Media: Speaking out on the broadcasting ban: At a conference on reporting from Northern Ireland, all they could talk about was what can not be heard on British TV or radio, says Michael Leapman

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The Independent Online
The veteran Irish journalist Mary Holland looked down from the platform, in the chilly badminton court of the University of London Union, at the audience of barely 50 who had turned up for a conference last Saturday about reporting the Northern Ireland conflict. 'Five years ago,' she said, 'this meeting would have attracted a lot of journalists.'

Five years ago saw the introduction of the broadcasting ban preventing Sinn Fein supporters from being heard on British television and radio - a ban based on one that had been operating in the Irish Republic for more than a decade. The measure is still fiercely opposed by most broadcasters and journalists, but the Government has shown no inclination to lift it - indeed, there are suggestions that it could be tightened. The thin attendance told us merely that five years is a long time to sustain a hopeless campaign.

The conference, organised by the British Irish Rights Watch, came at a critical point in the conflict. It was supposed to discuss issues beyond the broadcasting ban; but it is such a patently ludicrous measure, giving rise to so many absurd anecdotes, that it proved hard to get away from the topic. There was the story from Ireland about the man whose question to a gardening programme about growing mushrooms was cut short because he was a member of Sinn Fein; the banning of the Pogues' song about the Birmingham Six; the BBC interview with Gerry Adams that was broadcast to America on Cable News Network without their realising that his voice had been dubbed by an actor.

Bernadette McAliskey, the long-time nationalist supporter, was there to tell how her voice had been dubbed against her will in a discussion programme and the BBC refused to let her withdraw her contribution. Poilin Ni Chiarain, a reporter from Radio Foyle in Londonderry, said that in such a small town it was hard to find actors for dubbing whose voices were not overly familiar to her listeners.

Yet to recognise that the ban is daft, as well as an assault on freedom of information, does not mean it is ineffective. 'It has the effect of restraining journalists and changing the way things are reported,' said Ms Holland. 'There has been less coverage not just of Sinn Fein but the whole nationalist and republican community.' At a time when there seems to be a chance, however long the odds, of progress towards peace, it is important that all sides of the issue should be given fair and full coverage.

Ms McAliskey spoke of the mentality the ban has created among journalists and producers of current affairs programmes. For those keen to further their careers, it was a bad idea to provoke trouble or challenge the system.

'Even non-violent academics aren't often seen on the screen because they may inadvertently or otherwise speak in favour of nationalism. The ban protects the community from republicanism, not from violence.' Although it refers only to broadcasting, she added, the ban has a knock-on effect on press reporting because newspapers often base stories on what people say on television.

'It drives people in on themselves and the debate gets stifled,' said Ms Holland. 'There is a weariness and hopelessness about, the feeling that it's hard to get serious coverage on to the screen. There's been a lot of hype about John Major and his initiative, but the coverage is being dictated very largely from Downing Street. What it has to do with the facts of what's going on, I'm not sure.'

Part of the problem, she and other speakers believed, was the decline of investigative reporting, coupled with what she described as the 'destruction' of serious current affairs on television. 'Serious journalism practically no longer exists on ITV,' Ms Holland said. 'And Panorama has been told by the BBC that it has to become popular and do programmes that get large numbers of viewers.'

Jacob Ecclestone, deputy general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, blamed newspapers such as the Daily Mail, Daily Express and those owned by Rupert Murdoch for seeking to discredit investigative television reports, especially over the Thames Television documentary on the killing of three alleged terrorists in Gibraltar, Death on the Rock.

The demise of investigative journalism is mourned by political activists on the left, who look back nostalgically to what they see as its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies.

Another participant at the conference provided evidence that the investigative craft is alive and well. Ben Hamilton was a researcher on The Committee, broadcast as part of Channel 4's Dispatches series. It looked into allegations that the police in Northern Ireland were providing a 'hit list' of names of IRA suspects to Protestant extremists.

As a result of the programme Channel 4 and its producers were ordered to hand over their evidence to the police. When they refused they were fined for contempt, and Mr Hamilton said his home had been searched by the police.

Reporting from Northern Ireland has always been a hazardous business. Since the current troubles began 25 years ago, they have been covered by some of our bravest and most dogged press and television journalists, operating to the limit of the restrictions imposed on them.

Sadly, good reporting solves nothing, just as the repeal of the broadcasting ban, however desirable on human rights grounds, would not affect the outcome of the Irish dispute. All journalists can do is illuminate for readers and viewers the conditions created by the conflict, and hope that this will put pressure on politicians to hasten their search for a solution.

(Photograph omitted)