“Humankind cannot bear very much reality” - that was T S Eliot’s judgement on us. Had he been around in the 1980s to witness the huff-and-puff about the BBC NI programme Real Lives, he would have nodded in recognition. Alasdair Milne, who has just died and was director-general of the BBC at the time, pushed for the programme’s airing and was in the end successful. But he paid the price with his job a short time later: Maggie Thatcher didn’t like people who supplied the IRA with “the oxygen of publicity”.
For younger readers, the controversial Real Lives programme featured Martin McGuinness and Gregory Campbell. It sought to show both men as human beings, with families behind their differing political stances. Nobody minded this being done with Gregory but Martin McGuinness was another matter. I remember being around the BBC in Belfast at the time and hearing one producer comment with some distaste the absurdity of a programme with the title Real LIves featuring McGuinness. But most BBC people wanted the programme aired, probably on grounds of professional self-respect than political sympathy. Unfortunately the people at the top - the BBC Board of Governors - were agin it.
Why so? Well, they didn’t want McGuinness to be shown as anything other than a ruthless terrorist. In an effort to have the programme aired, the BBC NI Controller at the time suggested it should go out but with periodic clips of bombs going off. You get the idea: there was a danger the audience might be lulled into some identification with McGuinness, so give ‘em a bit of shock therapy at intervals. In the end this daft idea was shelved and many weeks later than originally intended, the programme went out. It was a good programme. Not world-changing but good.
However, the controversy highlighted for me what many of us tend to forget: Thatcher was right. If you keep people off the airwaves or present them in a particular manner, you control them. Hence the famous BBC (and RTÉ) gagging ban, which allowed the words of Sinn Féin people to be heard only if spoken by an actor. To allow people to think of McGuinness as a man with a wife and family would be to blunt the contempt for him in the public mind that the BBC and other ‘respectable’ media of the time believed was necessary.
Alasdair Milne is dead but the thinking of those opposed to him hasn’t gone away, you know.