical list of types of programming available, and a special celebration of the BBC's 75th anniversary in the Region. The site for Northern Ireland, by contrast, is topped by a special site for news and current affairs programming, which claims that 'the immense task of reporting in Northern Ireland is tackled every day with professionalism and vigour by our News & Current Affairs staff,' (BBC Site) and boasts of winning nine major awards in this area in the past year.

The BBC naturally takes considerable pride in such performance, and this pride is mostly justified; struggling with pressure from every angle, the BBC has in general maintained a high standard of coverage and programming in and about Northern Ireland. It is not perfect, however, and it would be difficult to argue that what Northern Irish saw on television every day has had no effect on their political views toward (and against) one another.

A situation that is possibly more comparable to that of Northern Ireland than either Scotland or Quebec would be the Basque region of Spain. I was disappointed in my search for literature on this subject. At least in English, there seems to be none. I see this as a problem; it is an issue of weight, especially in the European community. Of course, international media coverage of the situation there is hardly substantial, certainly not as plentiful as it is of Northern Ireland. This too may be a problem.

Another area in which I was disappointed was in recent developments. I had hoped look specifically at how the creation of an independent Legislature in Scotland a few years ago may have affected broadcasting there, or at how the fairly recent referendum in Quebec in which Quebecois very narrowly voted to remain a part of Canada was handled by the CBC. Northern Ireland itself has had some very recent developments which are certainly of note. In the past two to three years, for instance, the BBC has broadcast both the words and faces of individuals previously considered 'untouchable' by broadcasting, because of their political associations. Northern Ireland is voting in just a few days on the new Northern Ireland Assembly, and that along with the increase of cross-border bodies between the North and South of Ireland may have some influence on broadcasting in the province and the whole island. Thus far there is little research into these areas, that I could find.

As more of these developments unfold, however, there should be more research. Meanwhile, the British and Canadian Broadcasting Corporations undoubtedly now have more balancing acts to anticipate.


BBC Website.
Site for Northern Ireland:
Site for Scotland:

Cathcart, Rex. The Most Contrary Region: The BBC in Northern Ireland 1924-1984. The Blackstaff Press, Belfast, 1984.

Irwin, John. My time is my own: an Irishman at the BBC. Max Parrish, London, 1955.

McDowell, William H. The History of BBC Broadcasting in Scotland 1923-1983. Edinburgh University Press, 1992.

Peers, Frank W. The Public Eye: Television and the Politics of Canadian Broadcasting 1952-1968. University of Toronto Press, Toronto, 1979.

Savage, Robert J. Irish Television: The Political and Social Origins. Cork University Press, 1996.

Weir, E. Austin. The Struggle for National Broadcasting in Canada. McClelland and Stewart Limited, Toronto, 1965.

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