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Media: Northern Ireland: a story stifled: David Miller argues that the five-year-old broadcasting ban has failed to halt terrorist bombings and killings. Instead it has succeeded in hampering Sinn Fein, a legal politcal party

David Miller
Tuesday 12 October 1993 23:02 BST

It is five years since the broadcasting of direct interviews with 11 Irish organisations was banned - one of a number of measures taken after a series of IRA attacks.

According to Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, the notice was introduced, on 19 October 1988, because 'the terrorists themselves draw support and sustenance from access to radio and television . . . The Government has decided that the time has come to deny this easy platform to those who use it to propagate terrorism'.

The use of violence by the IRA, however, does not seem to have been affected by broadcasting censorship: the bombings and killings continue. And it is hard to see how terrorists managed to draw support and sustenance from access to television before the ban was introduced, since active members of the IRA or the Irish National Liberation Army (Inla) had not appeared on British television since 1979, nine years before the ban. Interviews with members of the IRA and the Inla, which were in any case rare, stopped immediately the organisations were pronounced illegal in 1974.

In fact, the ban is not aimed at the activities of the IRA (or any of the other illegal groups named in the notice), but specifically at the ability of Sinn Fein, a legal political party, to operate in a normal democratic manner. The notice forbids the broadcast of words that 'support or solicit or invite support' for one of the listed organisations, or any words by 'a person who represents or purports to represent' one of the organisations.

This covers any statement by any person who supports the use of political violence by any paramilitary organisation, and as such might be regarded as corresponding to the Government's stated aims in combating terrorism. But it was already illegal under the Emergency Provisions Act to utter support for an illegal paramilitary organisation.

On top of this, broadcasters are bound under statutory and charter duties not to broadcast material that could encourage crime, and Sinn Fein candidates are required to sign a declaration renouncing violence before they can stand for election.

The single sense in which the ban goes further than existing law is that it specifically prohibits statements, which may have nothing to do with terrorism, in support of or by representatives of legal organisations. Thus a statement supporting Sinn Fein policy on women's rights or post offices is prohibited. The impact of the notice has been quite marked. In the 12 months from October 1988, Sinn Fein appearances on British television news declined by 63 per cent; and in the four years since then, such interviews seem to have become even scarcer.

This is a product of the notice's vague and confusing wording and of a broadcasting establishment under siege by the Government. Thus, the easiest time-saver in a busy newsroom is simply to leave Sinn Fein out. And a ripple effect has resulted in the exclusion of other critical voices on Northern Ireland issues, even where they do not express support for terrorism or Sinn Fein. The best-known example is the banning of the Pogues' song 'Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six' for containing a 'general disagreement with the way in which the British government responds to, and the courts deal with, the terrorist threat in the UK'.

Perhaps the most serious extension of the ban occurred in an edition of the BBC programme Nation, which featured a discussion on justifications for political violence. The programme featured the activist and former MP Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, but almost her entire contribution was subtitled.

Rejection of her request for a judicial review of the BBC's decision was overturned by the Court of Appeal in July, and the case will now go to a full hearing. Mrs McAliskey is opposing the ban at the European Court of Human Rights, and two other attempts to challenge it - by the Sinn Fein councillor Mitchel McLaughlin and the National Union of Journalists - are pending.

The ban is only a small part of the repertoire of government information management techniques. Before the ban, successive governments had been increasing the pressure on the broadcasting institutions not to give all sides of the Northern Ireland story.

Allied with this is the routine use of misinformation by official bodies, such as the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Army, and attempts by the Northern Ireland Office to pretend that things are getting 'back to normal'.

So, even if the broadcasting ban is lifted, the British public will still not be given enough information to make sense of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

The author is a member of the Glasgow University Media Group.


Managing director of BBC News and Current Affairs

THE TALKS between the SDLP's John Hume and Sinn Fein's Gerry Adams have highlighted the need for the Government to re-examine the necessity for legislation that undermines the ability of British broadcasters to tell the full story. The ban is damaging to broadcast journalism and to Britain's reputation as an upholder of free speech.

Before the ban, broadcasters could carry testing interviews with Sinn Fein representatives after IRA atrocities. Now these representatives often avoid interviews, claiming that their voice will not be heard.

The inconsistency of the notice regularly surfaces. During an edition of Inside Ulster last summer, one member of Sinn Fein was voiced over by an actor because of a story's political theme, while in another instance a member of the party was heard in his own voice because he was the witness to an attack and was thus speaking in a personal capacity.

The BBC has always been careful about interviewing members of Sinn Fein and other listed organisations. When we conducted interviews before the notice, with due sensitivity to audience feeling, complaint was rare.

This is a condensed version of Tony Hall's article in the current issue of 'Index on Censorship'.


Chairperson of Sinn Fein

POLITICAL censorship aims to 'manage' the public and political debate about the conflict in Ireland. The people, censorship implies, are too immature, too unintelligent, too nave to deal with all of the arguments posed by the various sides to the conflict.

The censors, however, cannot evade the reality. They can mould perceptions. They can conceal the facts and effects of their participation in this conflict. They cannot hide the existence of the conflict.

Two leaders of nationalist opinion in the six counties, Gerry Adams and John Hume, have recently addressed, with some success, the issue of how to create the conditions that will bring a just and lasting peace. Freedom of expression, freedom of information and inclusive dialogue are vital ingredients in the search for that peace. Censorship is a barrier. It is widely acknowledged that censorship of Sinn Fein prevents public opinion being properly informed.

Broadcasters often tell us that they must be careful they do not become part of the propaganda war. They are right, but their caution must be exercised on all sides. They should never allow themselves to become an instrument of state propaganda against dissidents.

I appeal to them to recognise the importance of their role and the need to oppose censorship.


Labour spokesperson on National Heritage

FIVE years on, the broadcasting ban remains a nasty little law, flirting with censorship. It was draconian in drafting, and has proved to be ineffectual in execution.

The way a democratic society deals with threats of terrorism goes to the heart of its constitution. Tolerance of the intolerable is the hallmark of a democracy. The Government, however, by ordering a blackout, blurred the distinction between debating the issues and inciting anti-social activity. It is the criminal law that ought to be brought to bear on terrorism, not some off-the-shelf administrative device.

It took the Roman Curia 400 years to exonerate Galileo. And though I would hesitate before confusing Gerry Adams with the great astronomer, each has articulated the unspeakable for their times.

Being right is not the key. Being allowed to be obnoxiously wrong is. The constitutional concept of free expression means something in continental Europe, and it means something in the United States. It should mean something here. A written constitution and a Bill of Rights would not make deciding every case easy. But they would allow each generation to learn the things of value to a democratic way of life. They would set the limits for what is unconstitutional. The ban is outside that limit and should be lifted.


Secretary of State for National Heritage and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland

THE GOVERNMENT currently has no plans to withdraw the broadcasting restrictions, because there has been no change in the circumstances which led to their introduction. Northern Ireland terrorist organisations continue to commit acts of violence and their apologists still seek to justify the use of murder as a legitimate 'political' tool.

In a democratic society, there is a difference between the use of television and radio to pursue legitimate political aspirations and their use to advocate murder and violence, which causes further distress to the victims of that violence and their families.

The broadcasting restrictions do not amount to censorship. Television and radio journalists share the same rights as their newspaper colleagues to report fully the actions, words and thoughts of the terrorist organisations and their supporters.

In my experience, there is substantial public support for the principle that terrorists and their apologists should not enjoy the same unfettered access to the broadcast media as those who are committed to, and respect, the standards and restraints of peaceful democracy.

(Photographs omitted)

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