THE UK’S LEVESON Inquiry continues to generate high levels of interest around the murky world of media responsibility and accountability, highlighting the fourth estate’s problematic relationships with other powerful institutions. But concerns about the manipulation and release of information to the general public are not new.
Governments have always been aware of the need to patrol media coverage of events, policies and politicians – even in times when the only onscreen news available was in the cinema rather than through an ever-expanding range of portable devices.
Coverage of the dynamic and conflict-ridden events unfolding in the first half of the twentieth century in Ireland coincided with the birth and development of the cinema newsreel, before it was replaced with television news in the 1950s. Post partition, governments North and South were highly aware of the possibilities of tapping into newsreel companies for PR purposes while Edward Bernays was still crafting his revolutionary philosophy of ‘spin’.
An acute example of this can be found in two films produced in the ostensibly peaceful1930s by the American March of Time company, which advertised competing versions of the ‘two Irelands’. The first film, Irish Republic (1937 – the title was prophetic rather than accurate) celebrated Irish industry and was strongly supportive of Éamon de Valera’s government. Northern Ireland, on the other hand, was depicted as violent and aggressive and Unionists are described as ‘implacable haters of their neighbours across the Free State border’. The film ultimately calls for ‘one indivisible nation’ as a the only solution to ongoing conflict.
‘Rural and backward’
However, Ulster vs Éire was made a year later – with the assistance of the government of Northern Ireland – in an attempt to ‘set the record straight’. In this film, the North is constructed as industrial, enterprising and loyal to the British Crown whilst the South is shown as rural, backward and economically inferior. Significantly, much of the footage used is the same as the previous film but the commentary frames these scenes in a very different way.
The fact that these two films, made only a year apart by the same company, offer almost contradictory renderings of the ‘Irish question’, testifies to the manipulability of the newsreel industry by forces of authority.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, so wary was de Valera of British wartime propaganda that all references to the belligerents were banned from Irish cinemas. In the case of the newsreels war was almost completely erased from the cinema screens for audiences in the south of Ireland. Whilst audiences in Northern Ireland watched a newsreel output which contained an estimated 85 per cent war-related material, viewers in the south watched neutralised stories about sporting events and personalities.
De Valera’s concern about the purveyors of British propaganda swaying the opinions of Irish audiences was not unfounded: coverage of Irish neutrality in newsreels screened throughout the UK was often problematic. One example was British Paramount News’s Ireland – the Plain Issue (1942) which suggested that the southern Irish people were backward, insular, shared their houses with pigs and lived under the rule of ‘dictator’ de Valera.
Conversely, Northern Ireland was congratulated for its support of the war effort, its plucky and enterprising nature and its industrial pursuits. Although clumsy, ill-advised and ultimately withdrawn from distribution after a limited exhibition, the film was symptomatic of attempts by the newsreels to send a message that Éire should enter the war on behalf of the Allies.
Despite strict censorship regulations, Southern citizens could still travel to Northern cinemas to see war news and there was an expectation that at least some of these propaganda messages could filter through the border. It was only at the end of the war that films and newsreels banned by the Official Irish Censor appeared in cinemas, the first time in six years that war footage was made readily available to southern Irish audiences.
As the split in viewing meant that Northern audiences had access to images of German concentration camps before those in the South, neutral Ireland’s expression of condolences, through its Taoiseach, on the death of Adolf Hitler in May 1945 was seen as a repugnant act by people in both Britain and Northern Ireland: a telling example of how the timing and context of the release of news (and in particular, visuals to back up details covered in the press and on radio) can directly influence public opinion.
This contrasting experience for audiences North and South not only reflected but also reinforced partition, testifying to the power of media images in the construction of national identities. The relationship between governments and news agencies has historically been fraught with difficulties. Currently, in an age where it is claimed the internet has democratised news dissemination, it is interesting to watch the ways in which storms of controversy associated with media power, political instititions and the release of information to the general public continue to rage.
Ciara Chambers is a lecturer in film studies at the University of Ulster. For more on Ireland’s relationship with cinema newsreels, see her book Ireland in the Newsreels, published by Irish Academic Press.