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Frank Cottrell-Boyce on TV

There was nothing 'balanced' about Bloody Sunday

His death was the most witnessed in history but no one saw who did it. It's enough to make you doubt the possibility of Truth. The curious thing about Kennedy assassination theories is that they are cumulative. LBJ does not oust the Mafia, the Military Industrial Complex or the Communists. He is added to the list. The conspiracy itself grows bigger and bigger until it is almost an abstraction, a kind of paranoid Original Sin, implicating all of us.

Of course this leaves Kennedy himself as the Christ-like Redeemer and Sacrifice. And in Oliver Stone's JFK that is pretty much the line on Bonking Jack. He is, says Hamlet Stone, 'the strong father America lost'. If he had lived, Vietnam would never have happened and America would have retained her innocence. His death was the nation's Fall from Grace.

A similar set of ideas have grown up around Bloody Sunday. When, on 30 January 1972, the Parachute Regiment opened fire on a peaceful civil rights march in Derry, they killed not only 14 people but also all hopes of a negotiated political settlement in Ireland. The civil rights movement was stopped dead in its tracks. The war began.

Two television documentaries marked this depressing twentieth anniversary. The first told the story from the point of view of the marchers and the people of Derry. It went out in Channel 4's 'viewer-led current affairs' slot, Free For All. It combined a brisk, informative account of the events themselves with some mature and moving reflections on their legacy. The other examined the soldiers' role. It was part of the BBC's Inside Story series and it was a shabby, inarticulate, shameful little thing.

Inside Story presented itself as an investigation into the Truth of what happened on that day. The interviewer - Peter Taylor - badgered the commanding officer, Colonel Derek Wilford, about whether he had allowed his men to get out of control, whether he had himself exceeded his orders. The Colonel squirmed impressively. But asking Wilford what went wrong is about as useful as asking the bullets if they were speeding.

The Paras' training is, to quote a Para, 'don't go for cover, find a target'. On that day they found 14, none of them armed, most of them running away, one of them holding up a white handkerchief while trying to help a dying friend. Violence is a messy, imprecise business. One of the 'highly trained' soldiers fired 18 rounds at a window without hitting it (though he did waste a few passers-by). That is just the way it is.

The question is not, 'Did the Paras behave themselves?' but what they were doing there, policing a huge, 'carnival-like' peaceful protest? The seeds of Bloody Sunday were not planted at 4pm on 30 January 1972. They had been germinating for months, years, centuries. But the nearest Inside Story got to a context was some footage of the soldiers being baited by children at Aggro Corner. Those poor squaddies, no wonder their tempers were so short. Colonel Wilford said he was having trouble with his conscience; another Para said he felt very sorry.

Frankly, as they say in Hollywood, twinges of conscience is not the story. The story is 14 dead. The C4 documentary dismissed the whole debate about orders and conduct in one brilliant phrase: 'If the deaths were not sanctioned in advance, they certainly were in retrospect by the Widgery Inquiry.'

The Widgery Inquiry was a 'judicial humiliation', an announcement of the fact that Irish people would not be protected by British justice. Perversely, Inside Story set itself more or less the same fatuous terms as Widgery. But where Widgery was just a pack of lies, Inside Story was something much worse. Inside Story was 'balanced'. Lies admit the possibility of Truth. 'Balance' suggests that everything is a matter of opinion. In the name of balance, Taylor gave the bereaved as bad a time as the killers.

He asked each of them if those they had lost had been armed. They all said no, of course. But they should never have been asked. It is an established fact that none of them was armed. Good journalism is about establishing facts, wherever possible. To ask these people this question was to suggest that there was room for doubt or a need for us to take their word. There was not.

Nor did Taylor attempt to establish the nature of the march itself. During the interview with Wilford, Taylor was happy to refer to 'hooligans' and 'rioters'. Then we cut to interviews with the marchers themselves and discovered that they were doctors, cardinals and so on. The BBC's inability to decide on an appropriate vocabulary was at its most amusing when talking about Northern Ireland itself. Of course they had to call Derry Londonderry but they could not quite bring themselves to say, 'province'. In the end they opted for the tellingly fairytale 'realm'.

The BBC swapped investigative journalism for the canvassing of opinions some time during the 1984-85 miners' strike. When the story went out that coal faces were flooding, they did not attempt to find out whether they were or not but simply interviewed miners on one hand and bosses on the other. It was like giving the racing results based on a poll of the punters instead of on the photo finish. Here the BBC came over as cynical and idle. In the case of Bloody Sunday, however, the effect is far more pernicious.

One of the ways in which successive British governments have excused their lack of interest in Ireland is by flogging the myth of the mysterious, medieval and passionate Irish nation. Inside Story played its part in reaffirming this myth. In laying out all these disparate opinions, it gave the impression that you could never get to the bottom of all this, that it was all some great enigma that could never be solved. Peter Taylor emerged as the bewildered, defeated British onlooker. You try to be rational but where does it get you?

The 'documentary' ended with a shot of rosary beads wrapped round a tombstone in the twilight and lots of waffle about tragedy, as though it was all the fault of three witches on a blasted heath. It would have looked OK in JFK but film directors are allowed to create myths, journalists should be challenging them.

Inside Story demonstrated once and for all that the idea of 'balance' is not just pusillanimous, it is degrading. Beyond the miasma of hyper-reality and media effect, some things really do happen in the real world. Some people really did die and other people lost their fathers, and not in a metaphor or a literary allusion but in blood and forever.

BBC 2 is currently showing Quantum Leap, a rivetingly charming time travel series in which our hero goes back down the time lines and tries to alter events, preventing suicides, murders, tragic misunderstandings and so on. This is against all the conventions of time travel literature, where the slightest alteration in the past produces huge variations in the present.

By coincidence, in the week of Bloody Sunday and JFK, Quantum Leap dealt with a sixties assassination, intended as an anti-Vietnam protest. Our hero stops the bomb going off, saves the girl, teaches her about peaceful protest and goes on his way. Somehow the present is no different for the past being made more pleasant. It seems to suggest that the dreadful martyrdoms do not change that much, that if JFK had lived, America would be just as bad; that if the soldiers had behaved better on Bloody Sunday, they would still be there, just as they are now.

To quote one of the wives in Free For All, 'I used to think that God had taken him from me, but now I realise it was just a British soldier'. There is a difference between Fate and History. Assassinations and murders are terrible and they exercise their influence but they are not the Fall. They are human events and they have to be coped with by humans, not Gods.

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 41, March 1992

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