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Covering The News In Ulster

November 10, 1986|HOWARD ROSENBERG

BELFAST, Northern Ireland — TV thrives on conflict. So TV has thrived on Ulster, the six British-controlled counties that make up Northern Ireland.

Sporadic pictures from this strife-torn region have shown mostly Molotov cocktails, bombings and other violence between Protestants and Catholics.

What American TV audiences are rarely shown or told, though, is that despite an undertone of peril, life here goes on somewhat routinely these days. The key word is somewhat .

"Actually," said a grinning Ray Hayden, drinking beer in a dingy Belfast pub, "I felt more threatened in New York last year. I kept looking over my shoulder wherever I went. I was scared the whole time."

"We watch CNN (Cable News Network)," said Norman Stockton, as Hayden nodded. "You think there's violence in the United States 24 hours a day if you watch CNN."

Baby-faced Hayden is the industrial reporter and sardonic Stockton is the political reporter for "Good Evening Ulster," the main commercial news program serving Ulster. It is produced by Ulster Television here, one of 15 regional companies that make up Britain's ITV, or commercial TV system.

About half a mile away in this battle-scarred city of 360,000 is the Ulster headquarters of the competing London-run British Broadcasting Corp. (BBC), which includes both TV and radio.

For Britain, the centuries-old Ulster conflict has been a critical, sometimes bloody story. Violence is diminishing. In the last 18 years alone, though, nearly 2,500 have died in the feud between Protestant extremists wishing to remain under British control and Catholic extremists seeking to end British rule in Ulster and unite with the Irish Republic.

Hence, the barroom nonchalance of Hayden and Stockton notwithstanding, there is an ongoing threat of violence here that extends to Ulster Television and especially to the publicly financed BBC, which is still perceived by many as an outsider.

"We've been covering the story of violence for almost 20 years," Rowan Hand, the BBC's deputy editor of news and current affairs here, remarked coolly in his office. In one week last year, the BBC lost three camera-crew cars to gunmen from the outlawed Irish Republican Army (IRA), although the crews were allowed to go free.

"It was really hairy last year when there were huge loyalist (Protestant) rallies, and we had people with cracked bones and equipment destroyed," Hand said. "One of the most frightening things that can happen to you is getting out and finding yourself in the middle of a mob."

Charges of bias come from both sides. "At best it's an angry call, at worst a punch in the mouth," said Graham McKenzie, the BBC radio news editor here and former producer of "Inside Ulster."

The 46-year-old McKenzie speaks with great intensity. "Reporters here have lived under continual threats since 1969, and during that time we've been popular with one side and then the other. When we report that the IRA is blowing things up and the Catholics are having hunger strikes, the Protestants accuse us of condoning it." And vice versa.

It's the universal blame-the-messenger response to bad news. "I got phoned up by an irate lady who told me I didn't know what it was like to live here," McKenzie said. "Obviously, she felt I was from Mars. But I do live here."

McKenzie surveyed the gray-walled newsroom. "There are few people in this newsroom who have not suffered, who don't know someone who's suffered or whose family hasn't suffered from violence. There are even some people here whose relatives have been murdered."

McKenzie used to be a BBC radio news reader in London, a different world and a different mindset. "Nobody ever rang me up and complained there. People treated you like you were a celebrity. But here, you're the guy who puts out alleged lies. It's so bad that some of our guys don't even admit they work for the BBC in their own communities. They say they are civil service."

Ulster Television is viewed by many here as more populist friend than foe, and the BBC as the large, impersonal representative of London.

"A politician advised us not to cover a parade the other day," McKenzie said. Advised? "We all knew what that meant--that we shouldn't go there. We went anyway. Walked around in tight circles. No one went off by himself."

Perhaps violence at whatever level ultimately becomes routine. Instead of disrupting your life, doesn't it become your life? "You get used to it, yet it has brutalized everyone," McKenzie replied. "I think it has changed the attitudes of the people, both Catholic and Protestant. They are less caring than they were in the 1960s. The human animal adjusts. It used to be that when two people were killed it was a story for months. Then it was a story for days. Now it's forgotten."

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