This is the text of a chapter published in The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants, edited by Paul Burgess and Gareth Mulvenna.
Over the last four years I have been invited on about twenty occasions to meet with groups of Belfast loyalists and to provide them with training in presentation and interaction with the media. Sometimes my role has been simply to give them a talk about how the media functions; more often I have workshopped them in mock interviews and press release writing.
Some of these groups have been mixed, with members of different loyalist groups and even occasionally republicans present. Mostly they have been groups from one or other of the distinct loyalist factions, either UDA or UVF. Usually the group has consisted of between four and eight people, more men than women and across a wide range of ages from about thirty to over eighty.
This experience of meeting and interacting with these groups has led me into a better understanding of Belfast loyalists than I might otherwise have.
Some of the people I have met have been in other groups that have interacted with professionals and members of other communities. They have invariably always been brought together by a funded community group or charity or local government scheme.
Some of the meetings I have had have coincided closely with eruptions of protest or violence which people attending the groups have been helping to plan or have been engaging in.
One of the consistent impressions made by these groups, across all of them, is a sense of grievance. These loyalists feel that they have been cheated. They believe that republicans are more favoured by the political establishment and the media.
They believe that the main Unionist parties have deserted them.
They distrust the media which they believe is only ever interested in belittling them.
Though they hold these convictions strongly they are not often persuasive or even well reasoned in the arguments they make in support of them.
Further, they are suspicious of those who do make strong reasoned arguments and often react as if some trickery is at work in the use of language which contradicts them.
They speak often like people who know they have been disadvantaged but don’t quite know how or by whom.
I was not surprised then by the reaction to the decision by Belfast City Council to limit the flying of the Union flag over City Hall and other public buildings. Loyalists rallied in ardent protest around an issue which was coherent and simple.
They argued that they were represented as British people by the Union flag and demanded that it be restored permanently.
The weakness in this argument, as a political move, was that it could not be met with the concession they demanded. A more politically astute movement would have sought an attainable goal.
Still, hundreds of people came out on winter nights to block traffic in Belfast, to confront the police and to risk ill health, injury and imprisonment. Many in the city responded with a sense that these protesters were stupid, committing themselves to a cause of no material value to themselves. They could not, however, dismiss them as lacking in energy and resolve.
It may be that loyalists have been outflanked by the peace process. Having endorsed it they find that they have no role within it. All that is required of them is that they be silent. Republicans who, like themselves, killed and bombed to make themselves heard, and thereby indispensable to a process for ending killing and bombing, now have partnership with Unionists in the Northern Ireland Executive.
Loyalists see a huge disparity of outcome here. That disparity arises primarily from the fact that Republicans attract votes while Loyalists do not. An irony for them to confront is that many of them do not vote at all and of those who do, most vote for parties other than those which represent loyalism.
Indeed, only one political party currently does represent loyalism and that is the Progressive Unionist Party, an offshoot of the paramilitary Ulster Volunteer Force. The Ulster Democratic Party which advanced the interests of the Ulster Defence Association has died for want of support.
The histories of the parties which sought to represent loyalism are fractious, tensions often having strained relations between the political activists and the militants.
I will try to represent the broader experience of meeting many groups with examples of things I have heard more than once. That way I hope I will be describing fairly representative behaviour and attitudes.
In no group, for instance, did I encounter any sectarian abuse directed at me or even voiced as contempt for Catholics in general. I did encounter comments about foreigners ‘taking our jobs’ but I also often heard thoughtful comments about the need to foster community relations.
It may be that the groups I met are not representative of loyalist community attitudes in that many of them will have been through the grant application processes for support from the state and public bodies. They will have been well exposed to more liberal cultural values that would not tolerate sectarianism or racism. But how then did any of us learnt to be more accommodating of difference other than by contact and discussion?
There is Billy. Billy is about thirty and he’s skinny. He gives the impression of being more naturally angry than playful. Presumably he wants to be here, but maybe someone has told him to come. When I ask the group for their opinions about the media he tells me this story.
“The Sunday World says I am a drug dealer and I can do nothing about it. I’ve spoken to my solicitor and he says he can do nothing about it.”
I ask him if he is a drug dealer and he says he isn’t.
I tell him that if a paper said I was a drug dealer I would sue. I could lose work through allegations like that being made against me.
“But you need money to sue and they’ve got bigger lawyers.”
No matter how long we discuss it he will not accept that the situation is other than that he is innocent and helpless. And what do I know? This may be how things are.
More likely, I suspect, he does have a place in the drugs business, though perhaps smaller than that attributed to him by the newspaper.
A similar issue arises during an exercise with Frank.
We have discussed a possible news story of interest to the group and I have set out the elements of it on a flip chart.
The story is that a fictional character, John K, has been arrested. His arrest has prompted press speculation that a supergrass trial may be under preparation. John K is a community worker. He served fifteen years in prison for a double murder in the early 1980s.
“How do they know that?” says Frank.
“That he done time.” They don’t, of course. This is a fictional exercise.
“Well, newspapers and broadcasters keep files. Or maybe they just googled his name and it came up.”
“You see, that’s the bit I can’t stand”, says Frank. “They rake it all up on us but there’s no one saying what Gerry Adams did.”
“They might if Gerry Adams was arrested.”
But his main point is this: “They – the media – shouldn’t have the right to go back into your past. That’s private.”
“It’s hardly private”, I say, “if the past includes a prison sentence for murder.”
“But now he hasn’t got a chance when his case comes up.”
I tell him the case is not sub judice until John K is charged.
I talk the group through different possible media responses to the arrest of John K and ask them to consider whether they want to contact the media and try to contribute to the unfolding story.
I ask them to imagine an editorial team in a newspaper discussing how they might follow up the report of the arrest of John K.
Perhaps an editor will ask a security correspondent to write an analytical or speculative piece about the history of supergrass trials and their limited success rate. A reporter might phone round people in the UVF and ask them if people are going into hiding to evade arrest. A political correspondent might write a peace asking how this might or might not affect the peace process.
“Fuck them”, says Frank. “They are just making it up. And they twist everything.”
Then there is Keith. Keith is about twenty five. He might have been to university. He is comfortable in the company of Frank and Billy but he speaks better than they do and nothing in his manner is brusque or unnerving.
What would Keith do if he wanted to influence this unfolding story about John K and the possible supergrass trial?
“My big concern here is that we are getting trial by media and I want nothing to do with it.”
Well, I suggest, you might say that you don’t want people tried by the media. You might say that in a press release or letter to the media.
“Why would they listen to me?”
“Because they don’t have anything at all yet except speculation. Any quote from a concerned party might fill out a story.”
“Then the best thing for me to do is make it harder for them to have a credible story by staying out of it.”
This is a more reasoned approach than Frank’s but arrives at the same conclusion: have nothing to do with the media because no good can come of it.
This is the point at which I get them to write a press release. Some of them don’t see the point. Keith takes my side however and reminds them that this is a training exercise. He explains to me: “If it came to it, we would never be the ones to write a press release anyway. It would come from further up.”
The press release we devise is a statement from an imaginary loyalist group calling on the media to be more restrained in its coverage of the arrest of John K. He has not been charged with anything yet his past is being raked over and this has the potential to jeopardise his prospects of a fair trial. Besides, he is a respected member of the community and this is distressing for his family.
I get Diane to read it over. “Shouldn’t we say that this is internment?”
I say, “That depends on how you want to pitch it. Do you want people to read you as political campaigners for reform of the justice system or do you want to focus on the media. I would keep it simple and focus on the media.”
They agree to this.
Now we imagine that the press release has arrived on a news desk and a reporter phones you for further information. What are you going to say to him?
“I’m going to tell him to fuck off”, says Frank. “You’ve got the press release; that’s all you’re getting.”
What do others think?
Keith says: “We pooled our thinking on the press release. We made tactical decisions about how to pitch it. We don’t want to get drawn into other discussions or say any more. So Frank’s right. We don’t talk to the reporter.”
“If you say anything more they will just twist it.”
My plan is that they should talk to the reporter politely, using first names the way reporters always do.
I role play it for them: “Thanks very much for calling, Jean. We appreciate your interest in this story. What can I do for you? Our big concern is trial by media. If John K is going to be charged then let him have his trial in court by due process. It isn’t right that some of the papers have him damned already, is it?”
I’m asking them if it would hurt to be civil to the reporter and at the same time to stick to the line of the press release.
“I get it”, says Frank. “They twist it their way; we twist it ours.”
I say it is all about strategy and that appeals to the part of him that imagines he is a soldier.
Even though they have to be careful, in this approach, not to feed the reporter suggestions of other angles on the story, they don’t have to shut down the interview rudely.
But they also have to learn to anticipate what angles the journalist might find if they leave the agreed script. This requires them to think like a reporter and to do this they have to break out of their assumption that a prime objective of the media is to make loyalists look stupid.
They also have to recognise that every story fits into the context of the wider news agenda. The reporters will be asking themselves how this story fits into others.
We act out the conversation with the reporter and I show them where things can go wrong for them.
Reporter: “Do you think these arrests are unsettling the loyalist paramilitaries?”
Wrong answer 1: “Yes, some people are getting very annoyed and who knows what they’ll do?”
Possible headline: “Increased Threat from Loyalists Following Supergrass Arrest.
Wrong answer 2: “Well it’s made a lot of people nervous and they’re lying low.”
Possible headline: “Old Killers Back On The Run.”
Right Answer: “My primary concern is that the media shouldn’t presume John K is guilty and should know better than to risk prejudicing his trial.”
Possible headline 1: Touchy Loyalists Lecture Media on Justice: Look Who’s Talking!
Possible headline 2: Let Law Take It’s Course, Say Loyalists.
In all of these exercises it is emphasised that these tips on how to interact with the media do not guarantee fair coverage or predictable outcomes. However a long term relationship developed with the media through being civil and tactical builds up credit for those who engage, as reasonable people.
My sense is that even after some effort to persuade loyalists of this some were still resistant. The understanding within loyalist communities is that the media will always undermine them.
A corollary of that is that other groups, particularly Sinn Fein get treated more gently by the media.
Could it be, I ask, that Sinn Fein are just better at this stuff than you are? In which case the better image within the media is a reward for their persistent endeavours.
Some of these sessions were conducted during the flags protests. Several incidents in the media response to these protests were cited against me as evidence that the media is always unsympathetic to loyalists.
Inexperienced spokespeople were mauled in aggressive interviews.
So I suggested another exercise in which I would play – indeed overplay – the role of a radio presenter mocking and haranguing each of them in turn.
I advised them to agree and rehearse the line they would take in the interview and resolve not to be deflected from it. “If I say, ‘What gives you thugs the right to block the road?’ you will say, ‘The important thing here is the sense of insult felt in our communities.’ If I say, ‘Who they hell are you to complain about police brutality when you are only brutes yourselves?’ you will reply, ‘Our main concern is for the free expression of British identity in the institutions of government and the removal of any sense that one community here has scored over another.””
We played out these roles with me, at times, shouting at them and twisting their words, in some sessions dealing with the fear of supergrass trials, in some with the apprehensions about republican dissidents, in some with the flag protests. In all cases the issues we worked on were suggested by the loyalists themselves. My role was to show them what angles a journalist might take on these questions, and how they might direct the discussion back to their perspective when the only other alternatives were to disengage or get angry and lose the argument.
This exercise introduced a heightened level of drama and playfulness into the sessions. These exposed a division between those who could enter into the game with confidence and those who could not. I am always struck in these sessions by how rarely one can anticipate which will be good players.
Sometimes the more bullish men – the Frank types – were good at this, sometimes they were not. Sometimes the Diane was adept or thought she was but simply couldn’t play well enough not to be deflected. But this comes out in a lot of media training, the discovery that the people in a group best able to defend its interests may not be easy to identify and may often be the ones least inclined to take on the job.
There is a danger in these exercises that participants will conclude that they were right all along to fear and suspect the media.
As one put it: “The only thing that makes a story for them is us cocking up. We organise a street festival and bring in Catholic kids or whatever and they ignore us. Ten thousand people enjoy a parade and the media focuses on one incident of trouble.”
But their understanding of how the media comes to find the trouble at a parade is often naive. They speak as if they think the media may have flooded a parade with reporters looking for negative incidents to report. They overestimate the resources of the media. They tend to view it as a managed conspiracy against them and they make little or no distinction between the various outlets. Media, I tell them, is a plural noun.
Actually, I tell them, the media is also under resourced and, being human like yourselves, often as incompetent as yourselves.
Frank says: “How did they find out about that incident or this other incident?”
“Someone told them.”
“Who told them?”
“A man with a camera in one case. Maybe the police in another. Sometimes the reporter doesn’t even leave the office, just phones the police and asks if there was trouble and then just reports what the police say.”
“This is corrupt”, says Frank. “It is loaded against us.”
He thinks anyone can phone a reporter and tell any lie about loyalists and get into the media.
What I want him to see is that he could have a relationship with the media himself, if only to be called on occasionally to offer his own perspective.
I say, “Sinn Fein faced the media for decades being asked only about bombings and shooting and they developed a thick skin and a winning smile. You could have done the same. You still could.”
Afterthought: Some journalists might fear that work like this with loyalists encourages them to manipulate the media and evade awkward questions. That’s true, but it would only be bringing them a little closer to the level of competence in evasion and manipulation that is evinced by all other political groupings. It is the job of the journalist to work back through that to get at the story. An open society relies on their ability to do that. But in a milieu in which it is necessary for political groups to tool themselves up with the skills to defend themselves in the media little is served by one faction being conspicuously inept.