September 5 2018
Ahead of the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, Belfast-born TV journalist Denis Tuohy recalls how the broadcaster’s attempts to silence him backfired spectacularly.
Television viewers in Britain were astounded by what they saw happening in part of the United Kingdom on Saturday, October 5, 1968. In the streets of Derry, civil rights marchers were being beaten up by members of the RUC.
Some of the beatings took place on Strand Road, a few hundred yards from what had once been my home.
We had lived above the bank where my father was manager in the 1940s.
In 1968 I was a reporter based in London for BBC One’s current affairs programme 24 Hours. On that October weekend, I was at home, having recently returned from an assignment in the US, which had included, ironically, a report on the effects of recent civil rights legislation in that country.
Late on Saturday, I spoke on the phone with Tony Whitby, editor of 24 Hours, and offered to go to Derry. Most of the British public wouldn’t understand why citizens in part of the UK needed to campaign for civil rights, nor why a UK police force should lay into them for doing so.
Tony said he wanted a film report that would explain the background. He reckoned that my local knowledge and my early years as a reporter with BBC Northern Ireland would be valuable assets.
I was to go on Monday after a briefing with him.
When I arrived in his office on Monday morning, Tony was hunched over his desk, arms folded, head bowed. He nodded towards a chair and I sat down.
“I’m not happy about this,” he said, “and I know you won’t be. But you’re not going to Derry.”
I was stunned. “You can’t cancel a story like this.”
“I haven’t cancelled the story,” he said.
He looked me straight in the eye while the penny dropped.
“You mean,” I said, “it’s just me that’s not going?”
“Look, Denis, you and I have talked often enough about the benighted place you come from and about the fossils who run the BBC there. Well, I’m sorry to tell you that, this time, the fossils have won.”
BBC Northern Ireland had been informed over the weekend, he said, as a matter of routine, that 24 Hours would be operating in its territory. Given the international furore that the RUC had ignited, this could not have come as a surprise.
However, there had been “concern in Belfast”, as Tony put it, about the choice of myself as reporter.
“On what grounds?”
“It was felt you might be a little too close to the story.”
“You mean I might know too much about dodgy politics in Derry?”
He shrugged. “You realise this went on way above my head.”
“At what level?”
“Board of management level. The Northern Ireland hierarchy told the board they objected to you and, the way the BBC is run, they had the clout to get their way. I was only told an hour ago.”
“And what did you say?”
“Not much. I could have tried to fight, but I’d have lost.
“I could have resigned, but it’s not worth it.”
He leaned towards me across his desk.
“And don’t you get any heroic ideas, either. It is not worth it. Very soon that whole mess over there will be far too big for BBC Belfast to control how it’s covered. The rules will have to change and the rules will change. But not today.”
I thought about this for a moment. Tony Whitby was a man I trusted.
“Okay,” I said, “it’s not worth it. They’re not worth it. So, who are you going to send?”
“I’m thinking about that.”
His eventual decision was a masterstroke. The reporter assigned in my place was Linda Blandford, a shrewd and conscientious journalist, who knew little about Northern Ireland politics but who would, therefore, be all the more diligent in her research. The producer was to be Arthur Maimane, who was likewise a stranger to my native patch but who knew a thing or two about discrimination.
He was a black South African in exile in London.
Their film report, broadcast a week later, highlighted some of the peculiarities in Derry’s version of democracy: the weird shapes of its electoral boundaries, drawn to ensure a Protestant/unionist majority, the squads of Catholic/nationalist cleaning ladies in public places, whose numbers were used to refute charges of sectarian bias in city employment.
Linda and Arthur also pointed out to 24 Hours’ British audience, which was still at the bottom of its Ulster learning curve, that most of the civil rights marchers the previous weekend were Catholic and nearly all of the police who beat them up were Protestant.
Towards the end of the report, Linda put some appropriately awkward questions to unionist politicians. A mole in the BBC’s Belfast headquarters rang me the day after the broadcast, a well-placed mole whose duties included listening in on important phone calls.
“I thought you’d like to know,” she said, “that the decision to keep you away from the Derry story has backfired.”
“That’s what I thought,” I said. “I saw the programme.”
She giggled. “There was more to it than what you saw.”
Apparently, there had been an apoplectic phone call to the Northern Ireland management, the very people who had told London not to send me, from a unionist councillor in Derry, one of those who had been interviewed by Linda.
It was bad enough, said the outraged caller, that the BBC should send an uninformed outsider, a female outsider, to ask him loaded questions.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
“She had a black man with her, I tell you, and he said he was in charge!”
How often it happens that grim circumstances – and Northern Ireland was destined to become a great deal grimmer – can contain an element of comedy.
Or, as Arthur Maimane put it when I told him of the councillor’s wrath, “black comedy”.
Denis Tuohy is writer/narrator of the three-part UTV series on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland – October 1968: Brink of Chaos – which will be broadcast on October 2, 9 and 23 at 10.45pm