Let us hear their apologies: John Birt, incoming director-general of the BBC, calls for an end to the broadcasting ban that has shielded Sinn Fein politicians from scrutiny

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For four years British broadcasters have been compelled to deliver to their audiences an incomplete version of the politics of Northern Ireland. This is the result of the Northern Ireland Notice, imposed by government on this day in 1988.

The notice prevents the direct broadcast of anyone speaking as a representative or in support of a listed organisation. In practice, its main effect is to restrict broadcast appearances by members of a lawful political party - Sinn Fein. When Sinn Fein members speak on behalf of, or in support of their party, broadcasters must use subtitles or voice-over their contributions. Sinn Fein is a part of everyday political reality in Northern Ireland. It campaigns in free elections; and it holds 43 council seats.

Sinn Fein is, for instance, the second largest party on Belfast City Council. Across Northern Ireland, loyalist councillors and those of the nationalist SDLP take part in the same local government forums as Sinn Fein. Civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office have routine contact with committees on which Sinn Fein councillors sit.

In August this year the Government declared the loyalist Ulster Defence Association an illegal organisation. Unionists protested that Sinn Fein should also be banned; but the Government publicly emphasised Sinn Fein's political role.

The Northern Ireland Secretary said: 'I do not at present consider that the position of Sinn Fein, a political party which attracted some 30 per cent of the nationalist vote at the last election, is on all fours with that of the UDA.' This accords with the Government's wider policy of encouraging nationalists away from the Armalite and towards the ballot box.

In March 1991, the High Court in Belfast upheld the rights of Sinn Fein councillors in Belfast to speak openly in council debates; but those same councillors could not speak on television about the court's ruling.

The Government's and the court's underscoring of the lawful nature of Sinn Fein sits oddly with the constraints on the broadcast media's ability freely to reflect Sinn Fein's activities.

The notice has had some unanticipated consequences.

Sinn Fein has close links with the IRA - indeed, some suggest Sinn Fein is, in effect, the IRA's wholly-owned subsidiary. One impact of the notice is to reduce the coverage and discussion of this dimension. Before the ban, Sinn Fein's links with terrorism were more evident.

Broadcasters were, for example, able to carry testing interviews with Sinn Fein representatives after IRA atrocities. Now, Sinn Fein members often evade interviews after such incidents on the grounds that their voices will not be heard.

Conversely, under the terms of the notice, Sinn Fein members may be broadcast openly if they are speaking in a personal capacity, or as representatives of another entity such as a council or a committee. This allows them to appear as diligent councillors and community workers, keen to take up local issues such as housing or the environment.

The notice can also lead to the portrayal of Sinn Fein members as victims, since (like anyone else) they may be interviewed openly - again in a personal capacity - as witnesses to violence. One example occurred on 20 February this year, when Gerard McGuigan, then the Sinn Fein party leader on Belfast City Council, was interviewed as the victim of a gun and grenade attack on his home by the Ulster Freedom Fighters.

The notice gives rise to on-air anomalies which perplex audiences. During elections, the notice is relaxed. In this year's general election, Sinn Fein candidates were interviewed on Sinn Fein policies. They were seen and heard campaigning in West Belfast. Gerry Adams and John Hume debated in BBC studios with little audience complaint. As soon as the election was over, however, the curtain of the notice came down again. So when Adams lost his seat, interviews with him in his moment of defeat - of failure - could not

be broadcast; and radio and television audiences were not allowed to hear him speak at the declaration.

In Peter Taylor's revealing report on the Maze prison, broadcast in 1990, inmates were able to talk openly about terrorist activities, since they were talking in a personal capacity. However, one prisoner had to be voiced over when he complained about the inadequate size of sausage rolls in the prison, because, on this occasion, he was speaking on behalf of IRA prisoners.

The impact of these byzantine restrictions can seem perverse to mature audiences. This perverseness is an inevitable consequence of government setting down, in a tangled legal directive, matters that are proper-

ly for the editorial discretion

of independent broadcasters.

The notice seems not to have had an impact - one way or another - on the electoral fortunes of Sinn Fein. The party's share of vote in the election stayed level at about 10 per cent. The important point, though, is not that the notice sometimes disadvantages and sometimes benefits Sinn Fein but that, in doing so, broadcast audiences - particularly in Northern Ireland itself - are denied a complete picture of Northern Irish politics, and the opportunity to make up their own minds,

on the basis of direct


The BBC still aims to deliver to audiences as true a picture as possible of events in Northern Ireland. Our journalists are advised to interview political figures whenever appropriate, and whenever they would have done so before the notice was imposed - regardless of the extra work involved in seeking legal advice, voicing over or sub-

titling. And, while respecting the law, the BBC interprets the notice as narrowly as possible.

The existence of the notice mars, though, the reputation of Britain and its broadcasters as guardians of free reporting. Peter Brooke, as the new Heritage Secretary, assumes responsibility for the notice. As a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he is a sophisticated observer of Northern Irish politics. He is also the MP for City of London and Westminster South. This constituency was once represented by John Wilkes - the 18th-century politician, journalist and defender of free speech who wrote: 'I declare myself a friend of liberty and will act up to it.'

Broadcasters hope his successor will be a friend of liberty; that he will act to withdraw the notice; and that he will thus eradicate an unwelcome stain on fine British traditions.

(Photograph omitted)