A gag that chokes freedom: Tony Hall calls for the lifting of the broadcasting ban which he claims the IRA has exploited to damage Britain's reputation

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The Independent Online
IN OCTOBER 1988 the British government introduced a ban which is seen to be one of the most serious restrictions on freedom of speech and expression in peacetime. There was no debate in Parliament; the imposition of the ban was empowered by the 1981 Broadcasting Act.

The Northern Ireland Notice, issued by Douglas Hurd, then the Home Secretary, outlaws the broadcasting of speeches by selected individuals on television and radio. The notice denies the people of Britain the freedom to judge the value and argument of specific politicians and their policies for themselves.

This is what the Northern Ireland Notice or 'ban' means:

It prevents the direct broadcast of anyone speaking as a representative of, or in support of, a listed organisation. These organisations include the IRA, INLA, UVF, Sinn Fein and the UDA. This is so even if the individual would have talked on a non-violent topic.

People who represent organisations affected by the ban may still speak in other capacities. A local government councillor elected on a Sinn Fein ticket, for example, can represent the council on one of its committees, or may be heard as a spokesman for his or her constituency if talking about constituency matters.

Such people may also be heard when talking in a personal capacity, for instance, as an eyewitness to an incident.

Anyone at all who expresses support for a proscribed organisation cannot be heard in a programme expressing that support unless the comments are made in Parliament at Westminster. This applies even to MPs speaking outside the House of Commons.

People from these organisations can be quoted in reported speech. Pictures of the person speaking can be shown and the words can be voiced-over by someone else or shown in a caption.

Television can show pictures of banner-waving supporters of the listed organisations but the sound would have to be cut if support were chanted.

Exemptions from the notice are allowed for candidates at general, local and European elections and for those speaking in support of them, but only up to the close of poll. After that, winners and losers from any of the listed organisations are covered by the ban again.

So how has the ban affected broadcasting? Before the ban, interviews with members of Sinn Fein on network radio and television were not frequent. But when the BBC carried out such interviews it could confront them with the consequences of their actions or policies. Television interviews in particular are very telling - you have the opportunity to see and hear the reactions of the interviewee under cross-examination.

In September last year the Sinn Fein President Gerry Adams and John Hume, leader of the SDLP, announced that after months of talks they were making a joint report on the prospects for peace in Northern Ireland.

Sheena McDonald interviewed Adams for the BBC's On The Record. McDonald pursued the point that peace proposals had little chance of success while the IRA continued to use violence. Although Sinn Fein's leading spokesman was both nervous and defensive, the ban meant that viewers could not hear Adams struggling to respond effectively. The voice of an actor was used to convey Adams' responses to a searching and difficult interview.

Since the announcement of the ceasefire there have been other examples of interviews where the nuances, the pauses and the tone - some of the important features viewers and listeners use to judge what someone is saying - are missing.

Not only does the ban deny people the right to exercise their judgement, it is ill-conceived and inconsistent. The public is not denied Gerry Adams, nor indeed the extreme elements of the loyalist side of Belfast. In certain circumstances, viewers and listeners may even hear them without the overdubbed voice of an actor. In February 1992, Gerard McGuigan, then the Sinn Fein party leader on Belfast city council, was legally interviewed not as a politician but as the victim of a Ulster Freedom Fighters' grenade attack on his house. This was within the law.

In the general election of 1992, Gerry Adams was seen - and heard - campaigning on constituency issues and debating Sinn Fein policy with John Hume. Again, this was done within the law because the notice is lifted during elections. The moment the election was over, the voice of the Sinn Fein president disappeared once again from the airwaves.

In this respect the notice, far from depriving terrorists or their apologists of publicity, actually aids their cause. During the election, representatives of a number of groups on the fringe of Northern Ireland's violence were able to present themselves as respectable politicians. But Sinn Fein's response to losing their only parliamentary seat could not be heard.

Conversely, the terrorists' spokesmen have used the notice as an excuse not to be interviewed on difficult issues, claiming that the ban on their voices means they will not properly be represented. Far from depriving the men of violence of the oxygen of publicity, the ban is being used by them and for their ends.

There can be few arguments for continuation of the ban. Newspapers that once supported it are now having second thoughts. The case for removing the ban was strengthened considerably at the beginning of this year. In January, the Irish government's 22-year-old ban on interviews with Sinn Fein and paramilitary spokesman in the Republic was lifted.

The move was not universally popular on both sides of the Irish border and many saw it as evidence of a widening rift in approach between Downing Street and the Irish government. But the lifting of the restrictions added a further twist to the saga. People in Northern Ireland - British citizens - can now hear and see interviews with people like Gerry Adams through Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) but they cannot hear them on the BBC.

Gerry Adams' response to the lifting of the Irish restrictions was predictable and sought to shift blame for the continuation of the Troubles on to such measures. Once again, the notice was being manipulated by the very people it was designed to keep in check. He claimed: 'Over 20 years of political censorship has served to stunt any hopes of a resolution of the conflict. It has denied the right of information. Good riddance.'

Around the world, the restrictions are positively harmful to the reputation of Britain. BBC correspondents in Sri Lanka, India and Egypt have all had the notice quoted against them when they have objected to the intrusion of government censors. In the US, supporters of Irish republicanism have used the restrictions to campaign for 'health warnings' on BBC World Service programmes.

The BBC's Foreign Affairs Editor, John Simpson, complained of the problems he encountered when reporting from Baghdad during the Gulf war: 'When I worked in Baghdad, officials there always used to mention our Sinn Fein ban if you criticised their censorship. I don't like to see this country appearing on the same side of the dividing line as Saddam Hussein on anything at all.'

Speaking at a reception given by the Washington Post during his visit to the United States, Gerry Adams said: 'It is impossible to imagine such censorship of any participant in a conflict of such overriding importance in this country. Whatever the outcome of this trip, it is right that it was allowed, not for the sake of the IRA or Sinn Fein but for the sake of Americans who believe free speech is an unassailable good and are practised in listening to and sorting out all the players in a complicated game.'

The prohibition undermines the statutory obligation of broadcasters to ensure impartiality in their output. The ban represents a measure of direct political censorship which should be alien to citizens of a democratic society. The time is right for it to be lifted.

The author is head of News and Current Affairs at the BBC.

This is an edited version of 'The Broadcasting Ban', the author's contribution to Charter 88's 'Violations of Rights in Britain' series, to be published in October. More details from Charter 88, 071-833 1988.

(Photograph omitted)