Broadcasters welcome end to 'censorship'

Rhys Williams,Media Correspondent
Friday 16 September 1994 23:02

BROADCASTERS welcomed yesterday's decision by the Government to lift the ban on Sinn Fein and other listed organisations, saying it brought to an end an embarrassing period of censorship.

Michael Grade, chief executive of Channel 4, said normal news reporting could now be resumed: 'The lifting of the ban ends one of the most embarrassing attempts to censor coverage of the most important domestic political story of post-war years.'

John Birt, Director-General of the BBC, said: 'We can once again apply normal and testing scrutiny to all sides in the debate.'

Paul Chinnery, a solicitor who unsuccessfully challenged the ban at the European Commission of Human Rights, said: 'We're pleased that the Government and Prime Minister now feel the British public can be trusted to listen to the words of Gerry Adams.'

The Government's notice on Northern Ireland broadcasting restrictions came into force on 19 October 1988 after an escalation in paramilitary violence over the preceding summer months. In response, the British government cut remission for terrorist prisoners, began to erode the right of silence and introduced a broadcast ban modelled closely on one implemented 12 years previously in the Republic by its government.

Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, told the Commons that a similar ban was being instituted because 'the terrorists themselves draw support and sustenance from access to radio and television . . . the time has come to deny this easy platform to those who use it to propagate terrorism.'

The notice banned direct reporting of expressions of support for a number of specified paramilitary and politically associated organisations in Northern Ireland. These included the outlawed IRA, INLA, UVF and UDA, as well as the only legal political group affected, Sinn Fein.

The guidelines, however, allowed the broadcast of pictures of an interview, together with a voice, either paraphrased or verbatim. The restrictions soon appeared farcical, with actors able to speak the words of Gerry Adams or Martin McGuinness in near perfect time. A BBC interview with Mr Adams was once broadcast to the US on CNN without anyone realising his voice had been dubbed by an actor.

Many Conservative backbenchers and Unionist MPs felt that broadcasters were breaking if not the letter, then the spirit of the law, and last November called for it to be tightened. But British broadcasters argued the restrictions exposed them to ridicule abroad and severely compromised their ability to carry objective reports from the province.

After th e dialogue with John Hume, leader of the SDLP, last autumn, Mr Adams was interviewed on BBC's On the Record. When pressed on whether peace proposals had any chance of success while the IRA remained committed to violence, the Sinn Fein leader was, according to observers, nervous, defensive and unconvincing. Tony Hall, the BBC's head of news and current affairs, believed the actor's steady delivery crucially denied viewers the opportunity to judge Mr Adams for themselves.

Critics also maintained terrorists' spokesmen often used the notice as an excuse not to be interviewed on tricky issues, claiming the ban meant their views would not be properly represented.

When the Irish government lifted its ban in February this year, the British position appeared increasingly untenable. At the Edinburgh International Television Festival last month, David Gilliland, a former director of information at the Northern Ireland Office, branded the restrictions 'politically inept' and called for them to be scrapped.

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