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La Transmission des valeurs par la télévision britannique

Monica Charlot

Political Violence in the News

Paul Brennan

Texte intégral

1This study draws on the news programmes shown on television, BBC1 and ITV on Sunday, 25th September 1983. The aim is to study value content in the handling of political violence on actuality television. The upsurge of political violence, often called terrorism, perpetrated by various groups in recent years justifies such a study.

2On September 25th various situations depicting political violence were shown. On BBC1, Maximilian Kolbe is the first example, set, as it is, against the background of Second World War Nazi concentration camps. The news throughout the day deals with two further examples: the war in the Lebanon and the Northern Ireland conflict. On the fictional side the serialised film Wilfred and Eileen deals with the First World War. On I.T.V., in the actualised part of the programme, Good Morning Britain, Sir James Goldsmith and Ken Livingstone touch on the themes while a later programme, Week-End World, is entirely given over to the war in the Lebanon. Further actuality television, in the news, deals with the Lebanon and with Northern Ireland just as on BBC. Two fiction programmes Winds of War and All for Love are also relevant: the first relating to World War Two and the second containing a short reference to soldering in Northern Ireland. Given the importance of themes other than political violence in the fictional programmes such as the love theme, it is difficult to quantify the amount of time given to the showing of political violence on that particular day. It is however reasonable to suggest that it is higher than usual on account of the exceptional prison escape from the Maze in Northern Ireland and of the turn of events in the Lebanon.

The Programmes

  • 1 Schlesinger, P., Murdoch, G., Elliot, P. Televising Terrorism, London, Comedia, 1983, p. 1.
  • 2 Elliott, p. «Reporting Northern Ireland» in Ethnicity and the Media, Paris, UNESCO, 1977, p.355.
  • 3 Glasgow University Media Group,
    Bad News, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
    More Bad News, Londo (...)
  • 4 Schlesinger, P. Putting Reality Together, London, Constable, 1978, p.205.

3Schlesinger, Murdoch and Elliott, in their book Televising Terrorism write: «The definition of “terrorism” – indeed the entire way in which the concept is represented through images, explanations, evidence is central to the exercise of ideological power and influence in our society»1. This would not only seem to give an exceptional influence to television itself but also to suggest that a permanent political battle is being fought between different forces in an attempt to impose conflicting perspectives on society. Philip Elliott illustrated this second point in his study: «Reporting Northern Ireland». Examining the importance of army information officers and official spokesmen generally, as sources of information, he points out that they «are themselves participants in the conflict. Their responsibility is less to provide the public with a factual account of events than to further their own ends in the conflict…»2. The implications here are that the army, which is only one protagonist in this particular battle, obtains an advantage in the propaganda war over other actors. This in turn would seem to suggest that the army, which is the arm of the State, should be given the same treatment as the opponents of the State. Such a view would be shared by the Glasgow Media Group3. Philip Schlesinger sums up the treatment of political violence very well when he writes: «“Extremist” violence,… becomes the object of moral repugnance, whereas the legitimate violence of the security forces is handled within a framework which emphasizes its regrettable necessity»4. The major preoccupation of the writers which have just been mentioned, and they are representative of much of what has been written on reporting political violence on television, is with “fairness”, “balance” and “neutrality”. While not taking sides in such a debate it is understandable that it has aroused much passion. The preoccupation here is with values and their expression. The argument defended is that a dominant value System exists in society and that the news on television is an expression of this System. The basic question is therefore whether an opposing value System can obtain an equivalent exposure during the news.

4Political violence on television is particularly rich in the expression of values which explains, notably in the field of actuality television, why it has been the source of much controversy. A few initial statements however which have the pretention of outlining a general theory of values and at the same time indicating the approach adopted here: values invite adherence and respect; a theory of values deals therefore with how a “for/against” position can be achieved, with the means used to obtain such attitudes. Next, values take their origin in society, in other words outside the individual but within the individual’s world. Values are recognised by society as ideal, worthy of aspiring to and therefore invite social cohesion. Finally, values, or more precisely, value judgements are independent from facts and must also be distinguished from judgements of reality. In other words they may be right or wrong.

  • 5 Bergson, H. Les deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, Paris, P.U.F., 1961.

5Bergson in his work Les Deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion develops an approach to the study of values and their trasmission5. He distinguishes two value Systems. The first one, a closed System, which reflects man’s preoccupation with individual and social conservation and which finds its origin in social pressure. The second System, which he calls an open one, corresponds to the sentiment of progress, to the opening up of new horizons. Within it a force of attraction draws man upward to wards the good and the beautiful. The idea of a closed value System would seem to be particularly applicable to the news bulletins.


Northern Ireland

6The break out of the Maze prison by republicans is first reported on the 17.35 news on the BBC which fills out the story with further points and precisions during the two following news bulletins. I.T.V. gives front coverage to the event in the 21.45 news. The BBC introduced the story very factually speaking of «a mass escape», or, later, a «mass break out by armed republican prisoners from the Maze». It immediately goes on to report that «One prison officer was stabbed to death and another was shot in the head and is now in hospital». The number of prisoners who escape is given: thirty eight, as is the number recaptured: ten. The time is indicated and the means used to escape; the hijacking of cars is also described. The presenter thus limits himself to a factual introduction before the report from the BBC correspondent in Northern Ireland, Austin Hunter (BBC Northern Ireland) described the particularly rapid intervention of the security forces «within minutes of the escape soldiers and police had sealed off the area». They «set up check-points on all roads within five miles». Of the ten who were recaptured he adds the interesting detail that «four were found under water breathing through reeds». Quoting the Northern Ireland Office as his source, he then explains how the prisoners escaped. Next he moves on to explain the security forces’ counter measures: «the biggest search operation ever mounted in the province is now under way». All available soldiers and police, including the Ulster Defence Regiment have been called out on duty. He then comes back to describe again how, by hijacking passing cars, the prisoners made good their escape and came back to the tactics of the soldiers and police: «Check-points in border areas are now being sel up», and «prison officers carried out a search inside the Maze where they found twenty rounds of ammunition». The capturing of ten escapees and the find in the prison indicated that some results had been immediately achieved. The report ended with a brief history of former escapes and the «angry responses» of loyalist politicians are mentioned but none are quoted, and finally the fact that the Secretary of State «has been kept informed of developments».

7The same subject on I.T.V. does not get exactly the same treatment. Introducing the subject of the escape, the presenter speaks of «thirty eight I.R.A. terrorists shot their way out of the Maze jail in Northern Ireland to-day in Britain s biggest ever break out». The tone here is immediately set with the use of three sets of terms: «terrorist», «shot their way out» and «jail». He continues: «the Maze near Belfast houses the most hardened terrorist killers…» Once this presentation made we hear from the Northern Ireland correspondent and subsequently from a reporter. In those two interventions the language used reverts to the more factual kind which was used on BBC. The terms «republicans», «prisoners» or the «I.R.A.», are the only ones used for the rest of the report. As on the BBC programme the historical background is given, but in a more detailed way. The story of the five previous escapes since 1972 was told. The human interest side was introduced with the story of the ten prisoners who escaped in one single car «their arms and legs hanging out of the Windows».

The Lebanon

8The war there is reported on every news bulletin on both channels throughout the day. The angle of attack adopted by the BBC is a description of the efforts made by foreign countries to obtain a peace agreement: «American and Saudi mediators have finally come up with their ceasefire agreement for Lebanon». Earlier on in the day mention is made of «European countries with peace-keeping troops in Lebanon: France, Britain and Italy, launched a joint diplomatic bid to gel a ceasefire. It is intended to supplement similar attempts by the United States and Saudi Arabia». Syria is also involved in this attempt since an official announcement of the ceasefire was «made in the syrian capital, Damascus, by the Saudi counterpart of R. McFarlane». This achievement is announced in both Damascus and Washington. Curiously enough the country concerned was hardly mentioned. All we are told is that «the American envoy has been to see President Gemayel». It is also announced that the British Prime Minister is to leave for Canada and from there to go on to Washington to have talks with President Reagan on the Lebanon. The Western countries involved in peace negotiations have not however limited them selves to diplomatic initiatives having, through a military presence in the country itself, formed a «peace keeping» force. Nor is peace seeking to everyone’s liking since the pursuit of the civil war paralleled throughout the day, the peace initiatives.

9We heard first of all about the efforts of the Lebanese army to stop «Moslim militia» from taking control of a Southern suburb. Later we are told that, on one hand, there is the «Shiite Moslim militia, Amal» who are different from the «Druze militia who are fighting… in the mountains». The image of a black uniformed-hood covered man stopping a car in a Street illustrates the first and an image of a mountain the second. The content transmitted concentrates essentially on the diplomatie and military activities of the United States, and its allies. Some extracts illustrate this. «The New Jersey steamed closed to the shore in a show of strength…now fourteen United States vessels are off the Lebanese coast giving support to the marines in the peace – keeping force». The military power here is nicely associated with peace. The Americans are to the forefront in fighting for peace in the region: «it is the American marines who are the most exposed of peace-keeping soldiers». The BBC correspondent in his report comes back over the American military initiatives and we even learn that the New Jersey has been «rushed to the Lebanon», by President Reagan. But, «there are still reports that there is shelling in South Beirut» we are told at the end of the report. Earlier on we had been warned that «In Beirut fierce fighting continued up to and after the ceasefire but whether the ceasefire was being defied is not clear».

10As with the news on Ulster, I.T.V. diverges on several points from the BBC. It opens its introduction by saying that «all the groups fighting in the Lebanon have agreed to a ceasefire» we are wamed that there is a multi-dimentional character to their conflict. «It is too early to say if the ceasefire will stick because of the continuation of the heavy fighting» suggesting the complication of the task. The human interest story is introduced briefly when we hear that President Reagan had telephoned President Gemayel to congratulate him on the ceasefire. The BBC had given no indication that the Lebanese president had been involved in negotiating peace. We are then told that the American president is «keeping his fingers crossed». The immediate context of the agreement to the ceasefire is explained clearly. We learn for instance that the Syrian government was the last body to agree to it which explains why it was announced from Damascus. The possibility of the ceasefire been respected is also evoked and it is suggested that it will be difficult because «previous mediation efforts [faltered] at the last minute».

11Having spoken about the ceasefire the report then details the military activity of the day. This second part is also quite distinct from BBC reports in that it does not refer to the American military presence as a peace seeking operation. It also motivates the actions of each of the groups involved. It starts with «throughout the day there has been little evidence of peace». Various examples are given, one of them being the joining of the U.S. fleet by the New Jersey. As for the other groups the Lebanese army is depicted as «fighting on two fronts»: the Amal «militiamen» who were afraid that «Christian Phalange forces may take advantage of the situation to infiltrate the heavily populated Moslim areas», and secondly the Druze militia in the mountains «who have been trying to take a strategic ridge overlooking the capital».

12Both events were examples of political violence. Neither constituted a new phenomenon since the internal crises which generated them went back to the 1970s. One was obviously treating events far from home; the other being much nearer home, indeed, within the United Kingdom itself, in Northern Ireland. In order to study how they were reported three angles can be examined. First, who were the agents involved? Secondly, how were their actions described? And thirdly, what images were shown?

13Three groups, common to the two scenes, are central to the reporting of the events: the agents of political violence; the security forces and the authorities. An empirical categorisation allows us to isolate the terms of designation for the agents of violence. The terms: insurgent / guerilla, revolutionary, soldier / member of a liberation army, member of resistance, freedom fighter have been ranked positively in a progressive order. Prisoner / militia organisational designation, armed member of designated organisation, men of violence, murderer / killer have been ranked negatively from minus zero to minus five. When relevant a distinction has been drawn between BBC 1 and I.T.V.

Designation: Agents of Violence

Designation: Agents of Violence

The Agents

14The agents of political violence are systematically designated negatively. As regards the BBC presentation of the Northern Ireland agents they are shown in a moderately negative light. I.T.V., however moves to the most extreme designation in two instances. Turning to the Lebanon the terms, for both channels, are similar and never reach the extremes used in reporting Northern Ireland. It may also be pointed out that the two instances on I.T.V. are the work of the news presenter in London. The local reporters limit themselves to more moderate modes of designation.

15The vocabulary used to describe the security forces is, with one exception, particularly uniform. The terms used are positive and functional. For Northern Ireland they are: “warder”, “prison officer”, “soldiers and police”, “troops”, “U.D.R.”, and “staff’. As for the Lebanon we find: “American marines”, “the Lebanese army” and the “British contingent”. The exception is on the BBC when the security forces are termed “peace keeping force”; thus using a clearly positive terminology.

16The authorities, be it James Prior or the government, as regards Northern Ireland or the Saudi and American mediators Prince Bandar Bin Sultan and Robert Mac Farlane, or Presidents Reagan and Gemayel or the Syrian President, all have one single preoccupation which is to restore order. Both channels conform to such a presentation of events.

17The lines are thus clearly drawn. On one hand the agents of violence who are assimilated with lawlessness, disorder and criminality. On the other, the forces of law and order, those whose function in society is to fight terrorism and the leaders whose ambition is to restore peace.


18In putting the case of political violence to the public, responsibility for violent actions must be established clearly. This means showing what the agents of violence have done, and how they have done it. It also means that the attempt to counteract those activities must also be seen. A list of key words indicating the acts committed by both sides and the acts inflicted upon them should help in establishing that responsibility.

Action: Key words; Northern Ireland

Action: Key words; Northern Ireland

19The Republicans on BBC are clearly the aggressors and therefore the guilty ones. Dangerous men («produced hand guns»), in fact terroriste («hijacking») escaped from prison and are still on the run. On I.T.V. the case is put more strongly since by «shooting their way our» of prison they assume a gangster or a cowboy dimension. They are violent and dangerous terroriste. The first victims of their agression were the security forces, members of which were «shot in the head», «stabbed to death», «attacked», «injured», and «overpowered». No «eye for an eye» strategy on the part of the security forces who do everything possible in difficult circumstances and who by recapturing some of the escapees obtain some immediate results.

Action: Key words: the Lebanon

Action: Key words: the Lebanon

20In the Lebanon, though the Druze, the Shiites and the Christian Phalange are the agressors their condemnation is less direct. It is more the positive treatment of the security forces which reflects negatively on those groups. The government forces are fighting hard («hit back» BBC), are moving «against the Shiites» (I.T.V.), are «holding their ground» and according to I.T.V. it is to be hoped that they will not collapse. The peace keeping forces and notably the American marines, while taking «shelter» (BBC), have nevertheless put on a “mighty show of strength” with the presence of the New Jersey. As for the British they are patrolling «as usual».

21Here, once again, it is the lawful authority which is being attacked and the efforts made by Western countries, particularly the United States, to back up the Lebanese government are shown as worthy of support.

The Image

  • 6 Davis, H., Walton, P. «Death of a Premier: Consensus and Closure in International News» in Davis, (...)

22Davis and Walton have argued that it is the spoken words rather than the visual element which is of predominant importance in presenting political violence6. An element backing up such a statement could be that when such acts of violence occur, television cameras, are, for obvious reasons, rarely on the scene. The intervention of the security forces against the agents of violence is quite a different matter since the media is often informed of military and police intervention. The search for the escapees in the Maze breakout in Northern Ireland by the military and the police and the filming of the American battleship New Jersey are examples of such a State of things. It could be interesting to underline the absence of a perfect coherence between the script and the image during the showings of the two news events. But does this mean that the spoken word is to be considered more important than the images? The visual element must not, in fact, be underestimated since a study of the films shown reveal a global coherence with the message of the text.

23Both for Northern Ireland and the Lebanon authorized persons, that is the television presenters, are shown reading prepared scripts. The images from the scenes of violence are, on the whole, those of checking and search operations near the Maze prison in Northern Ireland.

24Somewhat more varied are the pictures from the Lebanon. Both channels show the press conference given by Prince Bandar Bin Sultan in Damascus and both give ample coverage to the New Jersey. The BBC shows the American and British positions while once again both try to transmit images of the war. I.T.V. gives one picture of the Amal militiamen manning a barricade and the BBC one of a hooded Shiite Moslim carrying out a checking operation in Beirut.

25Whatever the channel or the locality be, the spoken word and the image are constructed to express a coherent whole. Both must be taken together since they generate a range of cultural meanings which produce an organized view of the reality which is being presented.

The Values

26What is striking in those programmes is that the agents of political violence detain a quasi-monopoly of actual physical force. Also, initiative is fully in their hands. Secondly, physical force is exercised in one single direction. It is carried out against the security forces and through them against the official authority of the State. This violence is in Sharp contrast to the behaviour of the security forces. To see that, one has only to look again at the actions inflicted upon the agents of violence by the security forces and one finds simply an execution of duty. The presence of the New Jersey might seem to contradict that statement but, as is clearly pointed out, the battleship is nothing more than a show of strength. The security forces are seen therefore as operating within an orderly, coherent framework which explains the equivalent value coherence on the level of the images shown: the British contingent in Beirut patrolling in a well regulated fashion, the American marine carefully scrutinising the Shouk mountain, the police in Northern Ireland carrying out a methodic search with a police-dog which in turn seems to be perfectly under control.

27Equally important is the unidirectional character of the violence. The fact that the State, whether it be the British or the Lebanese, are the objects of agression signifies that legitimacy itself is under attack. The actions of the security forces are therefore legal. They are also necessary since, given the framework in which they are carried out they constitute a lawful resistance to attack and a defence of society and of its values.

  • 7 Bergson, H. op.cit., pp.238 to 289.

28According to Bergson, human society has in common with nature the fact that it forms a whole7. The differences between them however is that while solidarity in nature is based on what is (on facts), solidarity in society, because of the non-conformity between the interests of the individual and those of the whole, must found itself on another basis. Society is organised on what ought to be as distinct from what is. In order to achieve imperative stability society must define what ought to be. This task is a fundamental necessity. The necessity of facts which organises nature is replaced in human society by habit. And habits exercise a formidable pressure on the individual; such intense a pressure that the habits create what Bergson calls the whole of the obligation (le tout de l’obligation). In other words society creates and maintains solidarity through the social pressure of habits; a pressure which obliges to act according to a set of values. This produces a situation in which the individual must do what he does because he cannot do otherwise. Values correspond to the intervention of reason and imagination in the world of obligation. (I do this because it is good, because it is the will of God, etc.).

29This means that behaviour is determined, not by facts but by norms, inspired by values which form a set of binding social ideals. All this works in cohesion. It is not surprising therefore, from the point of view of the image, to find such coherence in the presentation of the security forces. When it comes to violence or the agents of political violence a unified presentation is not possible. The latter constitutes a group in the eyes of society which are not so much negative as deprived of values. In their action they do not draw their force from society; their activity is not rooted in social necessity nor does it correspond to the social obligation. The image can only be incoherent; in fact a splintered image.

30The examples which have been studied in the news show the fundamental mechanisms of obligation in society. In doing that television does not, nor can it, Project an image that would call into question society’s value System. Since values are concerned with individual behaviour in society and since television adresses itself to individuals it must, in the news, conform itself to the habits which are the very roots of the obligation. To obey the obligation is the road traced by society; it is the free-and-easy way forward. This does not mean that television reflects passively the established value System but rather that it uses the weight of social habits. It thus contributes in determining each one to conform to social imperatives. The news on television corresponds to Bergson’s point of view that duty in society must be understood as a faculty rather than a source of tension and resistance. Duty or submission to the obligation means letting oneself go and simply following social habits. Television news presents a coherent image of those habits. It plays therefore an active role. The greater the coherence the greater the pressure against non-conformity is. The programmes which have been seen illustrate the coherence of order and authority and the incoherence of political violence. In that way they play a dynamic role in opposing such political violences.


1 Schlesinger, P., Murdoch, G., Elliot, P. Televising Terrorism, London, Comedia, 1983, p. 1.

2 Elliott, p. «Reporting Northern Ireland» in Ethnicity and the Media, Paris, UNESCO, 1977, p.355.

3 Glasgow University Media Group,
Bad News, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1976.
More Bad News, London, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1980.
Really Bad News, London, Routledge & Paul Kegan, 1982.

4 Schlesinger, P. Putting Reality Together, London, Constable, 1978, p.205.

5 Bergson, H. Les deux Sources de la Morale et de la Religion, Paris, P.U.F., 1961.

6 Davis, H., Walton, P. «Death of a Premier: Consensus and Closure in International News» in Davis, H., Walton, P. (ed) Language, Image, Media, Oxford, Basil Black-well, 1983.

7 Bergson, H. op.cit., pp.238 to 289.

Table des illustrations

Titre Designation: Agents of Violence
Fichier image/jpeg, 158k
Titre Action: Key words; Northern Ireland
Fichier image/jpeg, 233k
Titre Action: Key words: the Lebanon
Fichier image/jpeg, 277k


Maître de Conférences à la Sorbonne Nouvelle

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