On the 10th August 1971 the BBC was already reporting on the killings in Ballymurphy from the previous day and stating that an eyewitness was “…putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army”. The BBC quickly became the subject of attacks by the British government for its reporting on the actions of the Parachute Regiment. The British Defence Minister Lord Carrington even accused the BBC of “sniping” at the British Army and indulging in propaganda. The BBC called it an “error of judgement”.
On 9th August 1971, a neighbour of Fr Hugh Mullan, Bobby Clarke, was shot by soldiers after lifting a child to safety during the violence that followed the mass arrest of ‘Catholics’ that morning. After ringing the British Army HQ to advise them that he was going out to administer the last rites to Clarke, Fr Mullan ventured out, waving a white cloth and dressed as a priest, only to discover that Clarke was not fatally injured. He attempted to leave to get an ambulance for Clarke at which point he was shot by a British soldier. Frank Quinn, who attempted to provide assistance, was also shot dead.
Coverage of Fr Mullan’s death included an interview with the local Catholic bishop, William Philbin, broadcast on BBC the next day. The same day Bobby Clarke was also interviewed on the BBC Radio 4 programme, World at One, where he gave an eye witness account of Fr Mullan being shot in the back by a British soldier. Reporting of Fr Mullan’s death in many of the British newspapers repeated the claim that he had been shot as he went to administer the last rites to a wounded gunman.
After the items were broadcast the Conservative MP for Dorset South, Evelyn King, wrote to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army. Obviously, the use of the word ‘sniping’ was deliberate as this was the term conventionally used by reporters when describing physical attacks on the British Army in the north. The intention was clearly to use the term to associate the views of the BBC with those that were actually ‘sniping’ at the British Army. This is pretty unsophisticated censorship in that it is intended to diminish future reporting critical of the British Army as merely ‘sniping’ from the BBC.
Carrington responded to King’s letter by writing to the head of the BBC, Lord Hill, and King, stating that the radio interview in particular “…fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect” although he included other unspecified BBC items in his criticism. Carrington also seemed to be concerned that the items were also an attack on him personally since he had expressed his ‘utmost gratitude’ on the BBC for what the British Army had done. In his letter, Carrington admonished the BBC that when its “reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public”. It should be borne in mind that, at this time in 1971, British public opinion on the deployment troops in the north wasn’t clear as there were calls for troops to be withdrawn both from the likes of the New Statesman and the National Front (see, eg, Irish Press, 24th August 1971). The latter even advocated Irish reunification, although it also wanted the forced repatriation of all Irish from Britain on the grounds that they were all mere “white wogs”.
The BBC accepted Carrington and Kings criticism and stated that “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.” However the BBC did reject the overall criticism.
You can read the letter here (thanks to @papertrailpro): https://twitter.com/papertrailpro/status/1042342802867347457?s=21
While this may seem like another footnote to the broader issue of the behaviour of the parachute regiment in Ballymurphy between 9th and 11th August 1971, it points to one of the wider issues that is not yet satisfactorily addressed. The role of the media lies both in reporting events and ensuring that those in positions of responsibility are suitably held to account. This means it is critical to understand how the media subsequently reported on events and what influenced how the media framed their reporting. The potential chilling effect of criticism, such as came from Lord Carrington, is fairly obvious. The long term repercussions, though, are significant. A glaring omission from contemporary media coverage of ‘legacy’ cases involving individuals killed or injured by state forces is a clear articulation by the media of what differentiates these cases from other violent conflict deaths. For those unsure what that means: when a meaningful inquest or investigation of the circumstances has not occurred the default position is that the information given by the British Army (etc) becomes the official account of a death. Fr Hugh Mullan, like others killed by the state, is thus deemed as being culpable in his own death unless the British Army itself, or some legal process, formally recognises the killing was unjustified. It is solely victims of the state that are, in this way, deemed guilty until proven otherwise. The repeated failures to hold the state and its leading figures to account is one legacy of the real error in judgement of the BBC (and media in general) in allowing itself to become the propaganda tool of the likes of Lord Carrington.
You can read a balanced item about Fr Hugh Mullan on the BBC here along with footage of the interview with the Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr William Philbin, on the day following his death (note the video may not work in every territory).
Here is the full text of a longish article on the BBC admitting an “error judgement” following Lord Carrington’s letter, as published in the Birmingham Daily Post 20th August 1971:
Interview about shot priest was an error: BBC
The BBC admitted yesterday that its use of part of an interview on the death of a Roman Catholic priest in Northern Ireland was an error in judgement.
BBC Radio 4’s The Word at One programme on August 10 carried an item on the death of a Roman Catholic priest, Fr Hugh Mullan, the day before.
The item took the form of an interview with an unnamed Irishman who claimed to be the man to whom the priest was giving the last rites when he was shot. The man alleged that the priest had been shot in the back by a British soldier.
The programme chairman, Mr William Hardcastle, summed up: “An eyewitness putting the blame fairly and squarely on the British Army.”
But the Defence Secretary, Lord Carrington in letters to a Conservative MP Mr Evelyn King (Dorset S) and the BBC chairman, Lord Hill, has said that the item fell below the standard of fairness and accuracy people were entitled to expect.
Mr King had written to Lord Carrington accusing the BBC of irresponsibility and “sniping” at the Army in its coverage of the Northern Ireland crisis.
In his reply to Mr King, Lord Carrington said: “I can assure you that the BBC items on Northern Ireland which you mention have not gone unnoticed by my Department. They are not the only items in this category.”
He then cited as an additional example, the item arising from the death of Fr Mullan and recalled that he had taken part in an interview on BBC Television News.
“I took the opportunity to express the utmost gratitude for the work of the Army in Northern Ireland. I believe quite firmly that this admiration and gratitude is shared by the vast majority of the people of this country and that, on those occasions when the BBC’s reporting falls below the standard of fairness and accuracy which we are entitled to expect, the main effect is to damage the corporation’s own standing with the public.”
In his letter to Lord Hill, Lord Carrington said: “I hope my letter to Mr King makes it clear that I certainly do not regard all the BBC’s recent reports and discussions on Northern Ireland as unbalanced and unfair.”
But he was concerned about the instances cited.
“I hope you will agree that they are unsatisfactory and that everything possible should be done to prevent repetitions.”
Last night a BBC spokesman said “We do not defend the use of the item on the shooting of Fr Mullan. In our view it was an error of judgement to use this part of the interview.”
But the BBC reacted sharply to Mr King’s accusations of daily “sniping” and indulging in propaganda.
The spokesman said, “These accusations are deeply wounding to staff who are engaged in the difficult task of reporting the terrible events in Northern Ireland. Much that we have to report will be unwelcome to one of the many conflicting interests involved and there will be occasional errors of judgement. But to accuse the BBC of sniping and propaganda is unworthy. We reject the accusation entirely.”