TELEVISION / Lies, damned lies and misplaced loyalty

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The Independent Culture
ONE OF the peculiarities of 25 Bloody Years, BBC 2's current season about the Troubles, is the odd trick whereby the clarity of hindsight fades almost imperceptibly into our blurred vision of the subject close at hand. This is partly because we are long-sighted about all controversies, able to identify shapes with confidence provided that they are at arm's length. In the case of Northern Ireland, it is also because it is difficult to film a retrospective programme when the issues remain unresolved. History is news with some of the rage and confusion leached out of it; but these films must begin in history and end in news.

The Late Show's programme on media coverage of the conflict brutally exemplified the problem - one of its contributors had been murdered between recording and transmission. And while it was crisp and clear when discussing the early days of journalistic coverage, it got a touch fuzzier around the edges as it came up to date. To be fair, this was partly because journalists had themselves travelled from blissful ignorance to a fallen knowledge of the complexities of the matter. 'I can't think of a place I knew less about,' confessed Martin Bell, seen here as a youthful premonition of the man who now reports from the rubble of Sarajevo.

Bell also noted that he had been ordered not to identify the religion of refugees filmed fleeing their burnt-out houses, on the grounds that it might be provocative. This was an early instance of two baleful journalistic fallacies which have dogged reporting in Northern Ireland: that people trust the media more than what is said by their neighbours, and that the suppression of true facts smothers flames rather than feeds them.

Not that being a journalist is an easy task. One of the reporters here had been shot by loyalists, kidnapped by the IRA and beaten up by the Army, all equally disgruntled by his pursuit of an ungarnished story. And when not subject to violence, they must pick their way through a maze of misinformation from both sides - from stories of exploding underwear designed to deter IRA bombers, to the Republican's grim pantomimes of military might. Some still believe that a partial truth will serve; Charles Moore, editor of the Sunday Telegraph, took the view that loyalty to Britain 'may mean you conceal something you know because it is of operational use to the army'. But what if 'what you know' is that the army is pursuing a hopeless or immoral strategy? Loyalty to lies - the dogged, no-awkward-questions-asked loyalty Mrs Thatcher so favoured - is the real subversion, robbing a State of its ability to correct error or confidently stand by truth. The programme was marred by its dim-witted insistence on pop music stings. Playing 'Leader of the Pack' over footage of Protestant paramilitaries informs us of nothing but the director's cloth-eared failure of imagination.

After vows to remain standing for seven years and to eat dhruba grass, Lotan Baba had decided to go for the big one - he was going on a pilgrimage to the shrine of Vaishno Devi, rolling all the way. Naresh Bedi documented his progress for the first of Sadhus - India's Holy Men, a series that is presumably intent on multicultural enlightenment but which comes across as anthropological freak-show. The film-makers insisted that Lotan Baba encountered nothing but reverence and adulation in his tumble across India, though you did briefly glimpse two sceptical camel-herders in one shot. If he'd done it to get into the Guinness Book of Records we could safely dismiss the ineffable stupidity of the thing. Because his motive was religious, I have a horrible suspicion that we were expected to admire him.