The Northern Ireland conflict is an extremely complex situation that has blurred the line between political activist and terrorist for decades. During this time, the media has had an important role in shaping the public’s perception of the events and what to make of the many factions in play. Our discussion of the media coverage of the conflict in Ireland has revealed that many outlets sympathize with either the British or the Irish while others are used to advance a particular group’s agenda. In the film Bloody Sunday, director Paul Greengrass attempts to avoid this media bias by using a mockumentary style that makes the audience feel like they are actually witnessing the event first-hand, allowing them to draw conclusions based on what they have seen rather than what is reported. Though this approach would appear to be a fair way to depict the events of January 30th, 1972, the films appeals to emotion result in decidedly pro-Irish sentiments.

This issue of being fair is a major concern for most media outlets but isn’t thoroughly defined. As Jasper Bergink, a Dutch masters student studying Law & Politics of International Security put it, “Can the press be accurate but not fair? Which is more important? What about balance? Maybe there should be a term that describes the appropriate use of all of these aspects of reporting”. Jasper brings up a good point about what it really means for journalists to be fair so for the purpose of the paper, fair will simply mean not passing judgment or picking sides.

Applying this definition to the movie and to the media coverage of the conflict yields interesting results. Both can provide examples of being unfair but the manner in which they do it differ significantly. The media coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict is markedly polarized. Depending on the publication, one can find either pro-Irish or pro-British qualities. Take Sinn Fein’s news publication “The Republic” for example. In a 2005 news conference the British government stated, “we had always said all the way through we believed that Sinn Fein and the IRA were inextricably linked and that had obvious implications at the leadership level” (Clark). This perception is widely known and understood: “The Republic” puts a pro-IRA spin on its coverage. Does that mean “The Republic” is unfair to the British?

Sinn Fein logo

On the other hand, there are many outlets from both Ireland and the rest of the world that never side with the IRA. On pages 40 through 41 in Terrorism and the Press An Uneasy Relationship, authors Barnett and Reynolds say, the Irish press as a whole “generally characterized the activities of paramilitary groups as ‘terrorist’, offering a negative representation of the groups and their methods”. The fact that they have framed the situation in this way shows obvious bias. They go on to say, “The newspapers were also keenly aware of the societal and governmental disapproval of paramilitary or terrorist activity of groups like the IRA. As a response to what it saw as ‘a pattern of news coverage and condemnation which portrayed them as evil, psychopathic, and often irrational’”. Based on that quote, it seems like the press doing favors for those opposing the IRA and other political activists in Northern Ireland. The fact that they are portraying them in such a negative light shows that they are clearly not reporting the facts without bias and may even be promoting the British government’s agenda.

As if that weren’t bad enough, the media uses this perception they have created for the IRA and other paramilitary organizations to discredit many other political activists who may not have any affiliation with the IRA or believe in violence as a way to send political messages. County Councilor Tomás Ó Curraoin said in recent a speech, “ [Irish] Republicans today are labeled as anti-peace or portrayed militarists. Anyone who becomes arrested for political offenses is now either purposely ignored, demonized in the media, or criminalized. In the north the British have brought back the denial of Political Status.” Does it even have to be asked if this is fair reporting? Would Dr. Martin Luther King JR’s “I Have a Dream” speech have been as powerful if the media had typecast him as a militant like the Black Panthers or Malcolm X?

Malcolm X

We saw an example of this kind of stereotyping in Bloody Sunday. Civil rights activist Ivan Cooper wanted to have a peaceful march. He told the government and the media several times that he wanted no violence but clearly the British showed up ready for a fight. This isn’t to say the movie was 100% accurate. To call it fair might be something of an overstatement but at very least it shows the event from both sides. The film showed how the Irish were split between nonviolent (Cooper, stewards, many of the protesters) and violent (IRA, hooligans) activists and how these violent activists could have sparked the violence.

Despite the fact that the movie spreads a bit of the blame, it is impossible to leave the film without feeling as though the Irish were clearly the victims that day. Before the march even began the movie shows one British soldier saying, “Lets teach them a lesson” and the paramilitary was given the go ahead to counter attack if necessary. This implies that even if the British weren’t instigators, they were ready and willing to use force (if not eager). Later, there are several scenes of the soldiers firing indiscriminately into crowds of unarmed Irish protestors. Then they showed the British soldiers talking about all the rounds they had fired and people they had shot with little to no remorse followed by the commanders prepping the soldiers for the press’s questions. At one point an officer said to tell the press that they had “returned three rounds after twenty” when this clearly wasn’t the case and doesn’t explain the three bodies that he knew about and the lack of injured British soldiers. The images in the movie of the massacre and subsequent cover up might be entirely accurate but that does not necessarily mean that the movie was fair. The film touched on but didn’t emphasize the amount of confusion and fear that the soldiers felt. It also failed to show exactly who or what caused the outbreak but instead focused on the pain and suffering of the Irish, making it hard not to sympathize with them.

Part of the reason the film is so effective in invoking these emotions is because it uses a mockumentary style that both makes the film more realistic and depicts the incident as a human event rather than a political one. You get the sense that you are viewing the event through a participant’s camera rather than a theatrical reenactment. In a review done for Newsweek magazine, David Ansen writes, “Watching director Paul Greengrass’s explosive “Bloody Sunday,” you have to remind yourself at moments that you’re not looking at a documentary… Filmed in 16mm, with a hand-held camera that seems to be breathlessly attempting to keep up with the chaotic events, the movie has a stunning immediacy. It doesn’t feel as if Greengrass has staged the events, but that his camera (in the expert hands of cinematographer Ivan Strasburg) happened to be there when the tragedy occurred”.

Bloody Sunday Newspaper Headline

The lack of music, special effects and sweeping camera angles sustain the realistic atmosphere. The fades to black that occur sporadically and often build suspense and gives the viewer a greater sense of the confusion that must have been felt that day. At some points, the picture is partially obstructed as if to suggest you are eavesdropping on a private conversation. All of this results in a very compelling and very convincing film.

Ultimately, the best way to get the most fair and honest understanding of a delicate situation is to hear from a variety of sources and use good judgment. A single source can mar the truth. Whether this is caused by a journalist spinning the story or a talented filmmaker’s cinematography pulling at your heartstrings, it influences the audience’s perception. Lessons to be learned: don’t take everything at face value, and maintain a balanced media diet.

Works Cited

Ó Curraoin, Tomás. “Unbroken Continuity.” Republican SINN F. Sinn Fein. Web. 18 Feb. 2010. <http://www.rsfcork.com/>.

“Afternoon press briefing from 21 February |.” Number10.gov.uk. Web. 18 Feb. 2010. <http://www.number10.gov.uk/Page7148>.

Ansen, David. “The Troubles, Again.” Newsweek 28 Oct. 2002: 34-35. Print.

Barnett, Brooke, and Amy Reynolds. Terrorism and the press an uneasy relationship. New York: P. Lang, 2009. Print.

Bloody Sunday. Dir. Paul Greengrass. Perf. James Nesbitt and Tim Pigott-Smith. Bórd Scannán na hÉireann, 2002. DVD.