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NME’s “Irish Troubles”: Political Conflict, Media Crisis and the British Music Press1

Sean Campbell
p. 11-54

Résumés

Cet article explore la couverture du conflit nord irlandais (1968-1998) dans la presse musicale hebdomadaire britannique, en se concentrant sur son magazine phare, le New Musical Express (NME) alors qu’il était à son apogée dans les années 1980. L’article montre comment ce magazine, essentiellement spécialisé dans la musique populaire, s’est efforcé de couvrir la période des Troubles à travers une série d’articles de fond, de débats dans la rubrique courrier, ainsi qu’un numéro thématique spécial offrant un espace à des points de vue divergents et une plateforme aux voix de ses lecteurs, à une époque où la plupart des médias britanniques hésitaient à aborder le conflit. S’appuyant sur des entretiens originaux avec des auteurs clés du NME ainsi que sur l’exploration extensive des archives de presse, l’article étudie les subtilités du récit du conflit par NME, retraçant son approche changeante des Troubles et les tensions générées entre auteurs et lecteurs.

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Introduction

  • 1 This title serves as a self-conscious echo of Robert Savage’s study of the BBC and the Northern Ire (...)
  • 2 For an account of such work, see Caroline Magennis, “In Derry Girls and Milkman, Teenage Girls Danc (...)
  • 3 David Keenan, “Top 10 Books about the Troubles”, The Guardian, 30 January 2019.
  • 4 Oliver Wright, “Is an Irish Backstop Breakthrough on the Horizon?”, The Times, 11 September 2019; P (...)

1Invocations of the Northern Ireland conflict (1968-1998) have resurfaced, in recent years, at the forefront of British popular and literary culture via a sequence of successful novels and television series, such as Derry Girls (Channel Four, 2018-), Milkman (Anna Burns, 2018), Spotlight on the Troubles (BBC4, 2019), and For the Good Times (David Keenan, 2019)2. Indeed, this period came to constitute, explained David Keenan, “a kind of Troubles ‘moment’” in expressive culture3. It was not only in the creative sphere, though, that the conflict would reappear, for political discourse in Britain became eclipsed – amidst the fractious and protracted “Brexit” crisis – by debates about the “Irish backstop”, precipitating concerns about the potential return of paramilitary violence4.

  • 5 Brian Hutton, “Thatcher ‘Switches Off’ when Northern Ireland Comes Up”, The Irish Times, 28 Decembe (...)
  • 6 See, for example, Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery: The British Left and Ireland”, (...)
  • 7 Festival 40: What Do You Think of It So Far?, BBC2, 29 August 1976. Mackintosh’s comments in this b (...)
  • 8 David Miller, Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London, Pluto, 199 (...)

2Against this increased awareness of Northern Ireland (and its troubled past) came a stark reminder – via embargoed files released in 2019 – of high-level British disinterest in the region: one such document detailed that Margaret Thatcher would “switch off” when the topic of Northern Ireland came up during Cabinet meetings in the 1980s5. The former Conservative Prime Minister was, of course, hardly alone in this respect; for much of Britain’s left also exhibited a lack of interest6. In this context, certain Labour MPs, such as John Mackintosh, would confess that they, too, had “switched off” to the conflict7. Despite the significant social and economic costs of the Troubles then, the issue remained, says David Miller, “very low on the political agenda”8.

  • 9 Ibid., p. 58.
  • 10 Peter Taylor, “Reporting Northern Ireland”, in The British Media and Ireland: Truth – The First Cas (...)
  • 11 David Elstein, “Why Can’t We Broadcast the Truth?”, in The British Media and Ireland…, p. 14.
  • 12 Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War. The British Media and the “Battle for Hearts and Minds”, L (...)
  • 13 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland: A Case Study in the Reporting of V (...)

3At the same time, the conflict had an especially inhibiting effect on Britain’s “fourth estate”, engendering (what Miller calls) “a substantial chill factor” across the mediascape9. For Peter Taylor, a BBC journalist with considerable experience of covering Northern Ireland, the conflict was “the most sensitive issue in British broadcasting”10. Certainly many media accounts of the Troubles were – in the words of the British television producer, David Elstein – “censored […] banned, postponed [or] cut”, with coverage that questioned British policy being “equated with treachery, with undermining the security forces, with endangering lives, with encouraging rebels”11. In this context, then, the media became an important terrain in the contest to narrate and frame the conflict, forming the site of what Liz Curtis called “the propaganda war”, in which participants sought to secure “the hearts and minds of the British people on the question of Ireland”12. Consequently, a key question for journalists was how to keep the public informed of the Troubles without succumbing to the views of its key actors (whether the British government and its armed forces, or republican and loyalist political or paramilitary groups)13.

  • 14 See, for example, David Butler, The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland: The British State, the (...)
  • 15 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship: National Newspaper Rep (...)
  • 16 David Miller, “The Media and Northern Ireland: Censorship, Information Management and the Broadcast (...)
  • 17 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship…”, p. 239.
  • 18 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland…, p. 79.
  • 19 See, for example, Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War…; Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Pr (...)
  • 20 Greg McLaughlin, Stephen Baker, “‘Every Man an Emperor’…”, p. 185.

4A considerable amount of scholarship has addressed media coverage of the conflict14. Much of this work is concerned with broadcast (and specifically television) – rather than print – media, often in relation to the 1988 “broadcasting ban”, which constituted “the most severe assault on media freedom during the Northern Ireland conflict”15, with its prohibition of “the broadcast of direct statements [on British media] by representatives or supporters of eleven Irish political and military organisations”16. Whilst the ban served as a significant milestone in the media’s handling of the Troubles, it was, arguably, only the apex of an ongoing “trajectory of media control”17, that endured throughout the conflict. To this end, this article attends to the period immediately prior to the ban, and addresses the sphere of print, which has arguably been overshadowed by a concern with audio-visual media in accounts of Troubles coverage18. Where print has been explored, the focus has largely been on daily news publications19. Although this emphasis is, of course, understandable, it has had the effect of eliding the broader span of (weekly and monthly) print publications, and eclipsing the diverse means through which discrete papers and magazines sought to frame or stage the conflict. This proclivity to concentrate on the daily press has, significantly, bequeathed a view of print as a less critical or questioning sector – in its coverage of the Troubles – than television, despite the fact that the latter was subjected to greater regulatory constraints20. The publication explored here serves to challenge this perspective, in that it was a popular and widely-circulated print outlet that addressed the conflict in ways that ran contrary to the views of the mainstream press and broadcast media, and afforded space to oppositional views, not least those of its readers.

  • 21 Patrick Glen, Youth and Permissive Social Change in British Music Papers, 1967-1983, London, Palgra (...)
  • 22 Laura Snapes, “‘Its Soul Was Lost Somewhere’: Inside the Demise of NME”, The Guardian, 14 March 201 (...)
  • 23 Andrew Broaks, “Do You Miss the Future? Mark Fisher Interviewed”, CrackMagazine, 12 September 2014, (...)
  • 24 See, for example, Chris Salewicz, “Carnival”, NME, 6 May 1978, p. 31-33; Andrew Tyler, “Return of t (...)
  • 25 For the McGuiness interview, see Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotion (...)

5The significance of New Musical Express (henceforth NME) on the British print landscape – particularly during its 1980s “heyday” – is difficult to overstate. At that time, the paper enjoyed an extraordinary public reach, achieving a weekly readership of between one and two million young people (depending on shifts in circulation), with sales of up to 230,000 copies per week, and with each physical copy being browsed by up to nine people21. Moreover, NME performed, for many readers, an expressly pedagogical role22. In this context, the cultural critic Mark Fisher once explained that his “education didn’t come from school […] it came from reading NME23. Beyond the paper’s immediate popular-cultural remit (encompassing music, film and television), NME also engaged, at this time, with a range of social and political themes, issuing feature articles on – and devoting front covers to – inter alia animal rights, unemployment, the miners’ strike, “race” riots, South Africa, nuclear war, and environmentalism24. In this context, the paper also sought to address the Northern Ireland conflict, publishing – at key points in the 1980s – dedicated feature articles and letters page debates on this topic, and even convening a special themed issue on Northern Ireland that included (amongst other things) an interview with Martin McGuinness, who at the time was deputy leader of Sinn Féin (and widely assumed to be the IRA’s Chief of Staff)25.

  • 26 Neil Spencer, interview with the author, 30 April 2019.
  • 27 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland…, p. 120.
  • 28 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 29 Ibid.
  • 30 Ibid.

6Neil Spencer, who was editor of NME for most of this period, suggests that the paper’s engagement with Northern Ireland was born of a wish to address the inadequate coverage offered to the issue by mainstream media outlets26, which at that time were seen to have “fail[ed]”, as Brian Hamilton-Tweedale explains, “in their public duty to provide a comprehensive and meaningful account of the Irish conflict”27. In this context, then, Spencer sought to prise open a space for public discussion of the topic in NME28. Crucially, this coverage would draw not only on the views of its writers, but also those of the paper’s young readers, who regularly deployed “Gasbag” – the NME’s letters page – to express their views on the conflict29. Reflecting on this point, Spencer relates that such views were unlikely to be afforded space elsewhere on the British mediascape: “Where else were young people going to write tirades about the Northern Irish question? Where would their voices ever be heard?”30.

  • 31 Mark Sinker, interview with the author, 18 June 2019.
  • 32 See, for example, “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), NME, 4 October 1980, p.  (...)

7It is certainly true that NME’s letters page, which often acted, in the 1980s, as an unusually erudite forum for social and political debate31, published a striking number of exchanges that addressed the Irish conflict. Indeed, NME would occasionally devote its entire letters section to readers’ views on this issue32. It was, moreover, a reader’s intervention on this topic – in the letters page in August 1980 – that instigated NME’s engagement with the conflict. In this missive, the reader (from Derry in Northern Ireland) assailed NME for eliding Northern Ireland in its coverage of contemporaneous political concerns (the paper had published a range of political articles that year). In light of the points made by the reader, it is worth quoting their letter at length:

  • 33 The letter appeared in “Gasbag”, Paul Rambali (ed.), NME, 30 August 1980, p. 54. The articles to wh (...)

NME does it again. The champion of the oppressed and the representative of caring humanity has again bombarded us with articles about the [nuclear] holocaust, suppression of dissidents in Czechoslovakia, genocide of Indians in Chile and other causes. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not knocking your coverage of these subjects […]. It just seems strange that you deal with all these things and then dismiss events here in Northern Ireland as something that shouldn’t be dealt with. […] NME writers who regularly give off about violations of human rights […] tend to ignore the Irish situation. They complain about police harassment of minorities in England yet ignore the daily obscenities perpetrated by the so-called “security forces” in the ghettoes of Belfast and Derry. They ignore the total disregard for such concerns as justice or even decency that keep the Northern Ireland legal system going; the H-blocks of Long Kesh are the inevitable result of this system […] Is this because, unlike many of NME’s pet subjects, the British government doesn’t like coverage of something so controversial? If people in England were put through a legal system which involved torture, lengthy internment periods, no jury courts and judgement by men obviously sectarian and partisan, we’d hear enough about it in your pages […]. It strikes me that your political hobby-horses are all safe ones that cause little worry to those in power. The “Troubles” have gone on for 11 years now and, more urgently, the H-block question for nearly four years. You have made yourself political and therefore your failure to cover these issues is not quite the same as Sounds’ or Melody Maker’s failure – they don’t care at all but you claim you do. Ignoring Ireland won’t make it go away. The “problem” might be solved if more people in England gave a damn. Or is NME really full of ostriches33?

  • 34 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 62.
  • 35 Ibid.
  • 36 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, NME, 11 October 1980, p. 31-34, 61.
  • 37 Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery…”, p. 131.

8The publication of this complaint, in the paper’s letters page, precipitated a plethora of further missives on the matter, prompting Charles Shaar Murray – one of NME’s most celebrated writers – to observe that letters on Northern Ireland had, during that time, “completely swamped all other topics” in NME’s mail bag34. This would, in turn, provoke the paper to convene a special issue of “Gasbag” focused solely on the conflict35, before the paper issued its first feature article on this topic (albeit encased in an account of Belfast’s music scene)36. Subsequent letters page debates, and feature articles, would, moreover, be published across the decade. For much of the 1980s, then, NME sought to address one of the most contentious issues in British politics, whilst other (more obviously political) outlets appeared to eschew it37.

  • 38 See letter in “Big Baad Bag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 31 May 1986, p. 50 (original emphasis).
  • 39 There is a significant body of scholarship on the popular-music press. See, for instance, Eamonn Fo (...)
  • 40 See, for example, Laura Snapes, “‘Its Soul Was Lost Somewhere’…”; Jack Shepherd, “NME Closes Print (...)
  • 41 See, for example, Pop Music and the Press. A modest amount of reflection on the politics of the mus (...)

9This endeavour to address the Troubles did not go unobserved by NME’s readers, some of whom praised the paper’s coverage of the conflict, noting that it had the effect of “shaming the self-styled ‘progressive’ left (Guardian, City Limits, New Socialist et al…)” in Britain “for their timidity and refusal to address […] the one ‘problem’ in British politics that simply won’t go away”38. Despite this fact – that NME had confronted the conflict at a time when many left-wing publications were conspicuously quiet on the topic (and when much of the mainstream media was deeply wary of it) – the paper’s engagement with the Troubles has been ignored in scholarly work on media coverage of the conflict, and in academic (and journalistic) accounts of the British music press39. While the announcement of NME’s closure as a print outlet in 2018 (after sixty-six years of publication) prompted a profusion of public eulogies across the media, highlighting the paper’s history and significance40, scant regard was paid to NME’s political commentary, despite the fact that this constituted one of its key characteristics in its (most) celebrated phase in the 1970s and 1980s. This article seeks to extend, then, existing accounts of the media and Northern Ireland – beyond the orthodox orbit of broadcasting and the broadsheets – by exploring the (hitherto overlooked) coverage of the conflict that emerged in the British music press, whilst also expanding extant work on the music press (with its focus on style, individual critics, and chronicling of canonical “scenes”)41 by excavating, and addressing, its political commentaries. The article offers the first sustained account of this aspect of NME, unveiling the intricate – and often fraught – efforts of this non-news publication to address what was arguably the most controversial question in British politics: the Irish conflict.

10The article deploys original interviews that the author has conducted with key NME writers (such as Stuart Bailie, Len Brown, Stuart Cosgrove, Paolo Hewitt, Danny Kelly, Gavin Martin, Lucy O’Brien and Neil Spencer), as well as journalists from competitor papers, such as Barry McIlheney (who wrote for Melody Maker before editing Smash Hits), and Mark Sinker (who contributed to NME before editing The Wire), to illuminate decision-making issues at editorial level. The article integrates these interviews with an extensive archival trawling of NME’s back issues, enabling closely-focused content analyses, and affording new insights into the process by which a high-profile popular-cultural platform strove to address the Troubles. The article charts the different rhetorical modes and techniques – as well as the discrete themes and standpoints – that NME deployed in its account of the conflict, exploring the dilemmas that its writers faced in addressing this issue, and tracing the tensions that this induced between (and amongst) the paper’s writers and readers. The article also unveils the operation of antithetical codes, at NME, with the paper endeavouring, on the one hand, to act as an oppositional, counter-cultural voice (by espousing partisan views), whilst seeking, on the other, to adhere to quasi-“public-service” values (by appearing “balanced”). Before exploring these points, though, it is necessary to place NME – as a publication – in the particular political and popular-cultural context of the time, and reflect on its expressly ideological profile during the 1980s.

Political NME

  • 42 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author, 13 June 2019. For an account of punk, see Dick Hebdige, Su (...)
  • 43 Neil Spencer, in Inky Fingers: The NME Story, BBC Four, 4 July 2005.
  • 44 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 131.
  • 45 Hugh Cornwell, in Inky Fingers
  • 46 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 131.

11The immediate context for NME’s political commentary in the 1980s lay in the special political and popular-musical nexus of the late 1970s. During that period, the youth subculture of punk – and its associated musical “scene” – had punctured the prevailing codes of Anglo-American popular music, and, in consequence, had the effect, in the words of the former NME writer, Paolo Hewitt, of “politicising pop”42. In this context, the pages of the music press became, in light of the few available platforms at the time, a key space in which punk could “take place”43, and through which its “politicising” effects could percolate. And though NME was not the first of the British music papers to document punk44, it was, without doubt, the one in which its “politicising” process was most clearly registered. Indeed, certain musicians at that time saw NME as “the most PC [politically correct] of all the music magazines”: “Within their ranks there was a lot of almost politicians, who had a certain party line”, observed Hugh Cornwell45. This view of the paper was perhaps informed by the fact that its editor from 1978 until 1985 – Neil Spencer – was “a committed Labour Party member” who moulded NME, as Pat Long explains, as “a voice of dissent”, with an “increasingly politicised” outlook46.

  • 47 See Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone (...)
  • 48 Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London, Verso, 1988.
  • 49 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 50 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author.
  • 51 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 52 Paolo Hewitt, “The Neil Kinnock Interview”, NME, 27 April 1985, p. 12-14; Denis Campbell, “Neil’s W (...)
  • 53 Tony Parsons, “The Dignity of Labour”, NME, 15 October 1983, p. 8; Andrew Tyler, “Dread Ken: A Capi (...)

12The paper’s ideological orientation echoed, of course, the increasing socio-political consciousness that, at the time, informed the popular-musical milieu, via initiatives such as Rock Against Racism (1976-1982), Two-Tone (1979-1985), and Red Wedge (1985-1990)47. At the same time, mainstream British politics had been marked by an especially right-wing turn, following the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979, and the ascent of “Thatcherism” following successive election victories in 1983 and 198748. This specific conjuncture – between an increasingly oppositional popular-music culture and a concomitantly reactionary political one – “made it quite easy”, says Spencer, for NME “to extend music journalism into social and political commentary”49. Elaborating on this point, Hewitt suggests that the radical, right-wing ethos of the Thatcher government – “and the environment and the atmosphere it created” – “really pushed us [the NME staff] towards a very strong, left-wing position”50. Thus, the paper openly aligned itself with the Labour Party51, most notably by publishing two issues – in 1985 and 1987, respectively – that featured Neil Kinnock, the (then) Labour leader, as cover “star”52. Such endorsements were underscored by NME’s (usually approving) accounts of Labour Party conferences, as well as its publication of interviews with leading left-wing figures, such as Ken Livingstone, Tony Benn and E. P. Thompson53.

  • 54 Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author, 10 June 2019; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author, (...)
  • 55 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 56-57.

13It is clear, then, that the specific context of the time played a crucial role in prompting NME’s political coverage, and leftist orientation54. However, the paper’s penchant for social commentary, and left-wing views, had a much longer provenance, dating back to the early 1970s when NME had sought to rejuvenate itself – following a period of decline – by recruiting a series of writers (such as Nick Kent, Ian MacDonald and Charles Shaar Murray) from the British “underground” press, a coalition of “alternative” publications, such as Oz, IT (International Times) and Friends / Frendz, which accrued a special profile in the late 1960s and early 1970s as an oppositional, and expressly youth-cultural, voice55.

  • 56 Mick Farren, cited in Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 47.
  • 57 The “underground” papers also engaged with issues such as South Africa (IT, no. 37, 9-22 August 196 (...)
  • 58 Paul Gorman, In Their Own Write…, p. 73-74.

14A key aim of the “underground” press was, in the words of Mick Farren (a contributor to IT, who later relocated to NME), to cover issues that had been overlooked by mainstream outlets, and thus “provide a forum for people who are excluded from mass media”56. Significantly, its coverage of social and political issues was accompanied by articles on popular music57. Such coverage served not only to leaven the press’s more “serious” commentaries, but also to attract investment in the form of advertising revenue from the music industry58.

  • 59 Nigel Fountain, Underground: The London Alternative Press, 1966-74, London, Routledge, 1988, p. 183 (...)
  • 60 Charles Shaar Murray, cited in A Hidden Landscape Once a Week…, p. 144.
  • 61 John Street, Rebel Rock…, p. 83-88.
  • 62 Tony Tyler, cited in Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 71.
  • 63 Over the course of the decade this included Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Ian MacDonald, Mick Fa (...)
  • 64 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 123.
  • 65 Anonymous, “T-Zers”, NME, 10 June 1978, p. 63. See also NME masthead on 10 June 1978, p. 63.

15NME’s self-conscious effort to incorporate the staff, as well as the ethos, of the “underground” press in the early 1970s59 brought a “broader political and cultural span” to the paper60, which (re)positioned itself as a quasi-counter-cultural platform61, with expressly extra-musical interests, a point epitomised in (former editor) Tony Tyler’s injunction that articles in NME should “not just [be] about the music”, but “about all of the things that the music’s about”, which at that time included, of course, social and political issues62. The paper’s recruitment of “underground” staff continued, moreover, across the decade63, with NME sustaining, as Long explains, “the ethos, style and content of the underground press well past punk, up to the end of the decade [the 1970s] and beyond”64. Indeed, at the point that Spencer became editor (in June 1978), at least six of the paper’s writers / contributors had come from the “underground” press, including Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Mick Farren, John May, Barry Miles, and Pennie Smith65.

  • 66 Nigel Fountain, Underground…, p. 97, 134-139, 162, 167.
  • 67 For “underground” press articles on the Northern Ireland conflict, see, for example, A Special Corr (...)
  • 68 See, for example, “Ireland Resists Aggression”, Ink, no. 28, 11 February 1972 and “Solidarity with (...)
  • 69 One reader would inform IT: “I’m getting fucking sick with the way the underground press supports t (...)

16Significantly, the political coverage that had appeared in the “underground” press had included a considerable amount of commentary on the Irish conflict66, with key papers devoting front covers, as well as feature articles, to this topic67. This coverage often evinced an overt sympathy with the experience of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland68. Indeed, there was an apparent perception, amongst readers, that the “underground” press had signalled an allegiance with militant Irish republicanism. In this context, letters appeared in IT objecting to the “underground” press’s “support” for the IRA, and encouraging contributors to distinguish between the ideology of Irish republicanism (which many readers had endorsed) and the actions of the IRA (which they often disavowed)69.

  • 70 Jerome Burne, cited in Jonathon Green, Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1 (...)
  • 71 Dick Pountain, cited in Jonathon Green, Days in the Life…, p. 375.
  • 72 Nigel Fountain, Underground…, p. 97.

17Despite this view of the “underground” press as championing the IRA, though, many of its writers held highly ambivalent views on the conflict. Reflecting on this point, Jerome Burne, a contributor to Friends / Frendz and IT, relates: “The IRA was always a problematical issue. On one hand we weren’t in favour of violence, but we were obviously against the British Army. We wanted to overthrow the State, but we weren’t quite sure that we wanted a lot of bombers. That was a tricky one”70. In a similar vein, Dick Pountain – who played a leading role at Oz – recalls attending “appalling all-afternoon meetings in order to make up our minds what our attitude to the provisional IRA was”71, a point echoed by another Oz contributor, Nigel Fountain, who recollects debates about “the right line to be taken on the issue: Was it to be support for the IRA? Support for a socialist Ireland? Critical support for the IRA? And which IRA?”72.

18Similar quandaries would surface at NME in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Spencer points, in this context, to his “personal attitude to the Northern Ireland problem” at that time, suggesting that this was “that there was no place in that dialogue for someone like me”. He goes on:

  • 73 Neil Spencer, interview with the author (original emphasis).

It was a mess, and where did one engage with it? Were you on the side of Stormont and British troops? Were you on the side of the IRA? No. […] Neither. A pox on both their houses. […] So, it was very hard to find a way to engage with that, and really, it wasn’t our problem. It wasn’t a thing that affected us73.

  • 74 For examples of this practice, see James Johnson, “The Sonic Warlords in Belfast”, NME, 24 March 19 (...)

19Notwithstanding the fact that NME had, of course, engaged with issues beyond the immediate orbit of its staff, it is clear that the Troubles had, by the late 1970s, extended – via the IRA’s bombing campaign – into English cites, and thus the conflict had undoubtedly come to “affect” the lives of its writers and readers. With this in mind, it appears that NME was – in spite of its overt concern with political issues – initially reluctant to address the Northern Ireland conflict. An inevitable problem with this was, of course, that the paper’s continuing lack of engagement with the Troubles would become (in the context of its concomitant coverage of other political themes) increasingly conspicuous and, by extension, questionable. Moreover, in the absence of any focused account of Northern Ireland, the conflict would nevertheless come to penetrate the discourse of the music press through other narrative means, some of which were not unproblematic. Perhaps most striking, in this regard, was the practice – evident across the British music press in the 1970s – of reporting on British bands on tour in Northern Ireland, in which the spatial locale was deployed as a dramatic backdrop, usually via images of the band members in Belfast, alongside reports that invoked the conflict, with journalists noting the presence of armed soldiers, military vehicles, and bombed-out buildings74.

  • 75 Giovanni Dadomo, Caroline Coon, “Clash in the City of the Dead”, Sounds, 29 October 1977, p. 25-27; (...)
  • 76 Giovanni Dadomo, Caroline Coon, “Clash in the City of the Dead”, p. 27; Ian Birch, “Clash Lose Cont (...)

20Although this sort of coverage had been evident since the early 1970s, its best known instance centred on the visit of The Clash to Belfast in 1977, an event that attracted widespread attention, appearing on the front covers – and inside pages – of both of NME’s weekly competitors, Sounds and Melody Maker75. The currency of such coverage functioned, first and foremost, at the photographic level, hence the images of The Clash (that illustrated both the covers and feature articles in Sounds and Melody Maker) depicting the band members in close proximity to armed British soldiers and Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) officers, amidst conspicuous forms of surveillance apparatus. Such images were underscored, in the accompanying reports, by semantic invocations of Belfast’s oppressive ambience, laying stress on “steel barricades”, “barbed wire fences”, and “endless devastation”76.

  • 77 Anonymous, “Clash Visit Belfast for Picture Session”, NME, 29 October 1977, p. 9-10.
  • 78 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”.
  • 79 Angie Errigo, “Feelgoods Triumph in a Po-Go Zone”, p. 15.

21Significantly, NME sought to distance itself, at the time, from such coverage, affording the event (only) a short news item, with the acerbic headline: “Clash Visit Belfast for Picture Session” (which nevertheless included a photograph from the trip)77. Moreover, the paper would subsequently remind its readers, in its first focused feature on Northern Ireland (in October 1980), that The Clash had “found time [on their short trip to Belfast] for some holiday snaps and a Melody Maker front cover”78. Despite its critical response to such reportage, though, the NME had itself – only two weeks prior to the Clash coverage in Sounds and Melody Maker – published a similar account of another British band’s (Dr. Feelgood) visit to Northern Ireland, embellished with an image of that group behind (what the accompanying photo-caption called) a “bomb-guard in Belfast”, and commencing with a stand-first stressing that the interview took place “behind the Ulster barricades”79.

  • 80 James Johnson, “The Sonic Warlords in Belfast”.

22This was, moreover, not the first time that NME had traded in such tropes. In fact, the paper had arguably helped to beget the very practice of tracking British bands’ visits to Belfast, as evidenced by a piece (on Hawkwind) in 1973, in which the local setting, and the effects of the conflict, are consciously stressed, with NME noting “shops, houses and bars […] blasted into ruins”, whilst spotlighting a British soldier (“his rifle waist high”) who “looked as nervous as hell”: “It was obvious the whole city was a war zone”80.

  • 81 See, for example, Jane Suck, “Vicarious Thrills…”; Colin Irwin, “The Jewel in the Crown”.
  • 82 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 83 Danny Kelly, interview with the author, 20 August 2019.
  • 84 Ibid.
  • 85 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

23Whether such coverage was born of a wish to acknowledge the conflict (rather than simply ignore it), or an opportunistic attempt to exploit the Troubles as a compelling backdrop, it is clear that this tendency would, by the late 1970s, come to be seen, at least by NME, as questionable. Thus, the paper would retract from this practice, even while its competitors continued to pursue it into the 1980s81. Reflecting on this point (with four decades hindsight), Spencer suggests that music-press photos of bands “posing with British troops” became, from his perspective, “problematical”82. This point is echoed by Danny Kelly, a subsequent editor of NME (and staff writer in the 1980s), who explains that such coverage “didn’t say anything about what was going on, except there was a sense of danger”, and thus risked trading in “a kind of ‘danger chic’”83. Such material would, of course, make NME’s lack of overt commentary on the conflict seem (even) more questionable, as Kelly explains: “The danger is if you don’t write something serious and political, you end up using Northern Ireland as a backdrop, a dramatic backdrop to things”84. Rather than restricting invocations of the conflict to this “dramatic” capacity, then, the subject required (as Spencer increasingly came to recognise) a more upfront approach85.

  • 86 Ibid.
  • 87 John McGarry, Brendan O’Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, (...)

24The paper’s pursuance of this approach was expedited, according to Spencer, by two concurrent developments: first, the arrival at NME of a Belfast correspondent, Gavin Martin, who brought to the paper a legitimising local voice, and, second, the emergence of a Northern Irish punk “scene”, which called for coverage of the conflict as part of the bands’ social context86. These concomitant shifts would precipitate the paper’s first feature article on the conflict (albeit in the context of an account of Belfast’s music scene), in a piece entitled “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, written by Martin, in October 1980. The publication of this piece was, however, preceded by the intervention of the Derry letter-writer cited above, which in turn provoked a plethora of letters that addressed the Irish conflict. Three such letters would be published in one issue in September 1980, before the staff felt compelled – by the sheer volume of subsequent letters – to convene a dedicated “Gasbag”, focused solely on the conflict, in October of that year. In conjunction with the Martin feature, this special issue of “Gasbag” served as NME’s first focused engagement with the conflict. Before addressing Martin’s piece, then, I will explore these letters page debates. The letters surveyed here, and throughout the article, present a range of interpretive frames through which the Troubles were viewed, pointing to what scholars have called “a ‘meta-conflict’, a conflict about what the conflict is about”87. The readers thus invoke existing (exogenous and endogenous) explanations, rehearsing republican, unionist and socialist views, with some letters claiming that the conflict was essentially sectarian, whilst others called for the withdrawal of British troops. Alongside such perspectives, though, many readers spotlighted the absence of debate in Britain on the conflict, critiquing mainstream media coverage, and issuing highly “active” responses, suggesting a far from passive audience.

1980: “Now we’ve got a platform […] what are we going to do about it?”

  • 88 The letters appeared in “Gasbag now!”, Monty Smith (ed.), NME, 20 September 1980, p. 58.

25A number of letters appeared in “Gasbag” in September 1980 that were clearly prompted by the comments of the Derry reader (cited above), and which extended the latter’s critique of the inadequate coverage that the Irish conflict had received in Britain’s media. The first letter begins, significantly, by endorsing the Derry letter-writer, and noting their own “surprise” to see such a letter in NME: “[…] perhaps this is the beginning of something big?!”, they speculate. The key point of the letter, though, is to highlight “the way ignorant / misinformed journalists either evade any controversial involvement with the province […] or denounce the ‘evil’ terrorists whilst knowing little or nothing about their cause”. In addition, this reader would insist that it was incumbent on NME not merely to intervene on this matter, but to act as a pioneering platform: “I think it is about time you”, relayed the reader, “as the custodian of the humanitarian ideals that are so dear to all of us, took the lead and did something”88. The second letter (from a reader in Cork), echoed this view, observing “the ignorance of the people of Britain […] of their position in our country”, before issuing an “appeal to all British readers of NME”:

Your government, through your army, is occupying part of my country. They are doing this in your name. Are you aware of this? […] People […] are being killed every day and every day because of your silence the killing will continue. Only public opinion in Britain can change the situation. Won’t you help?

  • 89 Ibid.
  • 90 Ibid.

26This reader concluded by stressing that “an informed public debate in Britain would get the ball rolling”, noting: “Now is the time for it to start”89. A key part of the discourse at this point, then, is the perceived lack of debate, and the necessity for such exchange, and the question of where and how it might occur. The third letter (from Ormskirk, in England), drew on a different strand of contemporary commentary on the Troubles, which saw the conflict as essentially sectarian, and presented the “problem” as Catholics and Protestants not being able to “live together”, prescribing – as a remedy to “religious war” – the erection of “integrated schools and housing estates”90.

  • 91 Ibid.
  • 92 Ibid.

27It is, of course, unclear to what extent these letters were selected by NME to reflect a certain view, but it would certainly seem, from the editorial ripostes – issued by Monty Smith – that the paper broadly endorsed their sentiments. The views expressed in these letters (calling for increased coverage of the conflict, and critiquing sectarianism) were sufficiently palatable for a paper such as NME to accommodate, and tacitly endorse. The paper’s response to these letters, issued through Smith’s bold-type remarks, perhaps serves as a clue to NME’s (then) current view. A key theme, in the retorts, is the deflection of readers’ questions onto other communicative sites. Thus, following the first letter’s call for more informed media coverage of the conflict, Smith turned the question back onto the readers: “Now we’ve got a platform […] what are we going to do about it?”91. Similarly, Smith reacts to the second letter – which resounded the reflections of the first – by redirecting the enquiry onto mainstream media outlets, rhetorically rerouting the reader’s appeal: “please […] so-called uncensored media, when is it going to happen?”92.

  • 93 If the mainstream media failed to provide adequate coverage of an urgent issue, then it was the tas (...)
  • 94 “Gasbag now!”, Monty Smith (ed.), p. 58.

28Although this response seemed at variance with the “underground” ethos that had informed NME since the early 1970s (in which “alternative” outlets actively undertook coverage of overlooked issues)93, Smith did, at least, make clear that the conflict would continue to be “discussed in these pages [i.e. ‘Gasbag’] as long as you’re prepared to voice your opinions”94, even if this (once again) placed the imperative on the readers. This letters-page exchange, in any case, served as NME’s first tentative foray into addressing the conflict.

  • 95 The photograph had previously appeared in a photo essay in the journal Camerawork in 1978 (Anonymou (...)

29Significantly, the paper received an even larger volume of readers’ letters on this topic over the next two weeks, prompting the paper to curate a dedicated issue of “Gasbag” – focused solely on the Troubles – in October 1980 (fig. 1). This arguably acted as NME’s first self-conscious account of the conflict, for while it adhered to the editorial sentiments of the September “Gasbag” in placing the imperative on its readers, it was, atypically for a letters-page debate, announced via a cover-line on the paper’s front page (stating simply “Northern Ireland”), and featured – again uncharacteristically for “Gasbag” – its own themed title, “The Irish No-Joke”, and illustration: a photograph of armed British soldiers next to young children95.

Fig. 1 – NME, 4 October 1980, p. 62.

Fig. 1 – NME, 4 October 1980, p. 62.

30It also included, against convention, an introduction and epilogue, authored by that week’s “Gasbag” editor, Charles Shaar Murray. It would not, however, offer editorial comments in response to the individual letters (the letters page was typically punctuated with pithy ripostes to each letter). Indeed, the bold-type pull-out quotes that appeared in this “Gasbag” – more often associated with a feature article – were drawn from the readers’ views. Consequently, “The Irish No-Joke” was a letters page that bore many of the graphic and editorial qualities of a feature article, thus elevating it – if only visually – to the status of an authored piece, and in turn appearing as the paper’s own response, rather than one generated by its readers.

  • 96 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 62.

31At the same time, the paper’s preface stressed the value of readers’ views over editorial interventions: “[…] we’re turning this week’s Bagspace over to your letters”, relayed Murray, “without the customary editorial refereeing”96. Thus, if NME had, in the September issue, summoned mainstream media to take up the task of tackling the conflict, then it was now – in light of the sheer volume of letters that the paper had received on this topic – turning to the readers to speak on the topic, suggesting that the paper’s inchoate stance on handling the Troubles was to harness its readers’ views. This was underscored in the page’s sole editorial comment, located in a lengthy, bold-type coda, which disavowed the very possibility of NME expressing a collective view: “There’s no such thing as a consensus on the subject of the British ‘presence’ in Northern Ireland, here at NME or anywhere else”. Notwithstanding this contraction of the conflict to “the British ‘presence’”, Murray went on:

  • 97 Ibid., p. 63.

Speaking as one person offering one person’s opinion – and not claiming to represent the NME collective – I deplore the bombings, the terror, the violence inflicted on innocent people who are on a firing line through no fault or choice of their own. But at the same time, I believe just as wholeheartedly that the solution to the Irish “problem” must be an Irish solution. What happens in Ireland should be a matter of concern to England, but interference and occupation should not be the means by which this concern should be expressed. If this view seems contradictory, that’s because it is contradictory97.

32Perhaps unsurprisingly, the paper’s readership expressed, across eight epistles, more forthright positions. One such letter (from a reader in Liverpool) critiqued the then prevalent view, promulgated by “government and popular media”, that the conflict was simply sectarian, before making a not uncontroversial claim about the provenance of Ulster unionists:

  • 98 Ibid., p. 62.

[…] we will get nowhere until we stop deceiving ourselves that the war in Northern Ireland is a purely sectarian one, so absolving ourselves from blame. Much as I sympathise with the unionist point of view – they have known no other home but N.I., and it has been a part of Britain throughout their lifetime – the fact remains that they are the descendants of an invading force, supported by an army of occupation98.

  • 99 Ibid.
  • 100 Ibid.

33A second letter (from Edgeware in London) echoed this view that the conflict should not be seen as simply sectarian, assailing the outlook of “the typical liberal Englishman” – who perceived “the problem” as “religiously prejudiced Irishmen” – and arguing for “an opening of minds to Irish problems by the British public”. This reader thus reiterated the calls, in the previous letters, for wider understanding of the conflict, born of an implicit view that media outlets, such as NME, could play a crucial role in this. They went on, moreover, to challenge the claim that the “troops are in Ireland to protect the Irish from themselves”99, a point underscored by a large pull-out quote, extracted from the letter, declaiming “The troops are not in Ireland to protect the Irish. Anyone who thinks that is an idiot”, that served to bequeath, alongside the page’s only illustration – a large photo of armed British soldiers facing young children – a sceptical view of the British military presence. Other letters would chastise the role of religious institutions in the conflict, claiming that the latter’s “ambivalent attitude to sectarianism” had done little “to diminish the violence they pretend to deplore”100.

  • 101 See Aly Renwick, “Something in the Air: The Rise of the Troops Out Movement”, in The Northern Irela (...)
  • 102 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 63.

34The fact that extracts from each of these letters were selected by the paper to appear in bold-type quotes perhaps offered an insight into NME’s own view, with one reader problematising the presence of the British Army, whilst the other rebuked the role of the Church. Neither of these views was especially controversial at the time: there was a sizeable Troops Out Movement in Britain, which had been founded in 1972, and enjoyed some support on British university campuses101. The final letter in the special issue (sent from Dublin) takes up the theme of British ignorance, arguing that “the British people are […] ‘shielded’ from the truth about Northern Ireland”102.

  • 103 Ibid.

35Other letters offered more conservative views. One of these (from a reader in Newtownabbey in Northern Ireland) expressed a moderate unionist standpoint, whilst positing that readers outside of Ireland might not be “sufficiently well informed of the situation to put forward a constructive argument”, and advising NME to “not mix politics and music”103. This, then, was the obverse of the letter-writer from Derry; for rather than summoning NME, and the wider British public, to engage with the conflict, it counselled the paper to eschew commentary on it.

36Regardless of this appeal, NME continued to address the topic, with the following week’s issue offering a five-page feature article (entitled “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”), by Gavin Martin (fig. 2).

Fig. 2 – Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, NME, 11 October 1980, p. 31.

Fig. 2 – Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, NME, 11 October 1980, p. 31.
  • 104 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Gavin Martin, interview with the author, 18 March 2019.

37As with the previous week’s letters page, this article was announced via a cover-line on the paper’s front page, stating “Ulster’s Alternative” – a pun on the celebrated Stiff Little Fingers’ song, “Alternative Ulster” (1978), the title of which was sourced from a Belfast fanzine, founded by Martin. The fact that the latter was now a contributor to NME clearly gave the paper confidence to increase its commentary on the conflict. Martin, who was raised in a family with “a very committed trade union” outlook (in a Protestant milieu in Bangor, Co. Down), was “driven”, says former NME writer Stuart Cosgrove, “by a sense of cross-community balance”104. Certainly the comments that Martin made on the conflict in NME were suffused with anti-sectarian, socialist sentiments.

  • 105 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, p. 31.
  • 106 Ibid.

38The stand-first that announced Martin’s debut article relates that NME had “asked” him “to give [the paper] an account of rock amid the rubble”105. This, then, was the justification for NME’s first full piece on Northern Ireland: framing “the rubble” as part of the context for “rock”. Significantly, Martin would seek, at the outset of his piece, to distance it from press coverage of The Clash in Belfast, critiquing reports of that event106, and stressing that his account was a corrective to the conventional ways in which the conflict had been configured in music-press discourse. Although the article is chiefly concerned with popular music in Northern Ireland, Martin prefaces it with a reflection on Troubles, and it is this section that I focus on here. “For the past 11 years”, relates Martin:

  • 107 Ibid.

[…] people in Northern Ireland have lived in the dark shadow of terrorist disorder. In terms of geography, history and politics it is a situation unique this side of the equator. Disregarding the rights and wrongs of the political collusions, religious confusions and military confrontations […] one thing’s for sure: the ordinary and the innocent (regardless of their mode of worship or political allegiance) are the ones who have had the hardest time of it107.

39The piece’s central point regarding Northern Ireland is what Martin calls “the acute paucity of alternatives” available to the public beyond the highly binarised political culture (nationalism / republicanism or unionism / loyalism). However, the article also informed readers that the region had “the worst unemployment figures, the lowest wages and the worst housing in the UK”, implying that this might help explain some of the background to the conflict. What Martin – and, by extension, NME – ultimately offer in this piece is a class-based critique of the conflict, underscored with an explicit anti-sectarianism:

  • 108 Ibid., p. 32.

What the Northern Ireland situation amounts to is a lot of young people being used as “pawns in the game.” Whether that young person be in the British Army, the Provisional IRA or the UVF, chances are they come from one of the most deprived areas in the UK (N.E. England, Scotland or Belfast) and have been thrown in at the deep end of a struggle which does nothing but keep the lowlife fighting among themselves108.

  • 109 Ibid.

40For Martin, then, “the problem” in Northern Ireland was “social, not sectarian”109. Consequently, the first real standpoint that NME would assume on the Troubles – in a focused, feature article – was to frame the problem in class terms, through a broadly socialist lens. The article – alongside Murray’s “Gasbag” – received praise from the paper’s readership for drawing attention to the conflict. However, NME was also rebuked, in this period, for its lack of sustained engagement with Northern Ireland. Thus, in a letter that appeared in June 1981 (shortly after the death of hunger striker, Bobby Sands), a reader – again from Derry – praised NME for the “increase in the number of mentions that Northern Ireland” had received in the paper, whilst at the same time chastising it for the lack of any “serious attempt to explain / deal with / open discussion on the real situation”:

  • 110 “Miserable Old Bagger”, Ray Lowry (ed.), NME, 6 June 1981, p. 58.

Last November we had a Gavin Martin article [“Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”] which was a short round up of Belfast music and said nothing about the outside world in the north at all […] Do you really believe that The Outcasts and Rudi [two of the bands covered in Martin’s piece] are more important than H-Block […]110?

  • 111 Ibid.
  • 112 Ibid.

41Notwithstanding the fact that Martin’s piece was much more than “a short round up”, and had engaged with “the outside world” (as outlined above), the point to note here is NME’s response to this letter, which laid stress on the forum-like nature of the paper in addressing such issues, before suggesting – somewhat surprisingly – that if readers wished for a “serious attempt” to address the conflict, then they could peruse a bookshop. “I believe that papers […] like NME”, explained Ray Lowry – that week’s “Gasbag” editor – “should at the least provide a forum for discussion of the wider issues affecting the lives of their readers and those of the people whose doings they chronicle”111. However, he then proceeded to rebuff the reader’s plea for NME to make a more “serious attempt” to engage with the conflict, suggesting: “Bookshops are full of publications detailing the history and present conditions in N. Ireland”112.

42Perhaps this was an admission, on Lowry’s part, that the music press was not commensurate to the task of covering an issue as complex as the Northern Ireland conflict. Whether or not this was the case, it clearly echoed Smith and Murray’s reactions (outlined above), which offset similar appeals by, first, calling on the mainstream media to do more, and, then, rallying readers to submit their views. In directing the latter towards the bookshop, NME again seemed engaged in an act of deflection.

  • 113 “Gasbag”, Paolo Hewitt (ed.), NME, 10 March 1984, p. 58.

43Following this period of intense – if somewhat anxious – coverage of the Troubles, NME underwent a period of apparent withdrawal from the conflict (indeed, it would be more than three years before the paper offered its next substantial address, in November 1984). Significantly, the fact of the paper’s renewed reticence on Northern Ireland would itself provide the focus of readers’ letters to NME. I will explore one key instance of this, before addressing the 1984 article. In March of that year, a letter from a reader (in Galway, Ireland) chastised the paper for its lack of coverage of Northern Ireland: “Whilst NME’s position on Thatcher, Reagan and those far off political revolutions is quite clear, the only indication of recognition of the war in the six counties, usually just in passing, is from the bigoted Tory drivel of [Julie] Burchill and [Tony] Parsons”113.

  • 114 Ibid. (emphases added).

44That week’s “Gasbag” editor, Paolo Hewitt, offered a response that perhaps served as an insight into a prevalent NME view. “The situation in Northern Ireland is a complex matter”, explained Hewitt, “and one that I wouldn’t comment on”114. This admission would, in turn, attract its own ripostes. The first of these (from a reader in County Mayo, Ireland) argued:

  • 115 See “Gasbag”, Penny Reel (ed.), NME, 7 April 1984, p. 42. Danny Morrison was at that time Sinn Féin (...)

Hewitt’s reply […] summed up British attitudes to N Ireland. Paolo wouldn’t comment on it, brushing it away as a complex issue […]. The British media neither knows nor wants to know fuck all about N Ireland […]. Make no mistake, if you support present British policy you support repression and discrimination on a sectarian basis. […] Are you awake? Do you care? You mouth liberal platitudes but I don’t think any of you give a monkey’s. Howsabout interviewing Gerry Adams or Donny [sic] Morrison115.

  • 116 “Gasbag”, Paolo Hewitt (ed.), NME, 28 April 1984, p. 51.

45Meanwhile, another reader wondered why NME was reluctant to comment on the conflict when leading figures on the British left had felt able to express views on it: “If, as Paolo Hewitt said last month, the situation [in Northern Ireland] is ‘too complex’ to comment on, how come Ken Livingstone and Tony Benn have such a good understanding of the subject?”116. Hewitt’s response to this query was marked, once again, by a defensive reticence:

  • 117 Ibid. (original emphasis).

Just because I won’t be drawn on a subject doesn’t automatically mean that there is a “left wing media silence”. If Susan Williams [a pseudonym of NME writer Steven Wells, who was associated with the Socialist Workers Party] or any number of NME writers had answered the letters that week, you’d have got the comment you seem so desperate to receive117.

46Reflecting on this point (with thirty-five years hindsight), Hewitt says:

  • 118 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author.

I remember thinking, it was such an explosive situation, and I just didn’t feel that I could make any comment about it in the way that I could maybe make a comment about Thatcher’s government or the coal-mining strike. […] I just always thought, “woah, woah, woah, I’m not wading into this”118.

Regarding the reaction that this provoked from NME readers, Hewitt recollects, of his outlook at the time:

  • 119 Ibid.

I would’ve just thought, “I’ve made my position clear, I’m not getting involved in this, and you trying to goad me with this isn’t going to work, cos I’m not going near this”. […] People are dying. It’s serious. It’s not, you know, “shall I be a vegetarian?”, you know “Up the Animal Liberation Front!”. […] People were dying119.

  • 120 Ibid.

47Elaborating, retrospectively, on this reticence, Hewitt explains: “I didn’t feel like I had any right to get involved with it. I really didn’t. I didn’t have any experience of it”. In this sense, he suggests that he would have deferred, at the time, to the Northern Ireland-born writers at NME (such as Gavin Martin and Sean O’Hagan), who, he says, had “lived through it [the conflict]”120.

  • 121 See Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal: A Memoir – Adventures, Music, Animal Rights, Tonbridge, Loo (...)
  • 122 See, for instance, Andrew Tyler, “CND Fights March Ban”; Andrew Tyler, “W.O.R.K. No No My Daddy Don (...)
  • 123 Stuart Bailie, interview with the author, 5 June 2019.

48Following this period of apparent caution regarding commentary on the Troubles, the paper would publish, in November 1984, its first full feature article focused solely on the conflict, entitled “Bomb Culture”. Significantly, this article – which seems to have been prompted by the IRA’s bomb attack on the Thatcher Cabinet at Brighton in October 1984 – was authored by Andrew Tyler, who had been a regular music writer at NME in the 1970s, before leaving the paper to report on social issues for mainstream news outlets121. Tyler would, however, return to NME in the early 1980s as an occasional contributor of (non-music) articles, addressing social concerns, such as unemployment, drugs, and the resurgence of the far right122. By November 1984, then, Tyler had acquired a profile, at NME, for “serious” commentary, and was seen, says Stuart Bailie (who wrote for NME in the late 1980s and early 1990s), as “more like a news reporter who dropped in and out of the NME” rather than an in-house music writer123. Deploying Tyler (as opposed to one of the paper’s music writers) to address the Troubles afforded NME’s next intervention on this topic more gravitas, enabling the publication to comment on the conflict more precisely. I will address this article here.

1984: “Troops out?… Who can argue?”

49Tyler’s four-page piece, which was signposted via a striking cover-line on the front page, reading: “Gunpowder! Northern Ireland – A Suspect Device?” (fig. 3), appeared three weeks after the IRA’s bomb attack on the Thatcher Cabinet at Brighton’s Grand Hotel (on 12 October 1984), which took the lives of five people and injured thirty others.

Fig. 3 – NME, 3 November 1984, front page.

Fig. 3 – NME, 3 November 1984, front page.
  • 124 See Trevor Kavanagh, “Hang the IRA Bombers Says Big Sun Poll”, The Sun, 19 October 1984, p. 1; Anon (...)
  • 125 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 126 Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal…, p. 111.

50The attack provoked widespread anger in Britain, and prompted public calls, from figures such as Lord Denning, for the perpetrators to be “hanged for high treason”: “They are just as guilty as Guy Fawkes was 380 years ago”, said Denning after the attack124. This, then, was the immediate context for NME’s emotive cover-line, invoking Fawkes’ “Gunpowder plot”. Although it is difficult to ascertain the process by which the piece came about (Tyler passed away in 2017), Spencer suggests that “it was probably Andrew’s idea”, pointing to the paper’s practice, at the time, of asking writers to provide “the lead as to what [NME] should be doing”125. Moreover, in Tyler’s posthumously published memoir, he reflects on his mid-1980s contributions to NME, noting that the paper “was receptive to substantial pieces from [him] that hit the right socio-political spot”, citing – specifically – an article that “looked at Northern Ireland politics”126, suggesting that he proposed the piece.

51In any case, NME would explicitly link the article (fig. 4) – via a bold-type stand-first – with the (then very recent) Brighton bomb, whilst querying prevailing views of the conflict:

  • 127 Andrew Tyler, “Bomb Culture”, NME, 3 November 1984, p. 29.

We all know the IRA are nuts, they bomb Tory cabinets don’t they? But are they also nuts in Barnsley, Brixton, Toxteth, Moss Side… Or is there a lesson to be learnt from life in Northern Ireland. Andrew Tyler went to Derry to find out127.

Fig. 4 – Andrew Tyler, “Bomb Culture”, NME, 3 November 1984, p. 29.

Fig. 4 – Andrew Tyler, “Bomb Culture”, NME, 3 November 1984, p. 29.
  • 128 Ibid., p. 30-31.

52Although the piece is trailed, in the byline, as a visit to Derry, it details the author’s time in both Derry and Belfast. However, Tyler states that it was in Derry that he “spent most of [his] time for this article” – citing his “four days” in that city – and an image from Bloody Sunday (illustrating the centre-pages of the piece) highlights this locale128.

53Crucially, the article is framed as an intervention against the coverage that the conflict typically received in the British media, with Tyler critiquing press and broadcast accounts. In this context, he observes that the Troubles have been explained to the British public

  • 129 Ibid., p. 29 (original emphasis).

[…] by a particular kind of media coverage designed to spread weariness. All sections of the popular press practise it but none more efficiently than television news which offers up the most precise propaganda images […]. These Irish, the images are saying, they are fucking crazy animals. We hold them apart129.

  • 130 Ibid.

54In countering this, the piece – which is written from, and addressed to, a community overtly hailed as “we English” – claims that media caricatures of the IRA as “twisted perverts” and “mindless hooligans” are at odds with “the British establishment’s own view”, citing a Defence Intelligence report that characterised the IRA leadership as “intelligent, astute and experienced”130. Indeed, the article proceeds to invite sympathy for Sinn Féin by stressing the party’s commonalities with the cosmopolitan Labour left (a constituency with which NME, of course, identified):

  • 131 Ibid.

What we rarely get on the mainland [sic] is Sinn Féin’s avowed doctrine which, aside from the siren call for 32 county autonomy, also includes […] a range of gay, feminist and community-based policies that puts them roughly in the same camp as Livingstone’s GLC [Greater London Council]131.

55Such comments had the effect of steering NME away from the strictly class-based, anti-sectarian stance on the conflict that they had offered in 1980, intimating – instead – at inchoate affinities with Sinn Féin, by emphasising aspects of that party’s outlook that echoed with the views of NME. In this context, the paper, via Tyler, expressed respect for “the sophisticated line [of socialist thought] invoked by the likes of Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison”, underlining this by accentuating Sinn Féin’s leftwards shift, and claiming a concomitant shift among loyalist groups, leading Tyler to speculate that a future class-based coalition could serve to fracture the violent sectarianism associated with Northern Ireland. “In tandem with Sinn Féin’s leftward hike”, relayed Tyler,

  • 132 Ibid. This was perhaps a reference to the Progressive Unionist Party, a left-wing initiative associ (...)

[…] there are factions of the key loyalist groups associated with violence – the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force – that are also beginning to deduce a class struggle, which would make not the Catholics their enemies but the big bosses and the British establishment132.

  • 133 Ibid.

This shift pointed, said Tyler, to what he called “a two-way drift” away from sectarian politics and towards “the prospect of a Catholic-Protestant working class coalescence that has traditionally been considered ‘impossible’”133. If this passage returned the piece to the outlook offered by Martin, then the ensuing portions would position it towards a more republican view.

  • 134 Ibid., p. 30-31.
  • 135 Ibid., p. 31.
  • 136 Ibid.

56Here Tyler records an exchange with Christie Tucker, who is described as an “IRA activist” who had been imprisoned for “eight years in Long Kesh”; Tucker, in turn, acquaints Tyler with Tommy Collins, who, as NME notes, had been engaged in “armed struggle” before being imprisoned for IRA-related activities134. They then both converse with Tyler, “on their own behalf, not for any republican organisation”135. In this context, Tyler relates that the “roots of anger” for both men lay in “the civil rights era” of the late 1960s136.

  • 137 Ibid., p. 30.
  • 138 Ibid., p. 31.
  • 139 Ibid.

57Perhaps in an effort to offset orthodox accounts of the Troubles, the article is not particularly critical of IRA actions, endeavouring instead to clarify (what it calls) the “announced republican strategy”, which is “not”, stresses Tyler, “to harass random Protestants” but “to hit select targets, such as the British soldiers who were killed just before and after I was in town”137. The piece also seeks to repudiate received ideas about republicans being socially conservative or sectarian, noting that neither of its republican interviewees “hold Vatican views on abortion or contraception” or “have hate for Protestants”138. Tyler does detail, however, that Tucker and Collins “continue to support the Provos’ war against the bulwarks of unionism”139.

  • 140 Ibid., p. 32.
  • 141 Ibid.
  • 142 Ibid.
  • 143 Ibid.

58Towards the end of the fourth – and final – page of the piece, Tyler ponders, as an (apparent) afterthought: “But what of the fears on the Protestant side”140. This reflection is followed by a relatively short interview with Gregory Campbell, who at the time was a Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) councillor on Derry City Council, and is described, in the piece, as the “chief political mouthpiece” of Derry Protestants141. While Tucker and Collins – who are granted a much longer interview – appear in a large photograph, the succinct segment on Campbell lacks any corresponding image. In its absence, he receives an unflattering descriptive portrait, with NME imparting that Campbell “espoused the politics of thuggery”, adding that this “turned” Tyler’s “stomach”142. “On such a dismal note we cannot bring this piece to a close”, reflects Tyler, before wondering: “Troops Out? Who can credibly argue against it?”143.

  • 144 Stuart Bailie, interview with the author.

59This overt support for Troops Out, alongside the article’s implied affinity with Sinn Féin (and uneven handling of Tucker / Collins and Campbell), signalled a shift in NME’s stance, with the paper broaching a partisan view. This provoked consternation among some NME readers, not least in Northern Ireland. Stuart Bailie, a music journalist from Belfast (who later wrote for NME), felt at the time that Tyler’s piece had espoused a “very heavy”, “hardline left” point of view: “essentially the message was ‘Troops Out’ […]. And I remember at the time there were intakes of breath […] in Belfast. It was like, ‘Oh Jesus, you know, this is what they [NME] think’”144. Similarly, Barry McIlheney, who at the time wrote for Melody Maker, and had been raised in Belfast, recalls discomfort at Tyler’s piece, and NME’s broader treatment of the Troubles. Reflecting on this in 2019, McIlheney explains:

  • 145 Barry McIlheney, interview with the author, 26 July 2019.

The basic problem with the NME’s coverage of the war in Ireland was that it automatically adopted the prevailing and simplistic pro-republican narrative of the day. Broadly, if you were anti-apartheid and pro-Palestine – and who in their right mind wouldn’t be? – then you were by definition pro-republican. Ergo anti-unionist. Which meant you were clearly setting out your stall against a million people. Among them a host of music-loving, NME-reading, anti-apartheid, pro-Palestine kids such as me. So when something like Andrew Tyler’s infamous “Bomb Culture” piece appeared […] it was hard not to feel that your favourite magazine in the world had already made its mind up and that “sorry son, but you’re no longer welcome here”145.

  • 146 “Gasbag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 17 November 1984, p. 62.
  • 147 Ibid.

60The piece aroused an array of letters, several of which appeared across two issues of NME. Many of these took umbrage with Tyler’s view, expressing objection to the article’s portrayal of Ulster Protestants: “‘Pity the poor misguided protestants’ oozes like festering pus from your article Mr. Tyler”, observed one reader. Others sought to rebut the piece’s endorsement of Troops Out: “‘Troops out? Who can… argue…?’ I can, I’m British – I want to be British”. Elsewhere, the fact that Tyler had not been raised in Northern Ireland was perceived as a problem146. Other missives dismissed Tyler’s detection of a socialist drift among loyalist groups (“there will never ever be a significant movement of Protestants towards full-scale Socialism”), whilst rejecting his claim that the republican movement was non-sectarian: “Sinn Féin’s support for the ‘armed struggle’ is a campaign of genocide against the Protestant population”147.

  • 148 Sean O’Hagan, “Northern Ireland’s Lost Moment: How the Peaceful Protests of ’68 Escalated into Year (...)
  • 149 Sean O’Hagan, “An Accidental Death”, The Observer, 21 April 2002.

61In light of these objections to the republican leanings of the “Bomb Culture” piece, and the fact that its author was not from Northern Ireland, it seems significant that the writer that would act as editor of the letters page in which the first batch of post-“Bomb Culture” letters appeared was Sean O’Hagan. The latter had been raised in a republican milieu in Armagh, Northern Ireland148. O’Hagan has explained that as a youth he often engaged – alongside his peers – in confrontations with the police and military: “I spent many a Saturday in the early 70s”, he recalls, “throwing stones and bottles at the RUC and British Army patrols that regularly skirted the housing estates, playing cat-and-mouse with the snatch squads who hit the ground running from the backs of Saracens and Land Rovers”149.

62Deploying the paper’s only writer who, at that time, came from a republican background in Northern Ireland to deal with the readers’ responses to “Bomb Culture” perhaps served to extend the shift – signalled in that piece – in NME’s stance on the conflict. Strikingly, O’Hagan countered the criticisms levelled by readers at Tyler by citing the sectarianism that had sparked the civil rights initiative in Northern Ireland in the 1960s, arguing that: “[…] the ‘No Surrender’ mob wish for a return to a past which included discrimination against Catholics when it came to jobs, homes and the right to a separate cultural identity”. He went on:

  • 150 “Gasbag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 17 November 1984, p. 62.

Your “Ulster will always be British” tack is about as helpful as “No Surrender” – at least Tyler presented a case whilst you fall back on the kind of sloganeering that helps no one, offers nothing and should have been ditched years ago150.

Moreover, the last letter that appeared in this “Gasbag” – and which served as the final word, so to speak – espoused a republican view:

  • 151 Ibid.

After your much-needed (but long overdue) article about the problems of Northern Ireland, I’m sure that you’ll receive many letters from outraged readers whose main contribution will be a knee-jerk condemnation of your truthful and sympathetic portrayal of the Republican struggle. You will probably be denounced for speaking with IRA and Sinn Féin supporters, who will be predictably described as “Religious bigots, murderers and psychopaths” […] I would therefore like to say that your article was not only serious and intelligent, but also productive; it actually gave practical suggestions (eg the Troops Out movement) rather than indulging in an orgy of hand-wringing and empty moralising. It was also well-researched and (rare for the NME) unpretentious151.

63Not only was this letter granted a privileged place at the end of “Gasbag”, but it also received no remark from O’Hagan, thus implying endorsement. The readership’s reaction to “Bomb Culture” would, however, continue in the next week’s paper. Significantly, the first missive to appear there came from a musician, Paul Burgess (of the Belfast punk band, Ruefrex), who explained that – prior to the publication of “Bomb Culture” – he had been contacted by NME with a view to him accompanying Tyler in Belfast:

  • 152 “Gasbag”, Andy Gill (ed.), NME, 24 November 1984, p. 58.

When researching your piece for “Bomb culture”, you professed a wish to spend some time in Belfast with myself as your guide. However your time in Derry overran and you returned to write the article, as I feared, comparatively “mono-informed”152.

  • 153 Ibid.

64Burgess then chastised the paper’s inadequate engagement with “the Protestant working classes”, suggesting that its effort to cover the latter via “a brief drive down the Shankill Road, and a talk with some hard line Paisleyite” was – “in an article of this size and importance” – “criminal negligence”. His main objection to the piece centred, then, on “what it omits”. Another letter from Belfast expressed a similar view, claiming that Tyler was “risking his reputation by spouting about Ireland after a two-minute visit”, before concluding: “Why is it that the only protestant permitted to speak in the article was the most reactionary you could dig up?”153.

  • 154 Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal…, p. 111.

65This was, perhaps, the first time that NME had been chastised for the way in which it had handled the conflict, for most complaints on this topic in the past had addressed the paper’s lack of attention to it. The Tyler piece, though – with its overt asymmetries – provoked criticism not only for its preferential view of republicans, but also for the way it portrayed Protestants. Significantly, Tyler would recall, in his memoir, that his research for this piece had included a meeting with an “English soldier who’d been posted to Northern Ireland”, and who had “a compelling story to tell”154. If such an interview took place, it did not appear in the article.

  • 155 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author

66Although it had taken NME four years – following Martin’s feature – to return to Northern Ireland, the paper would come back to the topic much more quickly after the “Bomb Culture” piece. As mentioned above, a letter had appeared in NME in 1984 enquiring why the paper had not interviewed Gerry Adams, then president of Sinn Féin, or Danny Morrison, who at the time was Sinn Féin’s director of publicity. Whether or not it was prompted by this reader, by 1986, the paper had sought to speak with Adams, after contacting Morrison155. This endeavour would lead, moreover, to the curation of NME’s special issue on Northern Ireland, which came together through rather complex (not to say contradictory) means. I will explore this issue here.

1986: “Perilous waters… without a map”

  • 156 Ibid.; Mark Sinker, interview with the author.
  • 157 Neil Spencer, “Ten Years in an Open Plan Office”, NME, 20 July 1985, p. 3.
  • 158 Danny Kelly, interview with the author; Mark Sinker, interview with the author; Paul Gorman, In The (...)
  • 159 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.

67NME’s coverage of the conflict peaked with the publication of a special themed issue on this topic in 1986. The driving force behind this issue, which featured five distinct articles focused on Northern Ireland, seems to have been Stuart Cosgrove, who was then a leading figure at the paper through his role as media editor156. However, in the period after Spencer’s departure as editor in 1985157, Cosgrove accrued even greater power in the NME office, emerging as a dominant voice after the appointment of Spencer’s replacement, Ian Pye, who was seen by staff as a somewhat ineffectual editor158. Indeed, though Pye was formally in charge of NME, Cosgrove would often act, suggests Gavin Martin – who was then a senior writer at the paper – as “the major force in deciding editorial policy”159.

  • 160 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.
  • 161 Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery…”, p. 131.

68During this period, Cosgrove felt that NME “should do more on Ireland”, sensing, along with O’Hagan, that “this subject was being virtually ignored”, not least by the British left (with which the paper was, of course, bound up), who often seemed, says Cosgrove, “reluctant to deal with Northern Ireland”160, a point confirmed by the fact that Britain’s leading left-wing journal, the New Left Review, failed to publish a discrete piece on this topic during the 1980s161.

  • 162 For an account of such musicians, see Sean Campbell, “‘Agitate, Educate, Organise’: Partisanship, P (...)
  • 163 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.
  • 164 Ibid.
  • 165 Ibid. For an account of this context, see Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…, p. 251-259.

69As Cosgrove explains, there were two specific motivations for NME extending its coverage of the Troubles. First, there was, he says, “a vested interest element to this for the paper” in that a number of bands then popular with NME readers hailed from the island of Ireland and had, in various ways, invoked the conflict, and thus some coverage of this was required to contextualise their work162. Second, Cosgrove felt, in his capacity as media editor, that it was part of his “job spec” (as he puts it) to address contemporary media issues, and “one of the biggest [such] issues around”, he says, was media coverage of Northern Ireland. “The more establishment mainstream media [at that time] were rock solid scared of Ireland”, recalls Cosgrove163. In this context, his wish for NME to address the conflict was informed by a broader concern with “subjects that the mainstream media seemed frightened of”, with Northern Ireland becoming, during that period, the key current-affairs issue that “spooked people”164. Part of the immediate context for this – in the months leading up to NME’s special issue – lay in the BBC’s Real Lives crisis, which had unfolded during the previous year165.

  • 166 Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…, p. 253.
  • 167 Ibid., p. 251-259.

70This crisis centred on a planned BBC television documentary on the Troubles entitled Real Lives: The Edge of the Union that (controversially) included an interview with Martin McGuinness. Prior to the announcement of the film, Margaret Thatcher had made a (now famous) speech, calling on media to “starve the terrorist […] of the oxygen of publicity”166, which sent a clear signal to journalists seeking to engage with the conflict. Her government would, indeed, intervene with the Real Lives film, leading to its withdrawal, and prompting a highly publicised BBC strike167.

  • 168 Ibid., p. 254, 256.
  • 169 Ibid., p. 256-257.

71The controversy had begun when the (then) British Home Secretary, Leon Brittan – who felt that an interview with McGuinness could “give succour” to Sinn Féin and the IRA – expressed his concerns to the BBC, whose Board of Governors conceded that the programme should not be broadcast in its intended form168. This, in turn, provoked a high-profile strike, in which “2,000 BBC journalists and staff staged an unprecedented walk out and NCA [news and current affairs] programming on television and radio was blacked out”169. Although the planned programme, including the McGuinness interview, would eventually be shown, the issues that the controversy raised – about the media’s capacity to cover Irish republicanism – became a key censorship issue in Britain at that time (as evidenced by the introduction of the “broadcasting ban” in 1988).

  • 170 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.
  • 171 Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.
  • 172 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.
  • 173 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

72The Real Lives crisis was, then, part of the immediate context for NME’s 1986 special issue. Planning for the issue appears to have begun with Cosgrove seeking an interview with the leadership of Sinn Féin170. The “motivation” for this was – in the words of the former NME writer Lucy O’Brien – to “get the voice of the IRA and Sinn Féin” in the paper, and thus afford them “a platform, at a time when they were being denied a voice”171. This suggests that the inclusion of such views in the NME did not constitute an overt endorsement; rather it sought to ensure that republican perspectives were publicly aired. In this context, Spencer reflects that, during his editorship of NME (1978-1985), none of the writers “held any brief for Sinn Féin”. “I can’t think of anybody ever sticking up for those people”, he relates, only conceding that there might have been “a sort of possibly misplaced sense of romanticism” towards Irish republicanism172. Cosgrove extends this point, explaining that while NME was “not a republican paper”, “it was perceived that republican communities […] were more attuned to the values of the NME”. “Of the various traditions within Northern Ireland”, he suggests, “the republican movement was closer to the NME”, not least because unionist politics “tended to be further to the right”173.

  • 174 Ibid.; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.
  • 175 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.
  • 176 Ibid.

73In any case, Cosgrove made contact with Morrison at Sinn Féin’s office in Belfast, with a view to meeting Adams174. However, this plan would gradually switch, says Cosgrove, “for a whole range of reasons”, not the least of which was the fact that NME wished, in his words, “to report from Derry” (because of its musical associations with bands such as The Undertones and That Petrol Emotion), more than Belfast175. Cosgrove’s interview would, in turn, be with Martin McGuinness, a native and resident of Derry. McGuinness was also, as Cosgrove notes, “a hugely controversial character, a hugely divisive character”, and a figure, he says, “that the British state truly hated”. In this context, “getting an interview with him wasn’t simple”, says Cosgrove: “we had to negotiate it”176. Once arranged, Cosgrove travelled to Derry, where the interview was staged in the city’s Bogside, a republican enclave. He recounts the complex arrangements that preceded the rendezvous:

  • 177 Ibid.

I was taken to a small house in the Bogside […] [and] they put a kind of blindfold around me […] over my eyes […] to slightly disorientate me to where I was going, and then I was led out the back door, and up through a back stairwell of a garden, and into another house, and then round another house, and up to a third house, and then brought out to this road where a car was parked. I get up to the top and I’m put into the back of this car. By this time, the face mask has come off. And I’m sitting right behind this man, who’s in the passenger seat, and I’m in the back seat […]. The guy in the passenger seat was Martin McGuinness […]. So we began the interview177.

  • 178 Ibid.

74The conversation was marked, says Cosgrove, by “a degree of caution, even nervousness on both sides”. McGuinness seemed “very tense”, he reflects. Similarly, Cosgrove was, not unexpectedly, quite anxious: “‘Shitting it’ might be the best colloquial expression”, he recalls178. Consequently, the dynamics of the interview were somewhat circumscribed. In this context, Cosgrove explains: “I wasn’t going to exactly argue or threaten him or anything like that ’cos it was not that kind of environment”. However, it seems that there was also a degree of compatibility between much of what McGuinness said – in terms of his political views – and what Cosgrove at the time felt. Reflecting on this (with more than three decades hindsight), Cosgrove suggests that:

  • 179 Ibid.

The only thing I can remember sort of disagreeing with him about [was the phrase] “I take my politics from home, and my religion from Rome”, and whilst it’s a nice little kind of catchphrase, I kind of felt it let him off the hook on what I would call the less savoury elements of kind of Vatican theology at that time, issues like abortion or contraception179.

  • 180 Ibid.
  • 181 Ibid.

75For Cosgrove, these were issues that “made you question whether as a progressive politician taking your religion from Rome is always necessarily the best thing to do”. “But that was the only thing that I remember him saying that I felt was contentious”, Cosgrove says. “The rest of the things were kind of fairly mainstream republican politics […]. I’m a Scottish republican myself so I didn’t find a lot of it kind of challenging”180. To be fair to Cosgrove, though, he did refer, during the interview, to the fact that his cousin, Philip Geddes, had been killed in the IRA bombing of Harrods in London in 1983. Although McGuinness’ response to this point was, he says, “respectful”, Cosgrove decided – “for reasons now buried in time” – to exclude this exchange from the article181.

76After the interview had concluded, Cosgrove evidently informed McGuinness of his wish for the published article to be featured on the NME cover, suggesting that the potential for this would be assisted by a striking image that evoked the interview’s themes. Recounting this point, Cosgrove explains:

  • 182 Ibid.

I said to Martin McGuinness, “Martin, one of the things that we actually need is photographs”. And I said “there’s a debate that we might put this on the front page”. I always knew that was going to be fairly tricky because the NME didn’t really like politics on the front cover, they preferred bands. And so I had this conversation with him and I said: “We’re looking for what might make a good photograph for the NME”, and he said to me, jokingly: “Do you not think I cut it as an NME front cover star?” And I said: “well, no, not really”. And he said “what could you do?” And I said “I know it may be a wee bit of a cliché, but we could take some young active service volunteers and maybe photograph them against the graffiti or the Derry walls or something like that” […]. So we chatted about that and within maybe something like ten minutes his team had assembled four young men in balaclavas who were armed. They were armed volunteers182.

  • 183 It has, moreover, proved impossible to locate the photographs. Those that appear in the issue are c (...)

77At this point, the photographer who had accompanied Cosgrove to Derry took shots of the four figures for the proposed NME cover, although none of these subsequently appeared in the issue, either on the front cover (which in the end featured the Irish boxer, Barry McGuigan), or in the McGuinness piece183. Instead, the interview was illustrated with a conventional photograph of McGuinness outside a republican information centre in Derry.

  • 184 This anxiety to produce coverage that appeared balanced often permeated Troubles coverage, particul (...)
  • 185 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

78Before addressing the article, it is necessary to first of all note that, prior to its publication, a significant change emerged in NME’s conceptualisation of the piece, with the paper electing to append an additional interview – with an Ulster unionist figure – in order to afford some ostensible balance to its McGuinness coverage184. As Cosgrove explains, this wish to complement the McGuinness piece with a corresponding exchange with a unionist spokesperson “came about out of the crude kind of BBC idea of balance”, and hence was “a fudge”, in the sense of an unsatisfactory equivocation185. The paper would, then, seek to amend its initial (“underground”-informed) impetus for the McGuinness interview by re-conceiving the coverage, from an editorial perspective, within a quasi-public-service framework, and with concern for “balance”.

  • 186 Mark Sinker, interview with the author.
  • 187 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.
  • 188 Ibid.
  • 189 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

79This shift appears to have emerged from the office of the then editor, Ian Pye. Mark Sinker, a contributor to NME in the 1980s, suggests that Pye often “dealt with conflict” in the paper by “moving around” articles in “a bureaucratic way, so that they balanced”186. In the ensuing effort to offset the McGuinness interview by adding an exchange with a unionist MP, Gavin Martin was dispatched to Belfast to speak with Peter Robinson, the (then) deputy leader of the DUP, who at the time was seen, says Martin, as a unionist equivalent of McGuinness. “They decided that they needed to leaven it”, relates Martin, “and put the other side of the equation”. This wish to extend coverage to (what Martin calls) “both sides of the thing”187 was, of course, entirely reasonable, particularly in light of the criticism that the paper had received, in 1984, for its asymmetric treatment of the conflict. The plan to append the Robinson piece was, nonetheless, problematic in two key ways. First, as Martin explains, the plan for him to conduct the interview was “a rather crass bit of typecasting”: “the nominal Protestant in the office was seconded to go over” and meet Robinson188. Second, it is clear that Martin, in marked contrast to Cosgrove (who had, of course, wanted to interview McGuinness, and sympathised with at least some of his views), had no wish to speak with Robinson, and was not, as Cosgrove notes, “a fan” of the DUP189.

  • 190 Gavin Martin, interview with the author; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.
  • 191 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.

80Moreover, while Martin recognised that part of the reasoning for the McGuinness article emerged from a concern with censorship190, he is, in retrospect, sceptical of the coverage. “What the hell was the NME doing, really, interviewing these people?”, he wonders, adding: “Perilous waters to be treading in without a map”. “What was the goal or the aim?”, asks Martin, expressing regret for his involvement in the piece: “It makes me sick to my stomach to think that […] we were giving propaganda space to these two poisonous men”191. Whether or not NME should have offered a platform to such figures, it is clear that the reason for including the Robinson interview (to contrive a sort of balance) was in the end undermined by the fact that Cosgrove’s account of McGuinness was quite sympathetic, while Martin’s portrait of Robinson was hostile; thus, if “balance” was achieved, it was only through the fact that both politicians appeared, rather than via the way that they were viewed or handled.

81This points to a crucial flaw in the special issue: NME set out, in this effort, to critique mainstream coverage of the conflict, and afford space to sidelined views (specifically those of Irish republicans). However, in the process of production, the issue was repositioned towards a (more) “public-service” approach, albeit unsatisfactorily. This raises a key dilemma regarding NME’s role: was it a counter-cultural platform (like the “underground” press on which it drew), or was it a “public-service” outlet, addressing issues in quasi-balanced ways. Whilst the paper had expressed emphatic views – in partisan ways – on key political themes (such as the 1984-1985 miners’ strike, or Apartheid in South Africa), on the question of Northern Ireland, it could not speak unequivocally.

82This wish to seem “balanced” was rendered explicit in the paper’s layout and presentation of the McGuinness and Robinson interviews, which appeared – in the end – as a single piece, with a shared stand-first, on the same double-page spread, as if the interviews had been conceived and conducted at the same time, thus bequeathing a veneer of (preplanned) editorial / ideological balance on NME’s part. Ironically, though, the contrived proximity of the published interviews had the effect of amplifying the prevailing predilections of the NME office at that time, which – whilst not overtly republican or pro-IRA – were perceptibly more disposed to the politics of Sinn Féin than they were to the values of the DUP.

  • 192 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 24-25.
  • 193 At the time, a popular television advert for Del Monte orange juice featured the catchphrase: “The (...)

83The paper’s preferences were pronounced across the McGuinness / Robinson piece (fig. 5). Even its byline displayed a subtle bias, chronicling that Cosgrove “met with McGuinness in the Bogside”, whilst Martin “interviewed Robinson at Stormont”192. This is underscored by certain graphic qualities. Each side of the double-page spread is illustrated with two images; the left, focused on McGuinness, features a photo of the famous “Free Derry” wall, as well as a middle-distance shot of McGuinness (taken by NME), wearing a plain sweater, and facing the camera, outside a drab building (with mesh windows), whose signage reads: “Republican information centre”. Conversely, the Robinson piece, on the right-hand page, is illustrated with a (Press Association) close-up of a besuited, bespectacled Robinson, looking somewhat stern, and glancing off camera, alongside an image of Belfast City Hall, bedecked in a banner that reads: “Belfast Says No”, and captioned with the (at the time) widely-circulated joke: “But the man from Del Monte says ‘Yes!’”193.

Fig. 5 – Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, NME, 10 May 1986, p. 24-25.

Fig. 5 – Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, NME, 10 May 1986, p. 24-25.

84Whilst the respective photographs of McGuinness and Robinson present a clear contrast, the distinction between (and positioning of) the location shots is more striking, with the “Free Derry” wall appearing at the top left-hand side of the double-page feature (thus framing the interviews), while the “Belfast Says No” photo is placed at the bottom right-hand side, thus pictorially punctuating the piece. The geo-political binaries invoked here (Derry / Belfast, republicanism / unionism) thus commence with an image conjuring “freedom”, and culminate in one connoting negation.

  • 194 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 24.

85This visual scheme is echoed in the respective interviews. Though the McGuinness piece does not shy away from his association with paramilitary activism (noting that he is “alleged […] to be Chief of Staff of the IRA”)194, the article seeks to make sense of (rather than dismiss) its interviewee’s politics. It explores four key themes: the mainstream media’s coverage of the conflict (and its treatment of Sinn Féin); the legitimacy of political violence; McGuinness’ political formation; and the perceived tensions between Catholicism and socialism.

  • 195 Ibid.

86The feature begins with a critique of media accounts of Sinn Féin, referencing the Real Lives film, and reflecting on the restricted coverage received by the republican movement, whilst stressing NME’s wish to intervene against mainstream reportage. Thus, Cosgrove explains that “Whilst the Provos engage in a war with the British army, Sinn Féin struggle to promote their Republican socialist cause against an establishment media which is directly opposed to all they stand for”195. If the tone here invites sympathy, it also suggests affinities between the outlook of NME and that of Sinn Féin, both of whom, at the time, saw themselves as espousing a “socialist cause against an establishment media”. However, the key way in which NME addressed the conflict – in this special issue – was via an anti-censorship stance. Rather than overtly taking sides, then, the paper set out a case for granting space to the republican view, on the grounds that it was more marginalised (or mischaracterised) in the mainstream mediascape. In this context, Cosgrove quotes McGuinness, in the piece, explaining:

[…] there is very heavy censorship of the Sinn Féin position, of the Republican position generally, and […] people haven’t had the opportunity to make a fair assessment based on the facts. The media has not given Irish Republican spokespersons the opportunity to articulate our policies, in the same way they have afforded opportunities to, for example, Ian Paisley and the Unionists.

  • 196 Ibid.
  • 197 Ibid.

Consequently, for McGuinness, “the Republican position is virtually unknown”196. The latter also points, in the piece, to overt censorship of Irish republicans on British media platforms, citing the apparent practice of “British newspapers and British-based television companies making programmes about Ireland without ever contacting a spokesperson for the Republican movement”. In this way, the British Government had, McGuinness claimed: “[…] very cleverly engineered a situation where we cannot either be seen or heard through the media”197. This suggestion (that Sinn Féin had been subjected to de facto censorship) was, of course, the very premise on which NME had conceived the interview, though this wish was, of course, obscured in the paper’s gradual switch towards “balance”.

  • 198 Ibid.
  • 199 Ibid.
  • 200 Ibid.

87A more problematic theme than this was, of course, that of paramilitary violence. On this point, McGuinness was unequivocal: “[…] the IRA have the right to use armed struggle to end what I believe to be an evil form of government in this part of Ireland”198. At this point in the exchange, Cosgrove poses a brace of questions related to the Harrods bombing. The first seems to hail very much from Cosgrove’s own point of view (in that his cousin had been killed in the bombing): “[…] many people, including people who are sympathetic to Republican politics, see your defence of the armed struggle as part of a policy of violent actions that includes indiscriminate bombings like that which occurred at Harrods”. Cosgrove appends this point with his most combative query, probing Sinn Féin’s socialism: “Surely you don’t justify that [bombings of retail stores] in the name of socialism?”. Stating that “the bombing of Harrods was seen by almost everyone in Britain as an atrocious act”, Cosgrove suggests that the attack was “of a different status than violence between the IRA and members of the British army”199. At this point, McGuinness replies that “After the Harrods bombing you did have a statement from the IRA saying that this particular type of operation was not acceptable to them”. Thus, while McGuinness “unambiguously defends” (as Cosgrove notes in the piece) “the killing of ‘legitimate targets’”, he adds that “there shouldn’t be civilian bombings” (a nuance that perhaps made the Sinn Féin position on paramilitary action more palatable to NME)200.

88The article then turns attention – on a separate page, thereby extending the interview in a manner not afforded to Robinson – to its final two points: McGuinness’ political formation, and the possible tensions been Catholicism and socialism. The first of these undoubtedly has the effect of rendering McGuinness more relatable to the reader, and summons sympathy for the standpoint he has reached. “What personal events led to McGuinness’ politicisation?”, ponders Cosgrove. In turn, McGuinness suggests that the “significant step” was “the situation at the time of the Civil Rights campaign in 1968 when we were demanding ‘one person, one vote’ and […] the Unionist establishment were not willing to grant it”. “That led”, he relates, “to a stand-up battle between the people of this area [the Bogside] and the RUC, who would constantly invade the area, beating people in their homes”. Such events had, he recalls:

[…] a traumatic effect on me. Out of the trauma came a realisation that what was happening was not simply a question of the right to vote, it was about the national question, and my opinion that there would never be peace in this country until that was resolved.

  • 201 Ibid., p. 27.
  • 202 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship…”, p. 234.

This realisation was underlined, he says, on 9 August 1971, the day that internment was introduced in Northern Ireland. “My life changed absolutely [on that day]”, McGuinness says: “I was just working normally, like any other person; but then my home was raided by British soldiers”201. In light of the fact that such comments appeared during a period in which the British government (and much of the country’s mainstream media) were seeking – in Max Pettigrew’s words – to “depoliticise and de-legitimise the motivations of the republican movement by representing republicans as ‘terrorists’ and ‘criminals’”202, this piece – in common with the Tyler feature two years earlier – presented an alternate view, ascribing reason to republicanism.

  • 203 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 27.

89The final topic explored by NME in the piece is how McGuinness reconciled Catholic teachings with socialist policies. In this context, Cosgrove wondered if the historical association of Irish republicanism with both Catholicism and socialism contained “a contradiction”. At this point, McGuinness deployed the above-mentioned line – “we take our religion from Rome and our politics from home” – with which Cosgrove took issue. Nevertheless, McGuinness did concede, in the interview, to encountering certain dilemmas in assimilating his faith and politics. “I have problems within the church with certain aspects of Catholic theology that do not square with my socialism”, he explained, pointing to the view of the Church on “homosexuals” and “divorcees”203. Such concessions (whether consciously or not) helped bequeath an impression of Sinn Féin that was less at variance with the outlook of NME.

  • 204 Ibid., p. 25.

90The tone of the Robinson piece is quite different. It begins with a quote from the latter invoking his “love” for “the monarchy, the flag, the symbols of the state” (situating him in opposition to the “underground” values of NME), while Martin informs readers that “Robinson is so keen to prove his Britishness that he […] will fight against British law in order to stay British!”. In marked contrast to the amenable and open-minded introduction that NME afforded McGuinness, then, Robinson is flagrantly mocked. At the same time, though, Martin is keen to castigate – in a manner which mirrored much of his commentary on the conflict – both the DUP and Sinn Féin: “Robinson’s brand of politics”, he explained, “is every bit as dogmatic and dangerous as Republican extremism”204.

  • 205 The Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign was launched in the late 1970s by Ian Paisley, the then leader (...)
  • 206 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 25.

91It seems clear at this point, then, that Cosgrove and Martin hold different views: the former had not characterised McGuinness – who, as Sinn Féin deputy, and alleged Chief of Staff of the IRA, could be viewed as an “extremist” – as remotely “dogmatic” or “dangerous”. In contrast, Martin sees Robinson’s “fiery rhetoric and barely veiled threats” as exacerbating the conflict, claiming that “hypocrisy, contradiction and illogic are recurring undertones in [Robinson]’s polemic”. Martin also lays stress on Robinson’s support for the Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign, an initiative that would have been starkly at odds with the ethos of NME205. In what is perhaps the most damning line in the piece, though, Martin relates that Robinson “looks the politician most likely to cross over” the “fine line between militant Unionism and paramilitary activity”206. Thus, though relatively little attention was paid in the McGuinness interview to his alleged role as IRA Chief of Staff, special reference is made, on the adjacent page, to Robinson’s paramilitary potential. If some sort of “balance” had been achieved, then, by adding the Robinson piece, it was only through simple inclusion, rather than treatment or handling. Of course, NME was not, at the end of the day, a “public-service” outlet, but a left-leaning, youth-cultural platform with a special debt to the “underground” press. Thus, it was unlikely to be equitable in appraising the DUP against Sinn Féin. In the process of producing the 1986 special issue, the paper became caught in a conundrum regarding its own ethos and codes, initially conceiving the coverage through an oppositional lens, before switching, once the McGuinness piece was complete, towards a sort of “public-service” stance. Ironically, though, the adjacent placing of the McGuinness and Robinson interviews that this shift brought about only served to foreground NME’s preferences. This would, in turn, prompt multiple letters of complaint.

  • 207 “Big Baad Bag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), p. 50.
  • 208 Ibid.

92Significantly, Sean O’Hagan would (again) respond to the readers’ views. The first such letter (from a reader in Lossiemouth in Scotland) enquired: “When will hacks of the music press and NME in particular stop pontificating on ‘the troubles’ in N. Ireland? We read article after article full of endless clichés that say and solve nothing”. Such articles “invariably adopt”, the reader claimed, “the trendy pro-Left wing (ie Republican) stance and portray any Loyalist viewpoint as the ramblings of some neo-fascist crackpot”. The reader then chastised the “hacks” who had issued commentary on the conflict for being “naively ignorant of the facts and totally unqualified to write about the problems of Ulster”207. O’Hagan’s response stressed the original aim of the special issue. “The N. Ireland articles weren’t out to ‘solve’ anything”, relayed O’Hagan, but were instead “an attempt to rupture the prevailing media silence that hangs over Britain’s longest war”. With regards to the view that NME’s writers were “ignorant” and “unqualified”, O’Hagan explained: “Both Gavin and myself were born and bred in Northern Ireland”208.

  • 209 Ibid.
  • 210 Ibid.

93A similar missive (from a reader in Edinburgh) staged a short parody of the McGuinness / Robinson interviews, reducing the exchanges to a pair of highly exaggerated questions in order to highlight the paper’s bias. A comically uncritical one for McGuinness (“Well, Martin, tell us how Sinn Féin has been pursuing the struggle for a free and just Ireland ridden of British oppression?”) was followed by a menacingly sectarian one for Robinson (“You raving Ulster proddies are all the same. The sooner our boys, the Freedom Fighters in green, get you, the better!”) before the reader exclaimed, in their own voice: “And Republicanism has got bugger all to do with socialism”209. This question of whether Sinn Féin could be considered socialist emerged in many readers’ letters following the special issue. In this context, one reader (from Belfast) explained: “I am sickened to read that Martin McGuinness in any way considers himself a ‘socialist’. His references to ‘our socialism’ are McGuinness-speak for largely unjustified acts of murder and intimidation, part of a concerted campaign of violence”. The reader then went on to enfold Robinson in their socialist critique of sectarianism: “[…] people like McGuinness and Peter Robinson promote the politics of working class division along sectarian lines […] The cause of socialism in the province will be continually held back as long as it is associated with people like McGuinness”210.

  • 211 Ibid.
  • 212 Ibid.
  • 213 “Big Baad Bag”, Steven Wells (ed.), NME, 21 June 1986, p. 54.

94While Gavin Martin would, at least in retrospect, express a similar view, O’Hagan endeavoured, at the time, to advance a case for Sinn Féin’s socialism. “I personally think”, he replied, “the issue of self-determination for Ireland has a great deal to do with socialism and the idea of Britain dividing a country, then upholding the ‘Britishness’ of the colonial state is, surely, the vast antithesis of socialism”. For O’Hagan, then, “the ideals” that had been “espouse[d]” by “the republican movement” should “find favour with any socialist”211. Three other letters appeared in that week’s issue, sequenced after the critiques outlined above, and which praised NME’s coverage in the special issue, stressing that it was “refreshing to find argument and analysis from both points of view”, and applauding the paper for the “time, space and group of writers” that it had “devoted” to the topic212. More letters appeared in the following weeks, including one (from Kenilworth in England) that took exception to NME’s habit of using “Gasbag” to host debates on the Troubles: “When I pick up the NME it pisses me off to find a letters page devoted entirely to Northern Ireland”, the reader explained213.

  • 214 Denis Campbell, “A Deafening Silence”, NME, 21 March 1987, p. 34.
  • 215 Ibid.
  • 216 Steven Wells, “God Save Us from the USA”, NME, 11 June 1988, p. 29.
  • 217 Anonymous, “Strummer Slams ‘State Terrorism’”, NME, 21 May 1988, p. 5; Anonymous, “Pogues Fall from (...)
  • 218 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 171-173; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’B (...)
  • 219 Simon Reynolds, “Return of the Inkies”, New Statesman and Society, 31 August 1990, p. 26.

95In the six years since 1980, then, “Gasbag” had gone from registering readers’ complaints about NME’s lack of engagement with the conflict, to printing claims that it had granted too much space to this issue. Indeed, the paper would begin to withdraw from this topic, publishing its final piece on the conflict in March 1987, addressing (again) the issue of inadequate media coverage, and describing Northern Ireland as “the British media’s enduring blind spot”214. This article thus returned NME’s engagement with the Troubles to the debate initiated by the reader from Derry in August 1980215, exploring a theme (the paucity of media reports) that served as a safe and uncontroversial means by which to address the conflict. Subsequent invocations of the Troubles would be restricted to en passant comments by outspoken writers such as Steven Wells216. Indeed, when major events related to the conflict occurred, such as the Gibraltar killings in March 1988, or the “broadcasting ban” in October 1988, they were addressed via short news items, rather than lengthy articles217. Furthermore, NME would turn, at this time, away from politics per se, following a series of personnel changes that its publisher, IPC, forced on the paper in reaction to a front page endorsement of Neil Kinnock in the 1987 General Election, as well as in the aftermath of a withdrawn censorship cover later that year (that saw many staff, including Cosgrove, leave NME)218. By the end of the 1980s, then, the paper had exchanged its “highly politicised” outlook for what Simon Reynolds has called “a more tabloid, populist” ethos219.

Conclusion

  • 220 Danny Kelly, interview with the author.
  • 221 Ibid.

96Although NME strove to engage with the Irish conflict, it could not achieve consensus on it among its staff or readers. As Danny Kelly observes, coverage of any social conflict that is “in the nature of civil war” (such as that of the Troubles in Northern Ireland) will necessarily attract claims that it is “biased one way or the other”. “That’s the problem of reporting what’s going on in Northern Ireland”, he explains, “whichever way your piece leaned, you were going to get criticism”220. Moreover, Kelly questions the very possibility of a popular-cultural publication, such as NME, engaging with what he calls “serious” politics, suggesting that while “all writing about art has to be ‘small p’ political”, when such discourse becomes “properly political, overtly political, ‘big P’ political” – particularly in the pages of the music press – it seems, in his words, “clunky”221.

  • 222 Len Brown, interview with the author, 20 July 2020.
  • 223 For examples of this coverage, see Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War
  • 224 Stephanie Boland, “As Brexit Comes Closer, British Ignorance about Ireland Becomes Unforgivable”, P (...)

97Whether or not this is true, NME at least sought (and often struggled) to offer coverage of the conflict at a time when many “serious” publications eschewed it. The paper pursued a range of different positions on the topic, from deploying it as background in tour reports, to surveying readers’ views, shifting from reticence (i.e. not commenting) to redirection (encouraging other outlets to speak), whilst admonishing mainstream media coverage, before expressing anti-sectarian, class-based views, ahead of its endorsements of “Troops Out”, and signalling of affinities with republicanism, before it returned to the safer terrain of media critique. The paper’s shifting views and approaches were born, in part, of the practicalities of convening a weekly publication (to a tight deadline) in a collaborative (and often conflicted) workspace222, but also point to a tension, at the heart of NME, between a wish to act as an oppositional outlet (for example by endorsing Irish republicanism), and an inclination to operate as a “public-service” platform (by presenting both republican and unionist views). The fact that NME did not overlook the conflict, nor adhere to the often simplistic coverage offered by much of the mainstream press223, is surely noteworthy. The content excavated here serves, alongside the insights afforded by the interviews, to illuminate the operations of a high-profile print outlet in its interventions on the Irish conflict, unveiling the issues that emerged when a music paper endeavoured to engage with political concerns. If other media outlets had made a commensurate effort to address the conflict, then perhaps the British public (both at the time and in the context of the recent “Brexit” crisis) might have accrued a more nuanced conception of the conflict, and Anglo-Irish politics in general224.

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Notes

1 This title serves as a self-conscious echo of Robert Savage’s study of the BBC and the Northern Ireland conflict (Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2015).

2 For an account of such work, see Caroline Magennis, “In Derry Girls and Milkman, Teenage Girls Dance through the Troubles”, Prospect, 4 March 2019; Alison Flood, “David Keenan’s Troubles Novel For the Good Times Wins Gordon Burn Prize”, The Guardian, 11 October 2019.

3 David Keenan, “Top 10 Books about the Troubles”, The Guardian, 30 January 2019.

4 Oliver Wright, “Is an Irish Backstop Breakthrough on the Horizon?”, The Times, 11 September 2019; Patrick Cockburn, “If the Troubles Return after Brexit, It Won’t Just Be Because of the Irish Border Issue”, The Independent, 31 August 2018.

5 Brian Hutton, “Thatcher ‘Switches Off’ when Northern Ireland Comes Up”, The Irish Times, 28 December 2019.

6 See, for example, Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery: The British Left and Ireland”, New Left Review, July-August 1995, p. 131.

7 Festival 40: What Do You Think of It So Far?, BBC2, 29 August 1976. Mackintosh’s comments in this broadcast were reprinted in the Campaign for Free Speech on Ireland, The British Media and Ireland. Truth: The First Casualty, London, Information on Ireland, 1978, p. 7.

8 David Miller, Don’t Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London, Pluto, 1994, p. 3.

9 Ibid., p. 58.

10 Peter Taylor, “Reporting Northern Ireland”, in The British Media and Ireland: Truth – The First Casualty, Campaign for Free Speech on Ireland (ed.), London, Information on Ireland, 1979, p. 22.

11 David Elstein, “Why Can’t We Broadcast the Truth?”, in The British Media and Ireland…, p. 14.

12 Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War. The British Media and the “Battle for Hearts and Minds”, London, Pluto, 1984, p. 1.

13 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland: A Case Study in the Reporting of Violent Political Conflict, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 1987, p. 110.

14 See, for example, David Butler, The Trouble with Reporting Northern Ireland: The British State, the Broadcast Media and Nonfictional Representation of the Conflict, Aldershot, Avebury, 1995; Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War…; David Miller, Don’t Mention the War…; The Media and Northern Ireland: Covering the Troubles, Bill Rolston (ed.), London, Palgrave, 1991; War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader, Bill Rolston, David Miller (eds.), Belfast, Beyond the Pale, 1996; Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”

15 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship: National Newspaper Representations of the British Broadcasting Ban (1988-94)”, in The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain: Impacts, Engagements, Legacies and Memories, Graham Dawson, Jo Dover, Stephen Hopkins (eds.), Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2017, p. 227. For work that focuses on broadcasting, see, for instance, Gary Edgerton, “Quelling the ‘Oxygen of Publicity’: British Broadcasting and ‘The Troubles’ during the Thatcher Years”, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 30, no. 1, 1996, p. 115-131; Lesley Henderson, David Miller, Jacqueline Reilly, Speak No Evil: The British Broadcasting Ban, the Media and the Conflict in Ireland, Glasgow, Glasgow University Media Group, 1990; Rita Lago, “Interviewing Sinn Féin under the New Political Environment: A Comparative Analysis of Interviews with Sinn Féin on British Television”, Media, Culture and Society, vol. 20, no. 4, 1998, p. 677-685; Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…; David Miller, Don’t Mention the War…; Ed Moloney, “Closing Down the Airwaves: The Story of the Broadcasting Ban”, in The Media and Northern Ireland…, p. 8-50.

16 David Miller, “The Media and Northern Ireland: Censorship, Information Management and the Broadcasting Ban”, in Glasgow Media Group Reader, vol. II, Industry, Economy, War and Politics, Greg Philo (ed.), London, Routledge, 1995, p. 48.

17 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship…”, p. 239.

18 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland…, p. 79.

19 See, for example, Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War…; Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland…; Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship…”; Greg McLaughlin, Stephen Baker, “‘Every Man an Emperor’: The British Press, Bloody Sunday and the Image of the British Army”, in Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain…, p. 183-198.

20 Greg McLaughlin, Stephen Baker, “‘Every Man an Emperor’…”, p. 185.

21 Patrick Glen, Youth and Permissive Social Change in British Music Papers, 1967-1983, London, Palgrave, 2019, p. 153; Patrick Glen, “‘Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White’: Morality in the Music Press, 1967-1983”, PhD thesis, University of Sheffield, 2013, p. 23.

22 Laura Snapes, “‘Its Soul Was Lost Somewhere’: Inside the Demise of NME”, The Guardian, 14 March 2018.

23 Andrew Broaks, “Do You Miss the Future? Mark Fisher Interviewed”, CrackMagazine, 12 September 2014, on line: https://crackmagazine.net/article/long-reads/mark-fisher-interviewed.

24 See, for example, Chris Salewicz, “Carnival”, NME, 6 May 1978, p. 31-33; Andrew Tyler, “Return of the Anti-Nazi League”, NME, 7 March 1981, p. 16-18; Mick Duffy, “Life in the War Zone”, NME, 8 August 1981, p. 7-8; X. Moore, “The Road to Blackpool Pier”, NME, 24 October 1981, p. 31-35; Richard McDermott, “Together We Can Stop the Bomb”, NME, 31 October 1981, p. 18-19; Andrew Tyler, “CND Fights March Ban”, NME, 2 May 1981, p. 12; Andrew Tyler, “Turning to Green”, NME, 31 October 1981, p. 24-27; Andrew Tyler, “W.O.R.K. No No My Daddy Don’t…”, NME, 6 June 1981, p. 4, 14; Ray Lowry, “The Walker Brothers”, NME, 23 May 1981, p. 29, 55; Paul Du Noyer, “The Burning of Southall”, NME, 11 July 1981, p. 3; Ray Lowry, Chris Salewicz, “Anarchy in the UK: The Reality”, NME, 18 July 1981, p. 4-6; Andrew Tyler, “Britain on the Junkheap, Part One: Britain’s Big Sleep”, NME, 26 February 1983, p. 20-22, 33; Andrew Tyler, “Britain on the Junkheap, Part Two: No Future in the UK”, NME, 5 March 1983, p. 12-14; Andrew Tyler, “Britain on the Junkheap, Part Three: Sweet and Sour City”, NME, 12 March 1983, p. 20-22; Julie Burchill, “Silencing the Song of Freedom”, NME, 22 October 1983, p. 27; Andrew Tyler, “Mandela: 21 Years of Forced Silence”, NME, 16 July 1983, p. 8; Andrew Tyler, “Sending Down the Lawless”, NME, 15 October 1983, p. 22-23, 26; Paolo Hewitt, “Dumbstruck and Doomed Down on Animal Farm”, NME, 17 December 1983, p. 26-28; X. Moore, “Lives on the Line”, NME, 5 January 1985, p. 20-22, 26; X. Moore, “Lives on the Line: Part 2”, NME, 12 January 1985, p. 6-7, 28; Steven Wells, “Ghetto Blasts”, NME, 21 September 1985, p. 29; Tim Jarvis, “War of the Worlds”, NME, 9 November 1985, p. 6-7; Donald McRae, “Freedom Road”, NME, 9 November 1985, p. 8; Donald McRae, “Rhythms of Resistance”, NME, 16 January 1988, p. 26-28.

25 For the McGuiness interview, see Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, NME, 10 May 1986, p. 24-25, 27.

26 Neil Spencer, interview with the author, 30 April 2019.

27 Brian Hamilton-Tweedale, The British Press and Northern Ireland…, p. 120.

28 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid.

31 Mark Sinker, interview with the author, 18 June 2019.

32 See, for example, “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), NME, 4 October 1980, p. 62-63.

33 The letter appeared in “Gasbag”, Paul Rambali (ed.), NME, 30 August 1980, p. 54. The articles to which the letter-writer referred included: Andy Gill, “Starlin Wars”, NME, 26 July 1980, p. 31; Angus MacKinnon, “Trident: Britain’s Brand New Passport to Armageddon”, NME, 9 August 1980, p. 6-8; Vivien Goldman, “E.P. Thompson: The Man Who’d Save the World”, NME, 16 August 1980, p. 27, 53; Ian MacDonald, “The NME Consumers’ Guide to 1984”, NME, 23 August 1980, p. 29-32.

34 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 62.

35 Ibid.

36 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, NME, 11 October 1980, p. 31-34, 61.

37 Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery…”, p. 131.

38 See letter in “Big Baad Bag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 31 May 1986, p. 50 (original emphasis).

39 There is a significant body of scholarship on the popular-music press. See, for instance, Eamonn Forde, “From Polyglottism to Branding: On the Decline of Personality Journalism in the British Music Press”, Journalism, vol. 2, no. 1, 2001, p. 23-43; Simon Frith, Sound Effects: Youth, Leisure and the Politics of Rock, London, Constable, 1983, p. 165-177; Pop Music and the Press, Steve Jones (ed.), Philadelphia, Temple University Press, 2002; Dave Laing, “Anglo-American Music Journalism: Texts and Contexts”, in The Popular Music Studies Reader, Andy Bennett, Barry Shank, Jason Toynbee (eds.), London, Routledge, 2006, p. 333-339; Dave Laing, “‘The World’s Best Rock Dead’: Let It Rock 1972-75”, Popular Music and Society, vol. 33, no. 4, 2010, p. 449-463; John Street, Rebel Rock: The Politics of Popular Music, London, Blackwell, 1986, p. 83-88; Jason Toynbee, “Policing Bohemia, Pinning Up Grunge: The Music Press and Generic Change in British Pop and Rock”, Popular Music, vol. 12, no. 3, October 1993, p. 289-300.

40 See, for example, Laura Snapes, “‘Its Soul Was Lost Somewhere’…”; Jack Shepherd, “NME Closes Print Edition: Bands and Journalists Pay Tribute”, The Independent, 7 March 2018; Ben Beaumont-Thomas, Laura Snapes, “The Stories behind NME’s Greatest Covers”, The Guardian, 9 March 2018.

41 See, for example, Pop Music and the Press. A modest amount of reflection on the politics of the music press has emerged in the accounts of music journalists. See, for instance, Paul Gorman, In Their Own Write: Adventures in the Music Press, London, Sanctuary, 2001; Pat Long, The History of the NME: High Times and Low Lives at the World’s Most Famous Music Magazine, London, Portico, 2012; A Hidden Landscape Once a Week: The Unruly Curiosity of the UK Music Press from the 1960s-80s, in the Words of Those Who Were There, Mark Sinker (ed.), London, Strange Attractor Press, 2018. However, none of this work explores NME’s coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict.

42 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author, 13 June 2019. For an account of punk, see Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, London, Methuen, 1979; Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London, Faber, 1991.

43 Neil Spencer, in Inky Fingers: The NME Story, BBC Four, 4 July 2005.

44 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 131.

45 Hugh Cornwell, in Inky Fingers

46 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 131.

47 See Daniel Rachel, Walls Come Tumbling Down: The Music and Politics of Rock Against Racism, 2 Tone and Red Wedge, London, Picador, 2016.

48 Stuart Hall, The Hard Road to Renewal: Thatcherism and the Crisis of the Left, London, Verso, 1988.

49 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

50 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author.

51 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

52 Paolo Hewitt, “The Neil Kinnock Interview”, NME, 27 April 1985, p. 12-14; Denis Campbell, “Neil’s Wild Years”, NME, 13 June 1987, p. 24-25.

53 Tony Parsons, “The Dignity of Labour”, NME, 15 October 1983, p. 8; Andrew Tyler, “Dread Ken: A Capital Leader”, NME, 9 April 1983, p. 16-17, 43; Nick Martin, “Jobs, Peace, and Other Pipe Dreams”, NME, 1 May 1982, p. 19-20; Goldman, “E. P. Thompson”, p. 27, 53.

54 Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author, 10 June 2019; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author, 27 May 2019; Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author.

55 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 56-57.

56 Mick Farren, cited in Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 47.

57 The “underground” papers also engaged with issues such as South Africa (IT, no. 37, 9-22 August 1968), the Black Panthers (IT, no. 35, 12-25 July 1968), Rastafarians and Black Power (IT, no. 122, 27 January-10 February 1972), and state surveillance (IT, no. 142, 17 November-1 December 1972). For examples of its accounts of popular music, see IT, no. 53, 28 March-10 April 1969; IT, no. 82, 3-16 July 1970; IT, no. 109, 29 July-12 August 1971.

58 Paul Gorman, In Their Own Write…, p. 73-74.

59 Nigel Fountain, Underground: The London Alternative Press, 1966-74, London, Routledge, 1988, p. 183.

60 Charles Shaar Murray, cited in A Hidden Landscape Once a Week…, p. 144.

61 John Street, Rebel Rock…, p. 83-88.

62 Tony Tyler, cited in Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 71.

63 Over the course of the decade this included Nick Kent, Charles Shaar Murray, Ian MacDonald, Mick Farren, Penny Reel, Barry Miles, John May, Joe Stevens, Pennie Smith and Barney Bubbles (Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 65, 74-75, 123, 128; A Hidden Landscape Once a Week…, p. 170, 178).

64 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 123.

65 Anonymous, “T-Zers”, NME, 10 June 1978, p. 63. See also NME masthead on 10 June 1978, p. 63.

66 Nigel Fountain, Underground…, p. 97, 134-139, 162, 167.

67 For “underground” press articles on the Northern Ireland conflict, see, for example, A Special Correspondent, “Military Intelligence Predicts… Civil War!”, IT, no. 78, 24 April-7 May 1970, p. 1-2; Anonymous, “Ireland for the Irish – England for the Pigs?”, IT, no. 122, 27 January-10 February 1972, p. 12-14; Jonathon Green, “Bringing the War Back Home”, IT, no. 123, 10-24 February 1972, p. 11; George Snow, Rosemary Bignell, “George Snow’s Iraland Pics”, IT, no. 128, 20 April-4 May 1972, p. 26-29, 44; Kevin Mellows, George Snow, “Bloody Sunday, Bloody 1973”, IT, no. 147, 8-23 February 1973, p. 10-13; Richard Trench, “A Nice Kid…”, IT, no. 154, 17-31 May 1973, p. 3. The conflict also featured on the cover of many “underground” press papers. See, for example, Friends, no. 25, 8 March 1971; Friends, no. 28, 3 May 1971; Frendz, no. 18, 6 January 1972; Frendz, no. 21, 17 February 1972; Ink, no. 21, 2 November 1971; Ink, no. 25, 31 December 1971; Ink, no. 28, 11 February 1972.

68 See, for example, “Ireland Resists Aggression”, Ink, no. 28, 11 February 1972 and “Solidarity with the People of Derry”, Frendz, no. 21, 17 February 1972. Elsewhere, IT published a cover featuring images of British soldiers in riot helmets rendered in a playful pop-art style and illustrated with the caption: “Bang, You’re Dead!” (IT, no. 123, 10-24 February 1972).

69 One reader would inform IT: “I’m getting fucking sick with the way the underground press supports the IRA. Are you too damn swollen up in Revolution against the Establishment that you cannot see what a load of lying, murdering bastards the IRA Provisionals are?” (“Letters”, IT, no. 120, 30 December 1971-13 January 1972, p. 14). Meanwhile, other readers would endorse “the support the underground press gives to the IRA”, whilst qualifying this with criticism of “the tactics of fear, murder and repression” that they felt had been adopted by republican paramilitaries in Northern Ireland (“Letters”, IT, no. 123, 10-24 February 1972, p. 2).

70 Jerome Burne, cited in Jonathon Green, Days in the Life: Voices from the English Underground 1961-1971, London, Pimlico, 1998, p. 362.

71 Dick Pountain, cited in Jonathon Green, Days in the Life…, p. 375.

72 Nigel Fountain, Underground…, p. 97.

73 Neil Spencer, interview with the author (original emphasis).

74 For examples of this practice, see James Johnson, “The Sonic Warlords in Belfast”, NME, 24 March 1973, p. 28; Anonymous, “Rolling out the Blarney Stone”, Record Mirror, 3 May 1975; Angie Errigo, “Feelgoods Triumph in a Po-Go Zone”, NME, 8 October 1977, p. 15-16; Allan Jones, “What the El!”, Melody Maker, 25 March 1978, p. 3; Jane Suck, “Vicarious Thrills + Pol-a-Ticks: Crossing the Irish Sea with the Adverts”, Sounds, 18 February 1978, p. 16-17; Colin Irwin, “The Jewel in the Crown”, Melody Maker, 15 December 1984, p. 24-25, 31.

75 Giovanni Dadomo, Caroline Coon, “Clash in the City of the Dead”, Sounds, 29 October 1977, p. 25-27; Ian Birch, “Clash Lose Control…”, Melody Maker, 29 October 1977, p. 30-32.

76 Giovanni Dadomo, Caroline Coon, “Clash in the City of the Dead”, p. 27; Ian Birch, “Clash Lose Control…”, p. 30.

77 Anonymous, “Clash Visit Belfast for Picture Session”, NME, 29 October 1977, p. 9-10.

78 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”.

79 Angie Errigo, “Feelgoods Triumph in a Po-Go Zone”, p. 15.

80 James Johnson, “The Sonic Warlords in Belfast”.

81 See, for example, Jane Suck, “Vicarious Thrills…”; Colin Irwin, “The Jewel in the Crown”.

82 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

83 Danny Kelly, interview with the author, 20 August 2019.

84 Ibid.

85 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

86 Ibid.

87 John McGarry, Brendan O’Leary, Explaining Northern Ireland: Broken Images, Oxford, Blackwell, 1995, p. 1. For a survey of such frames, see John Whyte, Interpreting Northern Ireland, Oxford, Clarendon, 1990, p. 117-206.

88 The letters appeared in “Gasbag now!”, Monty Smith (ed.), NME, 20 September 1980, p. 58.

89 Ibid.

90 Ibid.

91 Ibid.

92 Ibid.

93 If the mainstream media failed to provide adequate coverage of an urgent issue, then it was the task of the “underground” press to afford space to this, rather than summoning that mainstream to do more (see Mick Farren, cited in Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 47).

94 “Gasbag now!”, Monty Smith (ed.), p. 58.

95 The photograph had previously appeared in a photo essay in the journal Camerawork in 1978 (Anonymous, “British Troops on Irish Streets”, Camerawork, no. 9, March 1978, p. 10). The article that introduced this photo essay addressed media coverage of Northern Ireland, noting: “The best weapon in any propaganda campaign is not biased information, but ignorance. No one gets excited about something that they do not know is happening […] Northern Ireland has been very badly reported in the British Press” (ibid., p. 9).

96 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 62.

97 Ibid., p. 63.

98 Ibid., p. 62.

99 Ibid.

100 Ibid.

101 See Aly Renwick, “Something in the Air: The Rise of the Troops Out Movement”, in The Northern Ireland Troubles in Britain…, p. 111-126.

102 “Gasbag: The Irish No-Joke”, Charles Shaar Murray (ed.), p. 63.

103 Ibid.

104 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Gavin Martin, interview with the author, 18 March 2019.

105 Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, p. 31.

106 Ibid.

107 Ibid.

108 Ibid., p. 32.

109 Ibid.

110 “Miserable Old Bagger”, Ray Lowry (ed.), NME, 6 June 1981, p. 58.

111 Ibid.

112 Ibid.

113 “Gasbag”, Paolo Hewitt (ed.), NME, 10 March 1984, p. 58.

114 Ibid. (emphases added).

115 See “Gasbag”, Penny Reel (ed.), NME, 7 April 1984, p. 42. Danny Morrison was at that time Sinn Féin’s publicity director.

116 “Gasbag”, Paolo Hewitt (ed.), NME, 28 April 1984, p. 51.

117 Ibid. (original emphasis).

118 Paolo Hewitt, interview with the author.

119 Ibid.

120 Ibid.

121 See Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal: A Memoir – Adventures, Music, Animal Rights, Tonbridge, Loop, 2017, p. 195.

122 See, for instance, Andrew Tyler, “CND Fights March Ban”; Andrew Tyler, “W.O.R.K. No No My Daddy Don’t…”; Andrew Tyler, “Turning to Green”; Andrew Tyler, “Mandela: 21 Years of Forced Silence”; Andrew Tyler, “Sending Down the Lawless”; Andrew Tyler, “Return of the Anti-Nazi League”; Andrew Tyler, “Britain on the Junkheap, Part One…”.

123 Stuart Bailie, interview with the author, 5 June 2019.

124 See Trevor Kavanagh, “Hang the IRA Bombers Says Big Sun Poll”, The Sun, 19 October 1984, p. 1; Anonymous, “Denning Calls for Use of Treason Law”, The Times, 18 October 1984, p. 2.

125 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

126 Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal…, p. 111.

127 Andrew Tyler, “Bomb Culture”, NME, 3 November 1984, p. 29.

128 Ibid., p. 30-31.

129 Ibid., p. 29 (original emphasis).

130 Ibid.

131 Ibid.

132 Ibid. This was perhaps a reference to the Progressive Unionist Party, a left-wing initiative associated with the Ulster Volunteer Force, that had emerged in the late 1970s (James W. McAuley, Scott Hislop, “‘Many Roads Forward’: Politics and Ideology within the Progressive Unionist Party”, Études irlandaises, no. 25-1, 2000, p. 173-192).

133 Ibid.

134 Ibid., p. 30-31.

135 Ibid., p. 31.

136 Ibid.

137 Ibid., p. 30.

138 Ibid., p. 31.

139 Ibid.

140 Ibid., p. 32.

141 Ibid.

142 Ibid.

143 Ibid.

144 Stuart Bailie, interview with the author.

145 Barry McIlheney, interview with the author, 26 July 2019.

146 “Gasbag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 17 November 1984, p. 62.

147 Ibid.

148 Sean O’Hagan, “Northern Ireland’s Lost Moment: How the Peaceful Protests of ’68 Escalated into Years of Bloody Conflict”, The Observer, 22 April 2018; Sean O’Hagan, “The Day I Never Thought Would Come”, The Guardian, 6 May 2007.

149 Sean O’Hagan, “An Accidental Death”, The Observer, 21 April 2002.

150 “Gasbag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), NME, 17 November 1984, p. 62.

151 Ibid.

152 “Gasbag”, Andy Gill (ed.), NME, 24 November 1984, p. 58.

153 Ibid.

154 Andrew Tyler, My Life as an Animal…, p. 111.

155 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author

156 Ibid.; Mark Sinker, interview with the author.

157 Neil Spencer, “Ten Years in an Open Plan Office”, NME, 20 July 1985, p. 3.

158 Danny Kelly, interview with the author; Mark Sinker, interview with the author; Paul Gorman, In Their Own Write…, p. 310.

159 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.

160 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

161 Sam Porter, Denis O’Hearn, “New Left Podsnappery…”, p. 131.

162 For an account of such musicians, see Sean Campbell, “‘Agitate, Educate, Organise’: Partisanship, Popular Music and the Northern Ireland Conflict”, Popular Music, vol. 39, no. 2, 2020, p. 233-256.

163 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

164 Ibid.

165 Ibid. For an account of this context, see Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…, p. 251-259.

166 Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…, p. 253.

167 Ibid., p. 251-259.

168 Ibid., p. 254, 256.

169 Ibid., p. 256-257.

170 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.

171 Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.

172 Neil Spencer, interview with the author.

173 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

174 Ibid.; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.

175 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

176 Ibid.

177 Ibid.

178 Ibid.

179 Ibid.

180 Ibid.

181 Ibid.

182 Ibid.

183 It has, moreover, proved impossible to locate the photographs. Those that appear in the issue are credited to Susan Elliot. She politely declined a request to be interviewed for this article.

184 This anxiety to produce coverage that appeared balanced often permeated Troubles coverage, particularly in scenarios where republicans had been offered a platform. For an account of “balance” in relation to media coverage of the conflict, see Robert Savage, The BBC’s “Irish Troubles”…, p. 110-151.

185 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

186 Mark Sinker, interview with the author.

187 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.

188 Ibid.

189 Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

190 Gavin Martin, interview with the author; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author.

191 Gavin Martin, interview with the author.

192 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 24-25.

193 At the time, a popular television advert for Del Monte orange juice featured the catchphrase: “The man from Del Monte, he says yes!”.

194 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 24.

195 Ibid.

196 Ibid.

197 Ibid.

198 Ibid.

199 Ibid.

200 Ibid.

201 Ibid., p. 27.

202 Max Pettigrew, “The ‘Oxygen of Publicity’ and the Suffocation of Censorship…”, p. 234.

203 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 27.

204 Ibid., p. 25.

205 The Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign was launched in the late 1970s by Ian Paisley, the then leader of the DUP, in an effort to prevent the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Northern Ireland.

206 Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, p. 25.

207 “Big Baad Bag”, Sean O’Hagan (ed.), p. 50.

208 Ibid.

209 Ibid.

210 Ibid.

211 Ibid.

212 Ibid.

213 “Big Baad Bag”, Steven Wells (ed.), NME, 21 June 1986, p. 54.

214 Denis Campbell, “A Deafening Silence”, NME, 21 March 1987, p. 34.

215 Ibid.

216 Steven Wells, “God Save Us from the USA”, NME, 11 June 1988, p. 29.

217 Anonymous, “Strummer Slams ‘State Terrorism’”, NME, 21 May 1988, p. 5; Anonymous, “Pogues Fall from Grace with Government”, NME, 19 November 1988, p. 3.

218 Pat Long, The History of the NME…, p. 171-173; Stuart Cosgrove, interview with the author; Lucy O’Brien, interview with the author.

219 Simon Reynolds, “Return of the Inkies”, New Statesman and Society, 31 August 1990, p. 26.

220 Danny Kelly, interview with the author.

221 Ibid.

222 Len Brown, interview with the author, 20 July 2020.

223 For examples of this coverage, see Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War

224 Stephanie Boland, “As Brexit Comes Closer, British Ignorance about Ireland Becomes Unforgivable”, Prospect, 27 November 2017; Megan Nolan, “I Didn’t Mind the English, Until Now”, The New York Times, 19 October 2018, p. 35.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Fig. 1 – NME, 4 October 1980, p. 62.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/docannexe/image/10464/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,0M
Titre Fig. 2 – Gavin Martin, “Northern Ireland: The Fantasy and the Reality”, NME, 11 October 1980, p. 31.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/docannexe/image/10464/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,6M
Titre Fig. 3 – NME, 3 November 1984, front page.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/docannexe/image/10464/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,2M
Titre Fig. 4 – Andrew Tyler, “Bomb Culture”, NME, 3 November 1984, p. 29.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/docannexe/image/10464/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,3M
Titre Fig. 5 – Stuart Cosgrove, Sean O’Hagan, Gavin Martin, “Those Petrol Emotions”, NME, 10 May 1986, p. 24-25.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/docannexe/image/10464/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 2,1M
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Pour citer cet article

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Sean Campbell, « NME’s “Irish Troubles”: Political Conflict, Media Crisis and the British Music Press »Études irlandaises, 46-1 | 2021, 11-54.

Référence électronique

Sean Campbell, « NME’s “Irish Troubles”: Political Conflict, Media Crisis and the British Music Press »Études irlandaises [En ligne], 46-1 | 2021, mis en ligne le 08 juillet 2021, consulté le 30 juillet 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/etudesirlandaises/10464 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/etudesirlandaises.10464

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Auteur

Sean Campbell

Cambridge School of Creative Industries
Anglia Ruskin University, Cambridge

Sean Campbell est professeur en médias et culture à Anglia Ruskin, Cambridge. Il est l’auteur d’“Irish Blood, English Heart” : Second-Generation Irish Musicians in England (Cork, Cork University Press, 2011), et a été conseiller pour la série de documentaires télévisés Guth : Musical Sons of the Irish Diaspora (TG4). Sean Campbell est coanimateur du séminaire d’histoire moderne irlandaise à l’université de Cambridge. Il prépare actuellement un livre sur la musique populaire et le conflit en Irlande du Nord.

Sean Campbell is associate professor of media and culture at Anglia Ruskin in Cambridge. He is the author of “Irish Blood, English Heart”: Second-Generation Irish Musicians in England (Cork, Cork University Press, 2011), and was series adviser on the television documentary series, Guth: Musical Sons of the Irish Diaspora (TG4). Sean Campbell is co-convenor of the modern Irish history seminar at the University of Cambridge. He is currently writing a book on popular music and the Northern Ireland conflict.

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