Tom Paulin claimed that Larkin’s true subject was ‘national decline’. To what extent does the subject of the condition of Britain play an important role in the matter and manner of poets studied on the module?

This is an essay from a module I absolutely adored at QUB-British Poetry 1945-1995. I really didn’t like a lot of my degree, especially the English half but this module in my final year reignited a love of learning about literature. 

 Within the poetry of Philip Larkin and Tony Harrison there is a concern for a post-war Britain which is questioning and remoulding its identity; “English poets are being forced to explore not just the matter of England but what is the matter with England” (Heaney, 1976 102).  The manner in which their work does so differs greatly; Larkin hails from a middle class upbringing in Coventry in the Midlands, Harrison from the working class streets of Leeds in the North. In this essay I will look at how Larkin and Harrison perceive the condition of Britain to be in a state of national decline. I will argue that Larkin is primarily concerned with a decline in security and dominance of the middle class and Harrison is preoccupied by the failings of Welfare State Britain to create true social mobility for the working class.

Britain emerged victorious from the Second World War, which lasted from 1939-1945. Victory came at a price; both in terms of having spent more than a quarter of its wealth and being economically exhausted, and also in terms of the human costs of war. Around 400,000 Britons were killed, a figure that includes soldiers and civilians.  War had forced citizens to be tougher and this sense of having to engage with the absolute realities of life is reflected in the literary cannon of the time. Larkin was the most prominent poet of The Movement in which the “Neo-Romanticism of the 1940’s is denigrated and opposed” (Corcoran 79). J.D Scott, literary editor of The Spectator defines The Movement in 1954 as “bored by the despair of the 40s, not much interested in suffering, and extremely impatient of poetic sensibility” (Chatfield, The Observer, 2009). Corcoran writes that:

“The poetry’s melancholy, its sense of loss, its fatalism or weary determinism are profoundly in tune with the deepest insecurities and anxieties, hesitations and fumblings of identity of an English audience suffering the withdrawal from imperial and colonial power in the aftermath of the war” (Corcoran 87).

This absolute emotional detachment is strongly evident in “Here” in which Larkin writes vaguely of an industrial city of the North; evident in the opening lines, “Swerving east, from rich industrial shadows/And traffic all night north…” (Larkin 79), but never once feels it is of importance to name the city; “Gathers to the surprise of a large town:/Here domes and statues, spires and cranes cluster” (Larkin 79).  Larkin presents a lyrical beauty to this apparent average view; in light of the Blitz of Britain between 1940 and 1941, the sight of unbombed buildings would perhaps be perceived as quite beautiful.  If the poem had not have made explicit reference to the northward bound direction of the train’s journey, this town could be any in Britain. It portrays a Britain in which what unites citizens is the shared availing of a homogenous, consumerist culture. “ A cut-price crowd” (Larkin 79)  pursue “their desires” (Larkin 79)  of “Cheap suits, red kitchen-ware, sharp shoes, iced lollies/Electric mixers, toasters, washers, driers-“ (Larkin 79) In the desolate, fragmented Britain Harrison presents in “V.”, these elements of consumerist culture brashly stand out, “The big blue star for booze, tobacco ads,/the magnet’s monogram, the royal crest” (Harrison 220) .

It is vital to note that the poet’s voice is separate from the “cut-price crowd” (Larkin 79) who are described as “residents from raw estates” (Larkin 79). It is clear that there is a judgemental undertone to the description. In “Going. Going” this division is seen again, evident in Larkin’s choice of pronouns. “I thought it would last my time” (Larkin 133) when discussing the green fields of an idealised England “where village louts could climb” (Larkin 133) on trees and “As the bleak high-risers come/We can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133). Larkin uses “my time” (Larkin 133) not “our time”, thus insinuating separate communities which are then elaborated upon with mention of the “village louts” (Larkin 133) who would appear to be working class men. However, the most tellingly classist tones emerge in writing of the arrival of the “bleak risers” (Larkin 133) and how “we can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133). Whalen asserts that “Larkin does not give us a social ideology” (Whalen 91) yet it seems obvious that Larkin if he is to be read as social poet, is one in which condescension  for the working class in British society is prominent. Paulin’s claim that Larkin has an “elitist distaste for British mass society” (Paulin 164) is supported in how Larkin dehumanises hundreds of families to the “high risers” (Larkin 133) they live in. The middle class of Britain “can always escape in the car” (Larkin 133).  Even ownership of a car is a clear indicator of the class divide between the speaker in the poem and the inhabitants of the emerging town or city encroaching into the countryside. As Corcoran writes:

“The urbanity, civility and decorum of the typical Movement poem derive in part from the class backgrounds, education and academicism of some of these poets…The typical Movement poet shared some of the characteristics of the ‘coming’ class, that lower middle class newly empowered by the post-war Labour government…” (Corcoran 83).

Harrison too benefited from the socialist government of Britain in the 1940s, specifically from The Butler Education Act of 1944 which enabled bright, working class children to avail of a grammar school education. In ‘V.’ he speaks of “the places I learned Latin, and learned Greek/and left, the ground where Leeds United play” (Harrison 216).  Yet “V.” chronicles a Britain in which the majority of working class men have not like Harrison, transcended the class they were born into. Both Harrison and Larkin fail to make any attempts to address the reality of post-war Britain for women. “V.” captures the crisis of identity working class men of the North were faced with under the London centric Conservative government of Margaret Thatcher, determined to close the mines with no concern for mass unemployment:

Ah’ll tell yer then what really riles a bloke,

It’s reading on their graves the jobs they did-

butcher, publican and baker. Me, I’ll croak

doing t’same nowt ah do now as a kid” (Harrison 221).

The skinheads in “V.” temporarily escape their grim reality by getting drunk at football games and vandalising the graveyard. We do not learn of any means working class women escape.  Indeed having a means of escapism could be a privilege of the men, with women confined by and large to traditional roles in the home such as the presumed mother calling in the boys playing, “They never seem to tire of their ball/though I hear a woman’s voice call one inside” (Harrison 225).  Larkin’s poetry is too concerned with a male crisis of identity, be it instead a middle class one. His emotional repression is a reflection on the “stiff upper lip” personality expected of English gentleman; “angry and not being allowed to show emotion, he writhes with anxiety inside that sealed bunker which is the English ethnic of privacy” (Paulin 167). The decline in the British Empire and loss of imperial influence after World War Two had a direct impact on middle class men’s sense of self-esteem and confidence shown in Larkin’s case by a letter to a friend in which he is states he is ashamed to live in a country which spends more on education than defence (Paulin 176). In “The Whitsun Weddings” the young women on the train are presented only in their aesthetics, personified by their clothes, “then the perms/The nylon gloves and jewelry-substitutes/The lemons, mauves, and olive-ochers” (Larkin 93). Both poets adhere to traditional form which reflects these crises of male identity, although Harrison finds ways to “fashion truly oppositional meanings out of fundamentally bourgeois establishment poetic forms” (Spencer 17). Harrison’s reliance on traditional form would suggest a working class doubt of his place among the British poetry establishment; the bourgeois poets such as Larkin. Harrison wants to prove he has a command over the perceived rules of writing poetry, but it is this diligence to knowing the rules that allows Harrison to simultaneously keep and break them to different extents. Harrison himself has described “metre as being for him ‘an existential need’ and, crucially, ‘like a life support system. It means I feel I can go close to the fire, deeper into the darkness’” (Astley 43).   “V.” consists of 112 rhyming quatrains, perhaps from the outset appearing like a very safe choice of form. Harrison models his epic poem on Thomas Gray’s “Elegy in a Country Churchyard”, published in 1751. “V.” takes inspiration from Gray’s poem in also using alternately rhymed (a b a b) four line stanzas but breaks away from Gray’s steady, pensive, lumbering lines. This is most strongly evident in Harrison’s verses being laden with expletives, written in capitals to achieve maximum shock to the reader:

“how people ‘fell asleep in the Good Lord’,

brief chisellable bits from the good book

and rhymes whatever length they could afford

to CUNT, PISS, SHIT and (mostly) FUCK!” (Harrison 217).

This stanza sees Harrison offer a bold juxtaposition between the increasingly irrelevant Church and its failure to instil respect and fear in the youth of Britain of the 1980’s, whom brazenly vandalise the graveyard with obscenities. This stanza also offers a strong example of Harrison’s rejection of Received Pronunciation in his choice of words to rhyme with, most notably “book” (Harrison 217) and “FUCK!” (Harrison 217). If an individual with a Received Pronunciation accent were to read this poem aloud the rhyme would simply not exist.  Harrison’s working class Leeds accent allows for full rhyme with “book” (Harrison 217) being pronounced sounding like “buck”, thus entirely rhyming with “FUCK!” (Harrison 217). Harrison’s work in this sense is reminiscent of Heaney’s awareness in “Singing School” of an Ulster dialect unnerving, like Harrison’s Northern accent,  the “Lawns of elocution”  (Heaney 135) when Heaney writes about sycamore trees “With hushed and lulled full chimes for pushed and pulled” (Heaney, 1998 135).

Harrison’s “work shares with the bulk of English poetry its reliance on the iambic foot” (Spencer 17) but again within this apparent restriction, he finds ways to break from tradition. The first stanza of “V.” makes distance from Gray’s “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” by disrupting the iambic beat. Gray’s poem complies strictly with pentameter; Harrison shifts within stanzas, his metre. The iambic beat is kept intact in line 2 but elsewhere is unsettled. The imagined internal dialogue in “V.” between Harrison and a skinhead allow for Harrison to include the vernacular of the working class of Leeds with his use of elision ignoring the notion that poetry should be spoken in “proper” English:

If mi mam’s up there, don’t want to meet ‘er

listening to me list mi dirty deeds,

and ‘ave to pipe up to St fucking Peter

ah’ve been on t’dole all mi life in fucking Leeds!” (Harrison 222).

The above stanza includes four uses of elision. In contrast, Larkin’s use of pentameter Easthope argued in the 1980s highlights his outlook being compatible with the ideology of bourgeois form (Spencer 20). Running throughout Larkin’s work is a lament for the loss of order in the changing England of the 1950’s to 1970’s. In “MCMIV” the speaker yearns for pre-war Britain which had a much more entrenched class divide prior to the creation of the NHS, council housing and free schooling to secondary level for all. This romanticism of class division is seen in describing “differently-dressed servants” (Larkin 99) as “Never such innocence/Never before or since” (Larkin 99).  It is doubtful if the working classes would be so romantic of pre Welfare State Britain. Harry Leslie Smith, a WW2 veteran writes in The Guardian of his sister dying of TB, which was a common cause of death for working class citizens prior to free healthcare at the point of entry (Leslie Smith, 2014).  A strict adherence to pentameter fits in with this yearning for an England in which the middle class is more dominant as pentameter makes poetic verse much more compatible with RP standardised English by legislating for the number of syllables in each line, cancelling out elision and making transitions at word junctures difficult, thus promoting a middle to upper-class dialect (Spencer 17).

Larkin and Harrison struggle with the changing morals of post-war Britain, a concern cutting across classes. In “Church Going” published in 1955, the speaker clings to the tradition of Church attendance but merely for the sake of it. The poem questions the dwindling relevance of Christianity in the increasingly secular England of the 1950’s. Larkin’s lines which wonder “When churches fall completely out of use/What we shall turn them into…” (Larkin 58) seem to be answered in “V.” with both Methodist and Church of England billboards which used to advertise religious messages now “are filled with cut-price toilet rolls” (Harrison 227).  Thirty years later, it seems that consumerism has become the new religion of Britain. “Church Going” provides an example of Larkin departing from a tight adherence to iambic pentameter, which the majority of the poem is written in, however it is not used in every line:

“Since someone will forever be surprising” (Larkin 59).

This line is one example of breaking away from the five iambs per a line with an extra syllable present. The majority use of formal iambic pentameter is fitting to the solemn focus of the poem but the poem is both recognising the role religion plays in British society and questioning its usefulness. This element of critique ties into a break from the standard metre. The title itself presents a double meaning which can be taken plainly as going to Church, or the Church “going” from having purpose for post-war Britain. In “High Windows” Larkin offers commentary on the decline in morals in terms of the sexual liberation which began in the 1960’s. “High Windows” is published in 1971; a decade after the contraceptive pill became available on the National Health Service. Additionally, abortion is legalised in the United Kingdom (with Northern Ireland exempt) in 1968. The speaker comments enviously on teenage couples guessing “he’s fucking her and she’s/Taking pills or wearing a diaphragm” (Larkin 129) which is a “paradise” (Larkin 129) “Everyone old has dreamed of all their lives” (Larkin 129).  These freer sexual mores are linked later in the poem to the speaker looking back forty years to his youth and predicting the loosening hold religion will have on sexual activity, “No God any more, or sweating in the dark//About hell and that” (Larkin 129).

The envious tone Larkin employs in “High Windows” is unusual as he is generally “a poet of failure and disenchantment” (Whalen  6) in terms of his perspective on the social condition of the Britain he finds himself living in. He harks back to an England he never knew, to an extent reminiscent of the politics embodied by Nigel Farage in United Kingdom Independence Party of today’s Britain. Indeed Heaney describes Larkin as a poet of “composed and tempered nationalism” (Heaney, 1976 100).  In Harrison’s “Clearing” the beginnings of Britain becoming a multi-cultural state are documented within the second half of the poem, with the speaker’s father’s house being sold to a Jamaican family. Harrison highlights how white English residents often felt increasing immigration was a manner in which Britain was declining with the landlord’s relief at being able to sell and his racist assertion that the neighbourhood “being mostly black, ‘s on the skids” (Harrison 125). This feeling of non-whites as a threat to England’s identity is evident in “V.” as well, with Harrison’s father’s most benevolent reference to immigrants being “coloured chaps” (Harrison 226). The increasing xenophobia of England is shown in the graveyard graffiti including “a swastika with NF (National Front)’s” (Harrison 218), “PAKI GIT” (Harrison 220) and “NIGGER” (Harrison 220), stemming from low unemployment rates and working class men blaming their immigrant neighbours for taking their jobs, as opposed to failings of Thatcher’s government in providing adequate employment.

In conclusion, it can be seen in Larkin’s rejection of Neo-Romanticism there is a distinct worry for the status and security of life for the middle classes of Britain. Larkin, looks by and large, longingly to a past with a stricter feudal order. Harrison, in a much more confessional and tormented style, looks more so to the future, worried and sceptical that Britain will not be able to provide any degree of stability to the lives of the majority of working class men. Neither poet cares for the experience of women in the period of post-war Britain they find themselves living in, and both comment on the demise of Christianity’s influence over Britain.  Consumerism is to paraphrase Marx, the new opium of the people.


Primary sources:

Harrison, T (1987) Selected Poems, London: Penguin.

Larkin, P (2002) Collected Poems, London: Faber and Faber

Secondary sources:

Astley, N (1991) Tony Harrison, Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Bloodaxe.

Chatfield, T (2009) ‘The Movement Reconsidered; edited by Zachary Leader | Book review’, The Observer, 23rd August,

Clavane, A (2013) ‘Tony Harrison’s poem V is a timeless portrayal of working-class aspiration’, The Guardian, 18th February,

Heaney, S (1976) ‘Englands of the Mind ‘, in Heaney, S (ed.) Finders Keepers, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, pp. 240

Paulin, T (1990) ‘Margins of Tolerance: Responses to Post-War Decline ‘, in Regan, S (ed.) Philip Larkin: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press , pp. 160.

Leslie Smith, H (2014) ‘A eulogy to the NHS: What happened to the world my generation built?’ The Guardian, 4th June,

Smith, S (1997) ‘Margins of Tolerance: Responses to Post-War Decline ‘, in Regan, S (ed.) Philip Larkin: Contemporary Critical Essays. New York: St. Martin’s Press, pp. 178.

Spencer, L (1994) The poetry of Tony Harrison, Hertfordshire: Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Whalen, T (1986) Philip Larkin and English Poetry, Basingstoke: Macmillan.









Getting funding to train as a journalist

journalismFacebook memories tells me that’s it exactly a year ago today since I found out I had been awarded a Scott Trust bursary by Guardian Media Group. This bursary paid for my MA fees at the University of Sheffield and provided £6000 for living costs. I also availed of work experience in the Manchester and London newsrooms.

I have been incredibly fortunate to receive this funding and want to raise awareness of funding opportunities. Journalism is an extremely middle class and white industry. For me, coming from a working class family it was  daunting-how will I break in? My parents left school at 15, I got the full EMA at school and the full living grant at university. I was the first in the Noble family line to stay in school to 18 and the first to go to university. Research by the Sutton Trust in 2006 shows how minority working class representation is in the British media:

  • More than half (54%) of the country’s leading news journalists were educated in private schools, which account for 7% of the school population as a whole.
  • Overall, 45% of the leading journalists in 2006 – or 56% of those who went to university – attended Oxbridge. This is slightly lower than in 1986, when the equivalent figures were 52% of the total, and 67% of university graduates

Additionally the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ) found  that:

“65% of those who manage to break into the industry have a parent who is a professional, a manager or a director. (That’s nearly two thirds.) Just 3 percent of new journalists come from a family of ‘unskilled’ workers.”

However, it’s not all doom and gloom. It is competitive to get journalism funding but there are more bursaries than you perhaps may think. Let me know if you know of anything I’ve left out!

The Scott Trust bursary scheme

6/5 bursaries (the site says 5 but there were 6 awarded my year so…) are awarded yearly to graduates or soon-to-be graduates who can prove a commitment to journalism and who face financial difficulties in attaining the qualifications needed to enter the media. Courses currently selected by the scheme are masters at City University London, Goldsmiths and The University of Sheffield. Fees are paid, a living bursary and expenses when you are on work experience with the Guardian-travel, lunch and accommodation in a hotel.

The Journalism Diversity Fund

The Journalism Diversity Fund was set up in 2005 to increase diversity in the media. It is administrated by the NCTJ so you must have applied to/have an offer of study for a NCTJ accredited course- a MA or short course such as the Press Association’s or News Associate’s. Applications are accepted throughout the year, with several rounds of funding.

Press Association’s  bursary scheme

Press Association is the leading news agency in Britain and Ireland, supplying content to all national news outlets and most regionals. Two people will be selected each year from socially and/or ethically diverse backgrounds who can prove financial disadvantage . PA pay for a place on their NCTJ diploma course in London, a living grant and provide for a two year contract at PA with the chance of securing long term employment with them after.

The George Viner memorial fund 

This fund was launched by the National Union of Journalists in 1986 with the aim of increasing the representation of Black and ethnic minority journalists in the British and Irish media. Course fees are covered.

The Thomas Read bursary

This bursary was set up in memory of Thomas Read, a sports journalist with cerebral  palsy who sadly died from complications due to surgery in 2015. The bursary is awarded to aspiring journalists with disabilities.

Veronica Guerin memorial scholarship 

One aspiring investigative journalist wishing to study for a MA in journalism at Dublin City University is awarded  a scholarship to cover course fees and some living costs. The bursary is awarded in memory of investigative journalist Veronica Guerin, who was murdered on 26 June 1996, and who served as a member of the governing body of NIHE/DCU from 1982 to 1992.

Many universities in England have their own funding for students from low incomes  who have achieved strong academic grades in their undergraduate degree and who are wishing to study a masters.





Ethical issues in ‘‘It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done’: the Irish women forced to travel for abortions” published by the Guardian, 31 October 2015

pregnancy test

This is an essay I wrote for my masters, for a module on ethics in journalism. I really enjoyed writing this essay as abortions rights is an issue I have a massive interest in.

Amelia Gentleman’s report, focusing on the difficulties women from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland face when seeking abortions, and having to travel to England to get an abortion, raises many ethical issues and concerns. The interviewing of women who have had abortions invades privacy in the name of the public interest and could intrude into grief or shock. The Guardian, being a left-of-centre/liberal newspaper takes a clearly biased angle in the reporting of Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, focusing on the matter as a social justice issue and addressing how these laws impact women seeking abortions. Yet, the issue is also a criminal one-these women are breaking the law of their countries and the report has no focus on the pro-life lobby. So then, is Gentleman’s report objective, subjective or fair? Does it contain elements of the journalism of attachment? The story also raises the importance of maintaining protection of confidential sources, with no surnames given for any women interviewed who had an abortion and with Gentleman ending the article with a note on some surnames being changed. The article has been shared close to 10,000 times on social media and the Guardian in recent months, has increased coverage of abortion issues in Northern Ireland. Yet, the disparity between abortion law between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom has been ongoing for decades. Matters relating to the representation of women in journalism and the representation of Northern Ireland in the mainstream UK media during conflict and now in the post-conflict era, are areas highly worthy of consideration, when analysing the ethics of this article.

Abortion is a highly sensitive, polarising topic; more so in Northern Ireland, than any other region of the United Kingdom. The 1967 Abortion Act does not apply as it does in England, Scotland and Wales. The Offences against the Person Act 1861 is the main law applying in Northern Ireland. (Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, 2013) Section 58 of the 1861 Act makes it an offence to use drugs or instruments to procure abortion and Section 59 of the 1861 Act makes it an offence to be the supplier of drugs or instruments intended to cause abortion. An offence under Section 58 is punishable with life imprisonment and an offence under Section 59 is punishable with imprisonment up to 5 years (, 2016). In the Republic of Ireland, the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, 1983 introduced a constitutional ban on abortion (Irish Statute Book, 2016). Abortion is a very intimate issue as it intersects into a personal health issue, sexual relations and the debate on when life begins. As Ireland, North and South criminalises women who seek abortion, this adds extra layers of shame and sensitivity which a reporter must be aware of, when seeking to report on abortion in Ireland. From the very first line of Gentleman’s article, it can be seen that she has had these issues of invasion into privacy at the fore:

“By 10.30am, 10 minutes before her first appointment, Catriona is already grey-faced with exhaustion and so tired that talking is a struggle; her words fall out on top of each other” (Gentleman, 2015).

The norms of reporting would be to name Catriona’s full name, her age and where she is from. Yet to do so in this instance, would identify her to her home community and thus shame her publicly. There is also the risk of arrest. A 21-year woman is currently facing trial in Northern Ireland for seeking to procure her own abortion and aid another woman to ‘miscarry’ (Fenton, 2016). Gentleman would not have been able to tell these women’s stories without providing high levels of anonymity. She later writes of Catriona “like all the women I spoke to for this article, did not want to use her real name” (Gentleman, 2015). There is strong adherence to the ethics of the NUJ Code of Conduct’s guidelines on intruding into an individual’s private life. The Code states that a journalist should not intrude “unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest” (National Union of Journalists, 2013). The Editor’s Code of Practice states in clause 3, Privacy that all are “entitled to respect for his or her private and family life, home, health and correspondence” (, 2016). Clause 5, Intrusion into grief or shock directs that “enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively” (, 2016).

Gentleman’s piece is not hard news, it is an in-depth feature written in a very emotive, angled manner. There is extensive usage of lengthy quotes which convey emotions extremely well such as the opening line of the second paragraph:

“A lot of bad things have happened to me in my life, but this has been the worst” (Gentleman, 2015).

The biased angle is most notable in Gentleman’s choice of interviewees. These being women who travel to England to terminate pregnancies, women who carry out their own abortions via pills, the manager of a British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic, the founder of Abortion Support Network, two women who run websites which take orders for abortion inducing pills and a couple who host women travelling to Manchester for abortions in their home. This highlights the clear moral judgment Gentleman is making via her piece, that it is an issue of social injustice and wrong that women cannot have abortions in Ireland. There is no one interviewed that offers an opposing view, or that supports the current laws on abortion. This approach is markedly different to a BBC Three documentary which interviewed pro-choice and pro-life activists and individuals (Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, 2015). Broadcast media in the UK is much more regulated than print media, with state regulation by Ofcom.  Print media is able to take strong stances and The Guardian’s bias is reinforced further by an editorial calling for change in the law (the Guardian, 2016).

In Gentleman’s piece, the governments of Ireland, North and South are presented as more at fault than the women travelling for abortion, who are whether one agrees that they should be or not, criminals. The article details women travelling to England for abortions and provides information on aid women can get to fund an abortion via the Abortion Support Network. It also details that Mifepristone and Misoprostol can be bought online and taken in order to produce a miscarriage. So the article not only reports that women are breaking the law and acquiring abortions, but it could be argued, increasing awareness for other women in Ireland to do so. The Guardian it can also be argued, is justified in taking the side of the women who are travelling to England for abortion when considering the context in the rest of the United Kingdom and throughout Europe. In England, Scotland and Wales women can access abortion advice and services easily, via the National Health Service. Research carried out by Amnesty International found that abortion law in Northern Ireland is the harshest in Europe (Amnesty International USA, 2015). In 2015, a United Nations Committee assessing the state of human rights throughout the United Kingdom, raised Northern Ireland’s abortion laws as a human rights violation (, 2015). Additionally, the Belfast High Court ruled in November 2015 that the current abortion law is a breach of human rights (BBC News, 2016). This highlights that elements of the State, specifically the law, are in contradiction with each other. The disparity with law in the rest of the UK and Europe, the contradictions within the Northern Irish State and the severity of the ‘abortion issue’- women throughout the island of Ireland “had almost 25,000 abortions in England and Wales over the last five years” (The Detail, 2015) justify The Guardian portraying women breaking the law and acquiring abortions as a public interest issue and one a criminal one. The Guardian’s coverage echoes the NUJ Code of Conduct which champions “the right of the public to be informed” (National Union of Journalists, 2013).

It is one thing to have a public interest justification and to pursue journalism that holds the State and the government to account but quite another to take within the reporting of the limited abortion rights in Northern Ireland to take on a campaigning stance. There are certainly elements of the ‘journalism of attachment’ to The Guardian’s coverage of abortion in Northern Ireland. Whilst the term journalism of attachment is most frequently associated with war reporting due to it being coined by Martin Bell in 1997 when speaking on his experiences of reporting on conflicts, describing the journalism of attachment as “a journalism that cares as well as knows…and will not stand neutrally between good and evil, right and wrong, the victim and the oppressor” (Foerstel, 2001), it can be applied generally to all reporting. Evidence of The Guardian taking on a campaigning role is seen in the frequency of the focus of coverage on abortion in Northern Ireland. Going to the ‘Northern Ireland’ section of The Guardian’s website in 2016 there has been 16 articles that focus on abortion in Northern Ireland. Given at the time of writing, it is currently the 20th day in January, that accounts for a sizable amount of The Guardian’s Northern Ireland coverage. To show the extent of this coverage, consider the level of coverage given to the appointment of Northern Ireland’s new First Minister Arlene Foster-and in the entire history of the State, the first woman, who took office in January 2016. There are only 4 articles focusing on Foster and one of them is in relation to abortion rights in Northern Ireland, when Foster declares there will be no extension of the 1967 Act. In one week alone in January, specifically the week beginning 4th January and ending 10th January, there are 13 articles about abortion posted; this can easily be seen to be The Guardian’s core campaigning week especially as it culminates in an editorial on abortion in Northern Ireland on 7th January “The Guardian view on abortion: Northern Ireland’s shame” (The Guardian, 2016). This editorial is not merely observing the situation, it is commenting on it and clearly making a call for change. The closing paragraph states:

“Several women who had an abortion relayed to the Guardian the burden of living with painful secrets, and the dread, or the experience, of having that secret betrayed. The concern of the old political order may very well be to lock this shame culture in place. In doing so, however, it brings nothing but shame on Northern Ireland” (The Guardian, 2016). Clearly this being an editorial, it is subjective. However, The Guardian’s wider reporting of abortion in Northern Ireland and Ireland is if not wholly subjective, containing strong elements of subjective journalism, mixed with elements of objective journalism. The objective elements can be seen in the perhaps overly obvious evidence that of course, all reports are based on factual reality but the objectivity seeps in when considering the biased angle and agenda of said reporting. The Guardian’s coverage of abortion does not even match with reporter Jane Merrick’s assessment of objectivity and fairness:

“When I sit down to write a story I never think, “is this objective?” But I’m always aware of being fair and balanced and having both sides of a story. I’m not sure you can be objective. I’ve never really thought about it, to be honest” (Harcup, 2015).

The Guardian’s abortion coverage could not be called fair, balanced nor does it give both sides of the story. Yet, this is only a negative if you believe print media’s only role is to report the facts, to report the world as it is and not try to change the world in any manner. The entire concept of the objectivity norm has been frequently challenged with claims it is impossible to achieve and in proving futile in moral conflicts between right and wrong (Harcup, 2015). Indeed, this notion of as journalists having a duty to not just record the wrongs of our times, but challenge them is not merely confined to print media. Veteran Channel 4 reporter Jon Snow stands out especially as a broadcaster who offers a compelling riposte to the idea that quality journalism must be entirely detached:

“Look, there is no such as a neutral human being,” he says. “I’m not dogmatically or doctrinally or party-politically motivated but, yes, I am political and I think that the best journalists in the world are. It means being engaged in society, and wanting to change the world. I’m a hack who wants to change the world” (Usborne, 2014).

The truly startling aspect of The Guardian’s coverage of that this hyerfocus on Northern Ireland’s abortion laws is only happening in 2016. Northern Ireland has solidly been a region of the United Kingdom since 1921 and it is 49 years since the 1967 Abortion Act was introduced in Scotland, England and Wales. Of course, Northern Ireland between 1969 and 1998 was within the UK media and internationally, known primarily for the conflict; ‘The Troubles which claimed over 3600 lives, injured and traumatised many others and had left Northern Ireland to this day, a deeply divided and sectarian society (, 2013). With so many issues relating to killings unresolved, across all factions-republican paramilitary, loyalist paramilitary and British army murders, understandably even in peace time, the political and media discourse has been heavily focused on the past. However, the Good Friday Agreement will be 18 years this spring; an entire generation has now grown up in Northern Ireland with absolutely no lived experience of The Troubles. It is notable that in recent years’ issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage have become increasingly dominant in discourse.

Simply, when war occurs, war dominates the agenda and concerns of political and media actors. When people are being killed, understandably, concern for social issues and issues that stretch beyond the green and orange framework of the conflict is extremely low. When considering the ethics of the representation of post-conflict Northern Ireland in UK media and thus when assessing the ethics of reporting on abortion law disparity and understanding why the issue has been largely ignored by the British media to 2016, it is crucial to realise the gendered elements of the conflict. Figures based on academic research by Malcolm Sutton record that during the Troubles 3145 men were killed and 321 women (, n.d.). This data is highly useful as it shows that the core actors of the war, were male, with most people joining terrorist organisations or the British army, being men. There are a considerable number of women across both sides of the conflict who took up arms or joined State armies but by and large, women were confined to a ‘behind the scenes’ role carrying out their duties largely, as the norm in patriarchal societies as wives and mothers; very often holding together families. Thus, how can it be expected that a women’s issue such as abortion, would during conflict rise to any real dominance in political or media spheres? Crucially it must also be taken into account that during The Troubles, there was no devolved government in Northern Ireland, with direct rule from Westminster. The fact that Northern Ireland has just appointed its first female First Minister in 2016, highlights the increased barriers to women’s representation and issues in Northern Ireland. Just 14 of 108 Members of the Legislative Assembly are women (Purdy, 2010).  The representation of women in journalism is very likely to be a key factor in the late focus by The Guardian on this matter. It should not be diminished that this kind of focus has only happened under Kath Viner, the first female editor of The Guardian.




Primary source:

Gentleman, A. (2015). ‘It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done’: the Irish women forced to travel for abortions. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

Secondary sources:

Abortion: Ireland’s Guilty Secret?, (2015). [TV programme] Three: BBC.

Amnesty International USA, (2016). Northern Ireland: Draconian abortion law harshest in Europe. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

BBC News, (2010). Is Stormont a cold house for women? – BBC News. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2016].

BBC News, (2016). NI abortion law ‘breaches human rights’ – BBC News. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016]., (2013). BBC – History – The Troubles – Violence. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2016]., (2015). UN committee ‘concerned’ by Northern Ireland’s abortion laws – [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety, (2016). THE LIMITED CIRCUMSTANCES FOR A LAWFUL TERMINATION OF PREGNANCY IN NORTHERN IRELAND A GUIDANCE DOCUMENT FOR HEALTH AND SOCIAL CARE PROFESSIONALS ON LAW AND CLINICAL PRACTICE. [online] Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety. Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016]., (2016). EDITORS’ CODE OF PRACTICE COMMITTEE | THE CODE. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

Fenton, S. (2016). A 21-year-old Northern Irish woman is to stand trial for ‘attempting an abortion’. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

Foerstel, H. (2001). From Watergate to Monicagate. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press.

Harcup, T. (2015). Journalism. London: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Irish Statute Book, (2016). Eighth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1983.. Dublin., (2016). Offences Against the Person Act 1861. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

National Union of Journalists, (2013). NUJ code of conduct. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

the Guardian, (2016). The Guardian view on abortion: Northern Ireland’s shame | Editorial. [online] Available at: [Accessed 20 Jan. 2016].

Usborne, S. (2014). Jon Snow interview: ‘I’m a hack who wants to change the world’. [online] The Independent. Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2016]., (n.d.). Statistics of Deaths in the Troubles in Ireland. [online] Available at: [Accessed 21 Jan. 2016].