From Watchdog to Lapdog
Why the British media have muzzled themselves on Northern Ireland
Jonathon Fenby, deputy editor of The Guardian, is a giant of a man, but he seems to be shrinking with every syllable. He is trying to explain why the British media in general, and The Guardian in particular, have allowed the government to muzzle their coverage of Northern Ireland. Shifting his bulk, he hems and haws and slips and slides deep down into his chair. Furrowing his brow, he finally comes to his conclusion, the bottom line of everything he’s said: “Well, it’s apathy really.”
Coming from an editor at one of Britain’s most prestigious newspapers, the words are stunning. You’d expect a bitter battle over censorship, but in this case the British media seemed to hold out a white flag of surrender. What’s worse, there are signs the media have used the censorship as an excuse to ignore Northern Ireland. Faced with tough editorial decisions on how to handle the political strife there, the tendency is now to avoid them altogether. “Nobody has the will to go into muddy waters,” Fenby says. “It’s ‘too difficult to operate in that middle ground, to operate in that grey area-no right, no wrong. I’m afraid I too have sunk into apathy. I’m not at all happy that we don’t do more thinking, more analysis on Northern Ireland.”
The British government could not have hoped for better. It set out to silence its Irish opponents and ended up cowing the media themselves. A study by the University of Glasgow Media Group concluded in 1990 that “the media have been all too willing to toe the British Government’s propaganda line,” and many journalists would agree. As television reporter Peter Taylor observes: “Whereas initially we were seen as victims of the government’s action, we are now seen as its agents.”
The main weapon used to control Irish coverage is the Broadcasting Act of 1981, which former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher presented as an attempt to eliminate terrorism by denying terrorists the “oxygen of publicity.”
In theory, the act gives the Home Secretary sweeping power to deny the air waves to any organization deemed a threat to state security. In practice the power has been used only to make a clean sweep of Irish organizations.
In 1988, Douglas Hurd, then Home Secretary, used the law to prohibit broadcasts containing any words spoken by the Irish Republican Army, the Irish National Liberation Army, the Ulster Defence Association and Sinn Fein. In a speech defending the crackdown, Thatcher explained that by revoking the freedom to speak she was protecting the freedom to live, the two apparently being mutually exclusive in the Irish context.
The ban on Sinn Fein was lifted temporarily on election day in 1989 but was reinstated before polls closed. This meant that the victory speeches of democratically elected Sinn Fein candidates could not be broadcast. “It was done as a way of gagging public apologists of IRA terrorists,” says Duncan Campbell-Smith, who writes on Northern Ireland for The Economist. “But it’s not a black and white situation. You can’t draw the line between apologists and elected representatives. So the Home Office doesn’t try. It’s a blanket ban on any statements.”
The government later extended the ban to people it construed as sympathizers. The list of individuals caught in the act includes American author Margie Bernard and Brighton Labor Councillor Richard Stanton, both of whom spoke out against the ban, and The Pogues, an Irish folk band whose song, Streets of Sorrow, alleges that some of the people serving time in British jails for IRA bombings were set up by police.
The broadcasters were quick to comply with the government. Shortly after the 1988 directives were issued, John Wilson, Policy Editor for the British Broadcasting Corporation, announced that after seeking legal counsel the BBC had decided a failed challenge was worse than no challenge at all. And if the BBC is playing it safe, so is the Independent Television Commission. The ITC, which oversees almost 150 television and cable stations, has also bowed to the ban. Besides The Pogues’ song, the ITC has axed a documentary on women and Irish nationalism, and a late-night discussion on Northern Ireland that was to include Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams. In the year before the prohibitions, Sinn Fein representatives were seen on the BBC and the ITC network 14 times, but only five times in the year following. Adams was interviewed on the BBC 12 times in the year before the ban, twice the year after. The broadcasters have become conveniently complacent about such censorship. “The first time is the worst,” says the BBC’s Wilson, “Then the second time it’s not so bad. And then the third”
The broadcasters’ failure to make use of legal loopholes has only served to heighten the sense of their complicity. Because the ban only applies to spoken words, broadcasters could skirt it by dubbing the voice of an actor over that of a banned speaker. Such is the strange logic of the Broadcasting Act that it allows the actor to voice the speaker’s exact words. At worst, a dubbed film can look like a bad spaghetti western, but it is better than nothing. “As a point of principle, we should be exercising such alternatives,” says John Ware, a reporter with the BBC’s Panorama series. “But it’s cumbersome, not very neat and not 100 percent natural. So broadcasters just don’t bother. We are playing the government’s game, the censorship game, by not doing it.”
Though the ban only applies to broadcasters, the print media have also thrown themselves into the censorship game. The Guardian’s David Pallister, a veteran with 15 years experience covering Northern Ireland, believes “that timidity on the part of broadcasters has created a climate which has an impact on the print media,” and as a result newspapers aren’t filling the gap in coverage created by the ban. Mark Brennock, a reporter with the Irish Times, sees the same problem: “It works on a subconscious level. There is no conspiracy, there’s nothing to keep Northern Ireland out of the papers. The broadcast ban creates a climate that Sinn Fein and IRA issues are not acceptable.”
Government censorship has, in fact, provided an easy escape from the sheer difficulty of covering Northern Ireland. The political situation there is so complicated that a plethora of viewpoints slice up a not-so-United Kingdom like partisan pie. After so many years of conflict, there’s now a feeling of hopelessness that feeds the apathy expressed by The Guardian’s Jonathon Fenby. “There are no answers,” he says. “No one can see a solution. You just want to forget about it.” The same is apparently true of the newspaper-buying public. “I the context of a complete politic; impasse, the British appetite for news “declines,” observes Michael Ignatieff, columnist for The Observer
Britain’s National Union of Journalists remains the sole source of pres opposition to the censorship, but so far it has been unable to stir up enough support among its members to put much pressure on the government “I’ve yet to meet a journalist who agrees with the ban,” says Roy McHardy, NUJ Council Member for Broadcast. “But it’s so hard to get them out on the street with placards.” Opposition to censorship might be more diligent if the issues were not so complicated, so tiresome, so Irish. “It may be odd that there isn’t a stronger reaction against censorship, but the explanation isn’t mysterious,” says The Economist’s Campbell-Smith. “IRA bombs kill a lot of people, and there’s always a Sinn Fein representative ready to explain it. There’s a good deal of feeling in British newspapers against them.”
The NUJ is still planning to challenge the government ban by taking its case to the European High Court, but the outcome doesn’t look promising. Sinn Fein made a similar appeal in 1988, and lost. And while Thatcher, the driving force behind the censorship law, may be gone and the Home Office under a new minister, the government shows no sign of loosening its grip on the power of the Broadcasting Act.
The Home Office is now considering whether to prohibit an Ulster Television documentary series tracing the history of Ireland from 1890 to 1990. The programs, which were to be shown in schools across the UK next year, include footage of speeches made by the late Irish President Eamon de Valera and Foreign Minister (and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Sean MacBride. If the series is banned, it will be the first time the government has moved to censor the dead. But given the success it has had in silencing the living, the government hasn’t much to fear in dishing out the same treatment to skeletons in the closet.
by Liza Finlay
Liza Finlay was the Visuals Editor for the Summer 1991 issue of the Ryerson Review of Journalism.