There are many familiar signs that one is growing old, but I would like to propose a new candidate for the list. You know you have lived a long time when ideas and theories that would once have been regarded as fatuous nonsense suddenly become respectable and mainstream.
Earlier this year, the British government finally admitted that the 1972 Bloody Sunday killings in the Northern Irish city of Derry (Londonderry) were unjustified and unlawful, and apologized to the families of those slain. British soldiers might even face criminal charges for their actions on that day. In itself, the apology might not seem remarkable, given the blatant nature of the acts: You need have no sympathy for the IRA to recognize Bloody Sunday as a callous massacre of noncombatants. But this official reinterpretation now joins an alarmingly long list of similar rethinkings of events during the Troubles. And in virtually every case, the view that has now become incontestable orthodoxy would, if expressed at the time, have been regarded as bizarre, flaky, and absurd. The conclusion is disturbing. At least in the Irish case, if you tended to believe lunatic conspiracy theories about official behavior, you were likely to be proved correct more often than if you held fast to the sober consensus of mainstream society and media.
Bloody Sunday was critically important for the subsequent development of the crisis in Northern Ireland, as it drove thousands of Catholics into the arms of the IRA, giving a huge boost to a violent campaign that would simmer until 1998. But what exactly happened in Derry that January day? Official statements suggested British soldiers were returning fire by IRA guerrillas and in the process killed both innocent bystanders and some actual terrorists. (Miraculously, the British took no casualties from the supposed Republican assault.) Alternative theories suggested that some soldiers lost control and fired wildly—or, more sinister, that British forces deliberately killed civilians in order to provoke the IRA into an open firefight. At the time, mainstream British opinion and mass media gave no credence to these critical views and placed the blame wholly on the IRA—an interpretation that a searching recent inquiry has now utterly discredited.
The official history of Bloody Sunday thus joins the other gutted orthodoxies that now rot in the landfills of history. It lies alongside such once officially cherished truths as the unquestionable guilt of the dozen or so innocent men and women falsely convicted of a series of lethal terrorist bombings on the British mainland. And as in the Bloody Sunday case, anyone who might at the time have raised doubts about the fairness or decency of British justice would have been marked irrevocably as a terrorist sympathizer.
I am not, of course, arguing for the invariable truth of conspiracy theories, still less that terrorist investigations inevitably target the wrong suspects. But the Irish cases do illustrate the twisted workings of officialdom and, especially, how media in advanced Western countries report political crime.
A case in point. In December 1972, the Irish parliament was debating a fiercely controversial law that would have vastly enhanced police powers to suppress IRA activities. The bill would certainly have failed, had not a car bomb detonated in Dublin on the very night of the vote, killing two bystanders. The new law sailed through a terrified Dáil Éireann by a vote of 69 to 22. I recall hearing of the bombing from the BBC, when a news anchor breathlessly pronounced, “Tonight’s bomb in Dublin. Is there any doubt that the IRA was responsible?” As a mere college student, my first response was rather to note that the IRA were the last people in the world with an interest in perpetrating such a self-destructive outrage. The attack was much more likely to be a provocation by British and/or Irish security agencies, and subsequent investigations have strongly borne out my uninformed interpretation.
Now, I am not boasting of my great perspicacity here, but rather asking how, conceivably, mainstream media could believe such arrant nonsense. Generally, editors and journalists are neither idiots nor rogues, but they do operate in a culture where they rely on official agencies and sources for their definition of the news, and how that news should be understood. Over time, media people come to see the world through the eyes of their informants and frame their reporting accordingly. What they forget is that those agencies are not objective but have a powerful interest in avoiding blame for their blunders and crimes.
However honorable their intentions, the media tend to serve as official platforms for friendly agencies and their opinions, and they denounce any rival view as absurd and conspiratorial. Overcoming those constraints can take a very long time indeed.