Political Commentary: Broadcasting ban has turned tragedy into farce

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The Independent Online
I HAVE long made it a rule to give a wide berth to Jews, Arabs and Irishmen, at any rate in their political and my column-writing capacity. I break it today because I find the spectacle of Mr Gerry Adams's face increasingly infuriating.

It is not that I regard Mr Adams's countenance as displeasing in itself. Indeed, there are those who would consider him a fine figure of a man. Nor is it that I think him necessarily a force for evil, though my friend Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien assures me that he is a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and I believe most of what Dr O'Brien tells me.

No: what makes me angrier by the month is that I cannot hear what Mr Adams is saying. I cannot hear it because the Government has decreed that television viewers shall not be permitted to hear it.

Mr Douglas Hurd, who as Home Secretary inaugurated the prohibition almost exactly five years ago, mitigated this administrative assault on free speech. He allowed the words spoken by Mr Adams and others in his position to be quoted verbatim, not merely in summarised form. He even went so far as to provide work for actors specialising in Hibernian accents. On our television screens, Mr Adams's voice is rendered in a softer Belfast accent which sounds authentic enough to me, though I am open to correction on this point.

The result is that an act of government which seemed - indeed, was - authoritarian appears before us in cap and bells. Or, to look at it from another viewpoint, the heavy villain is an artist's impression. Altogether, political tragedy is being turned into low farce.

Perhaps this is what Mr Hurd intended all along. It may be that his successor, Mr Michael Howard, agrees with him. We do not know. What is clear is that no senior minister is any longer prepared seriously to defend the ban.

At the same time, however, ministers fear that lifting the ban would 'send the wrong signal' to Mr James Molyneaux and his official Ulster Unionists, on whose good will Mr John Major is increasingly dependent. A new, a Westminster dimension has been imported into the politics of Northern Ireland. While Mr John Hume is parleying with Mr Adams with the tacit approval of Sir Patrick Mayhew, Mr Major is reassuring Mr Molyneaux that nothing is going to happen which he and his colleagues may find disturbing.

My concern here is, however, narrower. It is to do solely with the rights of licence- and taxpayers on the mainland. In her memoirs, Lady Thatcher writes:

One measure which we announced publicly in October (1988) was the prohibition of broadcast statements by Sinn Fein and other Northern Irish supporters of terrorism. This immediately provoked cries of censorship: but I have no doubt that not only was it justified but that it has worked (synxtax in a slight twist here), and there is some reason to believe that the terrorists think so too.

Unlike Lady Thatcher, I am not in the terrorists' confidence, and have no means of knowing what they may or may not think, on this as on other matters. But I can look up figures and read the newspapers as well as she. On any rational interpretation, it is doubtful whether the prohibition has 'worked'. Au contraire, as George Brown used to say when he was Foreign Secretary. The number of outrages and the level of violence have increased since 1988.

If it could be shown that the ban had caused them to diminish substantially, I should be prepared to support its maintenance. Free speech is not an absolute value. As the American jurist O W Holmes observed, there is no right to cry 'Fire' in a crowded theatre. If the price of saving a little girl from being blown to smithereens, or a father from being shot in the head in front of his children, were never again to hear Mr Adams's tones on the airwaves, I for one would willingly pay it. Indeed, I should be prepared to endure a complete blackout of Mr Adams.

But that is not the choice. Not only is the Government willing to allow the television authorities to reproduce Mr Adams's exact words and to supply an imitation of his accent. More, when Mr Hurd introduced the ban, he made clear that it did not apply to parliamentary or local elections or to proceedings in Parliament itself.

Accordingly, if Mr Adams had bothered to turn up at Westminster between 1983 and 1992 (when he lost his Belfast West seat) and had summoned up the energy to make a speech, the BBC would have been entitled to broadcast it, and other channels to re-run it. Mr Hurd admitted at the time that he made this exception because he did not want to get into trouble with his colleagues over parliamentary privilege.

But he had no worries about contravening the European convention on human rights. After all, Ireland, a fellow-signatory, maintained a wider-ranging and more stringent ban without finding itself in difficulties at Strasbourg. This was true. It remains so. Sentimental leftists in this country have long chosen to disregard the inconvenient truth that Ireland is a theocratic state which has never made any pretence of embracing English liberalism. In 1972 the entire staff of Radio Telefis Eireann was dismissed for allowing a broadcast interview with an IRA leader.

Would Mr Hurd have tried to take similar action against the BBC and ITV if they had behaved in a similarly contumacious way in 1988? Would Mr Howard act if they did likewise today, and simply ignored Mr Hurd's directions? Mr Hurd moved against ITV under the Broadcasting Act, against the BBC under the licence and agreement between the Corporation and the Home Secretary. Both provisions are couched in wide and similar (though not identical) terms. No penalty is prescribed for breach of a consequential direction. The House of Lords decided unanimously that Mr Hurd was entitled to act as he did and that the ban was lawful. The objectors who took the case to the Lords were not the pusillanimous BBC and the equally cowed independent companies but half-a-dozen members of the National Union of Journalists - an element in the case which that undistinguished judge Lord Ackner was scornfully to emphasise.

Their Lordships held that the European convention was not directly enforceable in the UK. Even if it had been, it would not have made any difference, as the Irish experience demonstrates. It is full of get-out clauses, as these high- flown documents always are. The Lords also judged that no one could say that Mr Hurd was acting unreasonably. And they laid down too that the European doctrine of 'proportionality' - which is roughly that you should not use a steamroller for ironing the sheets - had no application here.

What no one seems to have noticed is that the powers under which Mr Hurd acted, wide though they are, were originally intended to allow the Home Secretary to ban a single broadcast or series of broadcasts. It was never contemplated that they should be used as an instrument of political censorship. I hope Mr Rupert Murdoch now gives us Gerry Adams live, for no one can stop him.