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Meehan, Níall. (2003) 'How RTE censored its censorship'
Text: Níall Meehan ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh
The following article has been contributed by the author Níall Meehan with the permission of the Sunday Business Post. The views expressed in this pamphlet do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
How RTE censored its censorship
By Niall Meehan
Published in 'Sunday Business Post'
Sunday 20 April 2003
[Article also available as a PDF File; 726kb]
Ten years ago, I conducted a
two-week study in DCU's School of Communications on how often RTE
told its audience that it was censored under Section 31 of the
By coincidence, news of the existence of the Hume-Adams
document, a key starting point for the peaceprocess, broke theday
the study commenced. Had RTE told us it could not interview Gerry
Adams, my mini-thesis that RTE was censoring the existence of
censorship would have been up the spout.
However, the first
day's news set the tone. Newsreader Bryan Dobson reported that John
Hume was unavailable for interview because he was in the US. What of
Adams? Was the audience told that although the other end of this
political double act was physically available, RTE could not
interview him either? No they were not. Adams remained a non-person
in a story named after him for two whole weeks. It was typical of
the RTE response to censorship, one that frequently left outsiders
gazing on in disbelief.
That year, 1993, was a bad one for
RTE. In its eagerness to uphold the law, RTE broke it. On March 31,
the broadcaster was found by the Supreme Court to have been
operating an illegal system of self-censorship. Under cover of
Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, RTE had systematically extended
the scope of the censorship order. It had prevented a Sinn Féin
member (now Sinn Féin councillor) Larry O'Toole from speaking about
a trade union dispute in which he was the spokesperson.
After the High Court declared the practice illegal RTE
appealed to be re-censored and told the Supreme Court it would not
allow a Sinn Féin actor to advertise a bar of soap. The US Newspaper
Guild declared: "We are astonished that RTE, instead of welcoming
this liberal interpretation of an abhorrent censorship statute, is
asking the Irish Supreme Court for a greater restriction of its
RTE said that its blanket ban was an exercise of its
discretionary powers. Yet, when faced with precisely the same
dilemma, the BBC said that a Sinn Féin member could not be held to
be representing his or her party during every waking moment.Under
British censorship rules, Gerry Adams was broadcast speaking on
behalf of constituents.
Since the 1970s RTE had been ordered
to stop Sinn Féin and IRA representatives or spokespersons from
being broadcast. Section 31 permitted governments to issue an annual
censorship order. Loyalists were also banned, but by common
admission of ministers, Section 31 was aimed at Sinn Féin.
The order issued by Fianna Fail minister Gerry Collins in
1971 led to the sacking of the RTE Authority and the jailing of jour
nalist Kevin O'Kelly over his refusal to name IRA chiefof staff Sean
Mac Stiofain as the voiceona tapedinterview. After Conor Cruise
O'Brien became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1973, he accused
RTE of allowing a "spiritual occupation" by the IRA. A new
management regime was put in place. Those who would not toe the line
were sent to agriculture, children's and religious broadcasting.
By 1976 the National Union of Journalists said that the
government line on "security" issues was not questioned by RTE.There
were major stories of local, national and arguably world
significance that RTE was afraid to touch. Allegations of British
involvement in the 1974 Dublin Monaghan bombings were left
unexamined. Miscarriages of justice affecting the Birmingham Six and
others were largely ignored.
RTE sent its security
correspondent to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis to report his impressions
over pictures of the gesticulations of Sinn Féin delegates. During
this brief yearly ritual RTE said that "ministerial restrictions"
affected coverage. A system of self-censorship was securely in place
at the conclusion of O'Brien's tenure as minister in 1977.
Subsequent governments left that system in place.
confirmed in a recent biography of President Mary McAleese (by Ray
Mac Manais, Clo lar-Chonnachta). McAleese was an RTE reporter dur
ing the IRA hunger strikes. Her biography recounts how the
unfortunate Forbes McFaul was roundly denounced as "a fucking
Provo", after he broadcast an objective account of the growth in
nationalist support for the hunger strikers.
day-to-day practice altered the spectrum of accepted opinion on the
North. The absence of a republican voice allowed the promotion of
the idea that the SDLP represented a form of nationalist extremism,
and that unionists were in the misunderstood middle of the political
continuum. John Hume was relentlessly attacked.
imaginary Provos were seen everywhere. Teacher Eileen Flynn was
infamously and publicly sacked from her job in Wexford because she
was pregnant and unmarried. Hesitant and uncertain, she reluctantly
agreed to be interviewed by RTE, until management in-structed that
she be asked (on the basis that her partner was) if she was an SF
member. RTE banned an advertisement for a book of short stories by
GerryAdams and refused to allow him to be interviewed as the author
of a work of fiction.
Ray Burke steps in
In 1988 an exhausted
RTE reporter, Jenny McGeever, recorded and later broadcast Martin
McGuinness, as the bodies of three unarmed IRA members shot by the
SAS in Gibraltar travelled over the border. Ray Burke was minister
at the time. For reasons now becoming apparent, he carried
ministerial responsibility for broadcasting around on his back as he
traipsed from department to department. Burke rang RTE to express
his seething rage and to assert that "the foundations of the state"
were shaking. McGeever was hauled before her boss and accused of
being "a member of the Repeal Section 31 Campaign" (even this was
suspect). She was sacked in the bid to shore up the foundations of
our brown envelope society.
Many accounts of those days in
RTE ascribe its failings to a take-over of RTE current affairs by
the Workers Party, whose hysterical anti-provoism for med the
backbone of RTE's system of self-censorship.
is to miss the point. There was a peculiarly RTE alliance between
the systems of media control originally devised by the two Joes
(McCarthy and Stalin) at work. The conservative leaderships of the
Irish political establishment were happy to see the republican
viewpoint excluded, even if that meant the eventual if short-lived
emergence of the Workers Party. The attempt by the Workers Party to
control media coverage of the North was largely successful because
it was in tune with a conservative fear of the consequences of
permitting exposure of nationalist experience in the North. That
conservative attitude continued to affect coverage long after the
demise of Section 31 in January 1994 and of Workers Party influence.
It was also not confined to RTE.
Epilogue: after Larry
O'Toole won his appeal, he became the first Sinn Féin member to be
knowingly interviewed by RTE in 20 years about how it felt to have
won his case. Ironically, he also became the last one banned some
eight months later, when RTE refused to allow him to be interviewed
on the same subject for an item in an RTE-Channel 4 co-production.
As he had become a Sinn Féin candidate in an election some
five months off, RTE said he was now a Sinn Féin representative in
his every utterance.
Minister Michael D Higgins put an end
to this farce, when he abolished the Section 31 Order. What RTE did
then is another story.
Niall Meehan is Head of the
Journalism & Media faculty in Griffith College, Dublin.