The Trouble With “The Trouble With Northern Ireland” (BBC NI)

Posted: July 22, 2010 in Media & Journalism, Northern Ireland

A new four-part series started on BBC NI last Monday evening (19 July), called The Trouble With Northern Ireland.  It’s available on BBC iPlayer until 14 August so have a look at it and see what you think.  This is my take on it.

The series claims to tackle “the thorny issue of identity” in this troubled little corner of Ireland, a worthy enough objective but ultimately doomed to fail. Why? Because it’s a BBC NI programme about Northern Ireland.  In structure, content and ideological assumption, the programme avoids serious analysis of the very problem it sets out to explore because to tackle it head on would be to run up against the requirements for balance, confront uncomfortable truths and risk offending somebody. That is why it is packed with talking heads from a painfully balanced array of the usual suspects – local comedians, arty folk and politicians. And that is why it takes a decidedly light touch.

So the first edition tackles difficult and challenging issues such as how people in the North speak, how they apparently use semiotics to work out each other’s identity, and what a terrible time they used to have travelling by air to England and trying to pass off their strange Northern Ireland bank notes as legal tender. No new insights there, then. In fact, not one of the talking heads says anything that sounds controversial or unreasonable. They’re all people the producers can trust to behave themselves because they’ve proven themselves on this kind of programme before, which in turn gives it a wearily familiar and parochial feel. Yet, for these very reasons, The Trouble With Northern Ireland is actually rather unbalanced in terms of true representativeness.

The producers may have been very careful to select these talking heads with a view to balance but it’s an internal exercise without any relevance to the real Northern Ireland. If you are going ask a question when you know what the answer’s going to be before you even start making the series – i.e. “identity in Northern Ireland is an age old problem no one can agree on!” – then it seems a terrible and somewhat dishonest waste of time and money. And if you can’t trust Billy from the Shankill or Emer from the Falls to say what they really think of each other because it’s just too risky to broadcast, you’ve defeated the point.  Even if  that’s just about  production values – “Billy and Emer are not very televisual and articulate” or “They’re not ‘household names'” –  it still has unfortunate implications, specifically for the very notion of regional, public service television.

Furthermore, the opening programme operates on other problematic assumptions about Northern Ireland: that it is a real, sovereign country, that Belfast is its capital city and therefore the sole, over-bearing focus of life in the north. As a good friend of mine from Derry once said, it’s like Belfast sucks the economic and cultural lifeblood out of the rest of the North, much like a relentless vampire. Yet for a large minority of people, this is not a real country and Belfast is not a real “capital city” as such. It’s the largest city and it’s a good city in many ways but it’s not the capital and it should not serve as a shorthand substitute for the north. Now this has always been a sore point for people here, especially those of us from west of the river Bann. There will never be agreement about it and it is not even unique to Northern Ireland. All countries in the world have their regional rivalries and tensions. It’s just a matter of owning up to them, not pretending they don’t exist. 

You see, Northern Ireland is in effect divided demographically, culturally and geographically by this river running right up the middle from south to north, a river that serves as a kind of Berlin Wall of the mind. But you wouldn’t know this from the first installment of The Trouble With. For the producers, and by extension the BBC in Belfast, Northern Ireland is Belfast and Belfast is Northern Ireland, an assumption deeply ingrained in British and even international media representations of the North and which therefore shapes popular perception as well. I’ve had visitors from Scotland, England, Germany, Holland and the US who express surprise on arrival that there is more to the north than Belfast and that so much of it is rural rather than urban. Their only reference points up until their first visit were media representations of Northern Ireland as a bombed out urban dystopia or as the Giant’s causeway (the latter a fitting analogy for a place where people chuck lots of big rocks at each other).

I don’t know. Maybe the following editions of the series will give us a more rounded, representative view of the place – we shall wait and see – but if the first edition is anything to go by, the signs are not promising. This, though, has nothing to do with the intentions of individual producers. It is an institutional and ideological bind from which they will never escape because BBC Northern Ireland looks for consensus where none exists – about what Northern Ireland is and who its people are. The default position then is to take  “issues” that can be addressed and discussed without conclusion rather than problems which demand a serious approach and some hard talking to solve (for a more general insight into this problem, see Robert Fisk as cited in my post, below, The BBC Listens to Your Complaints, 15 July).  

No, it’s time it gave this up, accept that the people will be divided for generations to come and tackle more important issues instead, issues that actually unite people here across class and sectarian lines: e.g., employment, health, education, environment and sustainable development. And time, too, to drop this line up of “Norn Iron” comedians, broadcasters, politicians and reality TV stars. It’s a tired format and not truly representative of anything here. 

For another perspective on the problem of TV and Northern Ireland, have  a look at this post from the excellent blog, Media Studies Is Shit: Is Northern Ireland on the verge of a TV Make over.

Select reading

Butler, D. The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland. Aldershot: Avebury, 1995. Out of print.  

McLaughlin, G. and S.Baker. ‘”Housetraining the paramilitaries”: the media and the propaganda of peace’, in Coulter, C. and M.Murray. (Eds.) Northern Ireland After the Troubles. A Society in Transition. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2008; pp. 253-271.

McLaughlin, G. & S. Baker. The Propaganda of Peace: The role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland peace process. Bristol: Intellect Books, 2010.

Rolston, B. & D.Miller. (Eds.) War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader. Belfast: Beyond the Pale, 1996.

  1. Rabelais says:

    Who is this sort of twaddle made for? God forbid that this crap should ever be networked, we’d be a laughing stock. And as you have eloquently pointed out its consensual view of northern Ireland has no basis in reality, so I doubt anybody here is fooled, although some may take a degree of ideological comfort from it.

    But the most shocking thing about it is just what baaaddd, lazy-arsed TV it is. A weary old format filled with local celebrity pond-life and let them beguile us with anecdotes about their fabulously mundane lives. One can only assume that the programme was conceived and made by the ‘creative industries’ must lumpen and unimaginative proles.

    Down with this sort of thing!

    • Now don’t hold back on your feelings, there, Rab!
      Yes, it’s pretty poor stuff, which makes you wonder about BBC NI. Surely there’s material out there for really interesting, worthwhile factual or drama series? Not more “reality TV”, quiz shows and glorified tourist advertisements. MInd you, they’re not half as bad as UTV. Depressing indeed.

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