The BBC Broadcast House in Belfast welcomed us like family. It was not at all the bunker I complained about in an earlier post as being today’s position of most news organizations – and this, in a city that was full of bunker defenses not long ago. It’s an old building, with “The British Broadcasting Corporation” chiseled in the stone lintel over the doorway. They were expecting us at the reception desk. Claire Savage, the on-air correspondent who was finally the contact I reached, greeted us warmly – me, Libby and my three journalism students – and took us up to the top floor for coffee and a chat. We were joined by two other veteran correspondents of Northern Ireland’s tumultuous politics and paramilitary violence, Mark Devenport and Martina Purdy.
These are my kind of journalists – well-rounded, realistic, generous-spirited, knowledgeable, modest. They seem to understand what a great privilege it is to stand upright in a place that allows them, like no one else, to tell the dramatic stories around them without the partisan grip of grievance or score-settling.
Claire Savage, from N. Ireland but with experience in the States, had helped start a daily in 2005 for both Protestant and Catholic readers, The Daily View, but it closed after six weeks. Claire was recommended to me, with her email addess, by the Belfast correspondent for the Guardian (Henry McDonald, partner of Dublin blogger June Caldwell – all these connections radiating out from this ieiMedia program). Afterwards, she led us through town, straight through lavishly ornate City Hall, to the John Hewitt pub, where she joined us for lunch with playwright Martin Lynch. It was Claire’s day off.
The BBC is uniquely subsidized by the annual tariff that everyone in the UK pays to own a television. The organization has represented the very best in independent journalism, although sullied recently by the scandal of a TV star who had been molesting young guests for years without anyone noticing. These three veterans of covering the troubles, and politics under the Peace accord of 1998, convinced me of the BBC’s “outsider” position on the violently charged issues in Northern Ireland. Mark Devenport is from Oxford, educated at Cambridge with a degree in history. Martina Purdy is from Toronto, and began her career in papers there.
They were all extremely helpful in providing names, background and contact information for my students’ stories. Martina followed up that day with a long email full of names and numbers. That night, as Libby and I were resting up in our B&B in Derry, Libby called my attention to the TV screen. There was Mark Devenport, explaining a political story in a talk-back with the anchor, looking indeed a little like Harrison Ford. He was wearing the same tie we’d seen him in earlier that day.