Read All About It: Four Nations and the British Press

Read All About It: Four Nations and the British Press

Roseanna Doughty examines press reactions to the 1996 IRA Canary Wharf bombing and shows how it is possible for readers to identify as British as well as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or English.

On 9 February 1996, the IRA brought its campaign directly to the British press. The bomb which exploded in Canary Wharf killing two people and injuring a further forty signified the end of a seventeen month ceasefire and jeopardised the entire peace process. The following day the Dockland bombing dominated headlines throughout Britain, however, each nation’s coverage differed in significant ways. In order to market themselves at a national level, newspapers have traditionally sought to construct and reinforce national identities by showcasing the angles of news stories particularly relevant to the reader.[1] By examining how Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish and British broadsheets used this editorial strategy in response to the bomb attack on London’s Docklands, this post will demonstrate the usefulness of a Four Nations approach for media history, whilst also showing the continued importance of broader British identities.

The Dockland bombing and its potential implications for the peace process were lamented by the press in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In order to make the story appeal to their respective national readership, papers in Wales and Scotland highlighted the Welsh and Scottish involvement in the Troubles and their perspectives on the peace process. Although analysing the Welsh press in the late twentieth century is problematic due to the lack of newspapers that adequately serviced the whole of Wales, examining the Cardiff-based broadsheet the Western Mail highlights media attempts to produce a distinctively Welsh perspective on the IRA bombing campaign. In the aftermath of the Docklands bombing, the Western Mail observed that ‘the conflict did not leave Wales untouched’.[2] In a piece published alongside coverage of the bomb and its victims, the paper noted that over the course of the Troubles twenty-five Welshmen or members of Welsh regiments had died in Northern Ireland. The paper also emphasised the reactions of Welsh politicians, recounting the views of the Shadow Secretary for Wales Ron Davies, the MP for Conwy Wyn Roberts, the MP for Montgomeryshire Alex Carlile and the leader of Plaid Cymru David Wigley. While they disagreed about the role that the army should play in Northern Ireland, they were unanimous in calling for ‘the urgent resumption of talks’.[3] The Scotsman on the other hand, connected the bombing to the trial in Glasgow of six members of the Loyalist paramilitary organisation the Ulster Volunteer Force accused of gun-running (November 1995). The paper also emphasised its discovery that the Ulster Defence Association (another Loyalist organisation) had been re-organising its network despite the ceasefire.

Newspapers in Northern Ireland did not need to emphasise the relevance of the Dockland bombing to their readers. Immediately after the bomb, the RUC (Northern Ireland’s police force) were rearmed and along with the British Army returned to patrolling the streets in case of renewed violence. Unsurprisingly the Northern Irish press focused on the implications the attack might have for the peace process. The day after the bombing, the Belfast Telegraph’s front page bore the headline ‘Truce lies in tatters’. In the article that followed, the paper scrutinised the response of Gerry Adams and the allegations that he no longer had any authority over the IRA leadership.[4] The bomb victims were relegated to the bottom of the page, where a short article honed in on the story of a pregnant woman who had been injured in the blast.[5] The paper continued its coverage by describing the reactions of both the Republican and Loyalist communities to the end of the ceasefire. Newspapers in Northern Ireland wishing to market themselves at a national level were faced with the added challenge of appealing to a divided society. The Belfast Telegraph attempted to balance its coverage by featuring interviews with three members from each community including victims of sectarian violence. In doing so, it sought to highlight the consequences of a return to the level of hostility prior to the ceasefire. Just as the Northern Irish press and its counterparts contributed to the construction of national identities the London-based British press, driven by the need to market themselves across all four nations, reinforced notions of Britishness.

The British press was primarily located in Canary Wharf; as a consequence they suffered directly from the bombing. In its coverage of the explosion The Guardian drew on the familiar theme of British stoicism used by the press throughout the campaign to bolster the idea of a united British community facing a common enemy:

‘Most British people, confronted with the bombing last night and the prospect to come, will say: so be it. If republicans think that by bombing Docklands they will force British public opinion to press the government for peace then they misread the situation’.[6]

The Guardian also drew on motifs such as the cup of tea, which readers could relate to and which were emblematic of Britishness. The paper summarised the experiences of those caught in the blast with the sub-heading: ‘A cup of tea with neighbours… then a maelstrom of noise and flying glass as street scenes gave way to chaos’.[7] Like their regional counterparts, The Guardian and the rest of the British press used the coverage of the bombing to reinforce a sense of national awareness amongst its readers, allowing it to sell newspapers to a wider audience.     

Considering the press coverage of the Docklands bombing from a Four Nations perspective highlights some important themes, but also presents its own challenges. An examination of the different national newspapers demonstrates how in order to sell news stories, the press appealed to Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish identities by highlighting the stories’ relevance to each of these nations. Likewise, to sell papers to a wider British audience the London-based press promoted a British identity, to which it invited the reader to subscribe. As Linda Colley has noted, identities are not mutually exclusive; it is possible for readers to identify as British as well as Scottish, Welsh, Northern Irish or English.[8] There is a place therefore, for both Four Nations and British identities in our understanding of media history.

[1] Martin Conboy, ‘Introduction: How Journalism uses History’, Journalism Practice, 5, 5 (2011), 514.

[2] Scott Wilkinson, ‘Wales felt blast of 25 year conflict’, Western Mail, 10 February 1996.

[3] Matthew Beard and Hannah Cleaver, ‘Welsh Political Reaction: Disagreement over whether Army presence in province should be strengthened’, Western Mail, 10 February 1996; Lee Wenham, ‘Wigley makes appeal to both sides’, Western Mail, 10 February 1996.

[4] Michael Devine and Demond McCartan, ‘Truce Lies in Tatters’, Belfast Telegraph, 10 February 1996.

[5] ‘Terrified woman’s fears for her baby’, Belfast Telegraph, 10 February 1996.

[6] ‘IRA back to their old ways’, The Guardian, 10 February 1996.

[7] John Mullin, Helen Nowicka and Edward Pilkington, ‘Mayhem descends on a workaday Friday evening, The Guardian, 10 February 1996.

[8] Linda Colley, ‘Britishness and Others: An Argument’, Journal of British Studies, 31, 4, (1992), 315.

Roseanna Doughty is a PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. Her doctoral research looks at British media representations of the IRA and their effect on the Irish in Britain, 1973-1997. She is the Deputy Editor-in-Chief of the PhD blog Pubs and Publications and is part of the team organising the Modern Irish History Seminar Series’ Four Nation Panel on 10 February to which everyone is welcome.

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