Reporting on the Troubles: Brian Rowan's take on things

I had the privilege of going to the Living in and Reporting on Conflict seminar with Brian Rowan (author and former BBC security editor) organised by Healing through Remembering. The event took place on Monday 1st February 2010.

Brian used his own exclusive archive material to discuss his long time relationships with loyalist and republican groups, how they communicated with the media and how that communication was reported.

I listened intently the Brian and, paraphrasing his speech tweeted what i thought were appropriate. The caveat i bring is that i am more reporting on the jist of what Brian was saying and should not be taken completely as word for word.

It was an interesting experience to hear about the 'Troubles' from a journalists perspective, how he coped with it, how he worked and how he built up his relationships with people who, had they wanted to, could have killed him many times over.

He talked about joining the BBC on a short term contract and the first IRA statement he ever received was the one just after the Enniskillen bomb in 1987. In the time since he has dealt with 5 P O'Neils and 6 Chief Constables.

It was interesting to hear about some of the codewords used to authenticate a paramilitary statement such as 'Titantic', Braveheart' 'Crucible' and 'Pashendale'. He also told us of how he was called to a house in a loyalist area and given a response to the IRA ceasefire statement of 1997, a full hour before the IRA statement was made!

He described how he built up relationships and of when those relationships broke down. He gave us a lot of little personal glimpses into his professional life as a journalist and how he sees things developing in the here and now.

Brian believes that a story is not a not a once off, it is a process and Northern Ireland needs to have a process of explanation, rather than have information recovery per se. He believed that the Eames Bradley initiative was putting cart before the horse in this regard. Brian put forward that we need to come to a better understading of the troubles.

I loved his analogy of the issue of the 'dirty war' with allegations of collusion. He said,

puppets and strings during troubles created a tangled mess.

He stated that convinced war is over, with the current dissident threat being more to do with internal republican differences. In this respect the media, in reporting this area, needs to understand that the war is over.

Brian also said that he believed in telling the story as it is, allowing people to use their own language to fill in the gaps. Meaning he did not go into giving lengthy explanations of paramilitary groupings, but allowed the audience to fill in the description in their own language.

Brian does not believe the legacy commission will happen. An initiative like this can not come from the government, as it requires people, especially in government such as the security forces, to have difficult conversations. He believed the problem was not national security, but national insecurity. Does anyone believe that people who were in Special Branch or MI5 will tell their stories?

A question was asked regarding any training Brian had received on reporting in a conflict arena, to which he replied that there is no real training to reporting in conflict. His experience of reporting was more to do with gut feeling and common sense. He also explained that there is a big difference between covering a story when you live in the area and reporting on conflict situations when on a foreign assignment. What happens is closer to you as an individual. 

Brian put forward the issue that truth/information recovery will only happen if the investigative process stops. People will not want to tell their stories if there is any possibility of a judiciary process, be it criminal or civil. This meant that for the process to work the idea, controversial as it is, of an amnesty would have to be taken seriously. People can see that public inquiries are trying to drag out information rather than looking at a voluntary process. It is still about blame, so people will not talk. The reason that the voluntary process will not work, or the explanation process, or even an amnesty is because of the political process rather than the peace process.

He put forward the idea that any explanation process is best taken forward by those directly involved in the Troubles and that the process is grown from ground up. The state would find it difficult to drive it forward in any meaningful way other than providing funding to aid its growth.

Brian stated that you have to let people tell their stories. Many of statements he has taken over the past decade have remained unreported. He also came off with a poignant statement,

In remembering the past, we tend to forget the present and future. 

Overall the talk and the discussion was extremely interesting. I found it very enlightening to hear the journalist point of view from a very personal perspective. I understand what he said and why he said it, i am just not sure if Northern Ireland, as a society, is quite ready to discuss the thorny issue of truth recovery. Maybe for some that is all they want, for others nothing less than the judicial process will do. All the while those most affected are getting older and the Troubles becoming less meaningful to the younger generations now coming into adulthood.

The seminar was not a 'do gooder feelgood fling'. We need to understand our role in society and where we have come from, having had our experiences forged in the furnace of the Troubles/war/conflict/terrorist campaign/whatever you want to call it. To understand does not mean forget our experiences, but to put some sort of meaning to the things we have had to experience during those times.

I am married and have two children now. I don't want them to ever have to experience what i and my family experienced as I grew up. I want a better society, a stable government and a freedom from man's inhumanity to man. 

The HTR project seems to be a worthy one. I enjoyed the seminar and would definitely recommend attendance at any similar seminar run by Healing Through Remembering.


Anonymous said...

Fascinating post! Honestly, I loved your tone, overall. Just great.

Ivor Whitten on 6:15 pm said...

many thanks anton. very kind.


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