BBC 'wrong' to silence former Ulster MP

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The Independent Online
PETER BOTTOMLEY, a former Northern Ireland minister and a member of the Conservative government which introduced broadcasting restrictions in 1988, said yesterday that the BBC had been wrong to apply them this week to the former Ulster MP Bernadette McAliskey, who does not belong to any of the banned groups.

He said the action defamed her, and put her life at risk, by implying she supported violence. The clear implication is that the BBC's interpretation of the restriction goes beyond the intention at the time it was imposed; in Margaret Thatcher's words, 'to deny the oxygen of publicity' to terrorists.

Under her maiden name of Devlin, Mrs McAliskey was elected an 'Independent Unity' MP on her 22nd birthday in 1969. She appeared on Tuesday night on Nation, a recorded discussion programme on political violence, which was shown on BBC 2. For some parts of her contribution her voice was silenced, and replaced by subtitles.

The 1988 Home Office notice to the Independent Broadcasting Authority and the BBC prevents broadcasts of members of a list of republican and loyalist paramilitary groups, and two legal political parties, Sinn Fein and the smaller, hard-line republican Sinn Fein. The voices of Mrs McAliskey and two anonymous contributors from the audience were banned under a clause in the notice that prohibits any words spoken which 'support or solicit or invite support for such an organisation'.

Mr Bottomley, a vice-president of the British-Irish New Consensus group, who also appeared on the programme, yesterday wrote to Sir Michael Checkland, the Director-General of the BBC, saying: 'Bernadette McAliskey is not an advocate of violence. She is not a member of a violent organisation. Treating her as a spokesman for the killing criminals puts her reputation and her physical security at risk. There is no question that this was both defamatory and dangerous for Bernadette.

'I believe the BBC should say a mistake was made and that an instant apology is to be given to her.'

The BBC said the cuts had been advised by BBC lawyers, and was last night considering its response to Mr Bottomley's letter. John Wilson, the BBC's editorial controller, to whom contentious broadcasts are normally referred, is on leave until Monday. A BBC spokesman could not say whether the programme had been shown to Mr Wilson before he went on holiday.

Mrs McAliskey described the effect of the subtitles as 'defamatory, derisory and dangerous'. The BBC refused her request to withdraw her contribution from the programme, and her solicitors are understood to have exchanged letters with the BBC since Tuesday. She said she had drawn a clear distinction on the programme between understanding and supporting the use of violence.

'Nothing I said warrants this kind of treatment. The BBC's position is ridiculous,' she said.

The publishers of a book written by Gerry Adams, the president of Sinn Fein, yesterday won a judicial review of the decision by Irish broadcast networks to ban advertisements for it. The book, The Street and other stories, is a collection of short stories mainly set in West Belfast and was published by Brandon Book Publishers last month.