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'Closing Down the Airwaves: the Story of the Broadcasting Ban' by Ed Moloney

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Text: Ed Moloney ... Page Compiled: Fionnuala McKenna

The following chapter has been contributed by the author, with the permission of the editor and publisher. The views expressed in this section 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.

scanned image of front cover This chapter is taken from the book:

The Media and Northern Ireland
Edited by Bill Rolston (1991)
ISBN 0 333 51575 7 227pp

Published (1991) by:

Macmillan Academic and Professional Ltd.
RG21 2XS

This chapter is copyright Ed Moloney 1991 and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author, editor and publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author or the publisher. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.

List of Illustrations
List of Abbreviations
Notes on the Contributors

1Closing Down the Airwaves: the story of the Broadcasting Ban
Ed Moloney
2The Silence in Irish Broadcasting
Betty Purcell
3The Media on the Rock: the Media and the Gibraltar Killings
David Miller
4Ulster Unionism and British Broadcasting Journalism, 1924-89
David Butler
5Toeing the Line: Why the American Press Fails
Jo Thomas
6In Search of Hope: Coverage of the Northern Conflict in the Dublin Daily Papers
Brian Trench
7News Fit to Print: Belfast's Daily Newspapers
Bill Rolston
8Photographs at War
Trisha Ziff
9At the Edges of the Picture: the Media, Women and the War in the North
Nell McCafferty

Chapter 1

Closing Down the Airwaves:
the Story of the Broadcasting Ban

Ed Moloney

Extending Censorship
Thatcherism and the Media
Excluding Sinn Féin
The Media Falls into Line
The Lead-up to the Ban
The Ban
The Journalists
The Strike that Never Was
The Effects


In mid-February 1978 the community centre in Ballymurphy, possibly the IRA's strongest redoubt in strife-torn West Belfast, had an unusual visitor. An up-and-coming Conservative MP called Douglas Hurd walked through the door accompanied by a television reporter from the Belfast office of the BBC and was introduced to two local men. Tea was offered and made and the two locals sat down with their visitor to begin a three-hour discussion on the 'troubles' in Northern Ireland (NI).

The dialogue, according to the BBC reporter who sat through it, turned into 'a cracker of an argument' (Irish Times, 7 December 1982). That was hardly surprising. The two men entertaining Mr Hurd held strong views on the situation in NI, views that were poles apart from the ex-Foreign Office official sitting opposite them. One was Gerry Adams, a former Belfast commander of the Provisional IRA and soon to become Vice-President of the IRA's political wing, Sinn Féin. The other was Danny Morrison, then editor of the organisation's newspaper Republican News and Sinn Féin's Director of Publicity.

Mr Hurd's reasons for being in Ballymurphy would have been readily understood and commended by many journalists who have written or made programmes about NI - at least by those who felt that it was necessary to talk to as many people as possible involved in the conflict, combatants included, if they and their audience were to make sense of the situation.

Mr Hurd, then Conservative party spokesman on European affairs, had been asked by a local BBC TV current affairs programme Spotlight to take part in a programme dealing with the British perspective of the 'troubles'. Just as any good journalist would also do, Mr Hurd had asked to meet and talk to as wide a range of opinion as he could before he appeared on the programme. That included Sinn Féin.

Apart from his trip to Ballymurphy, Mr Hurd also travelled a route familiar to most visiting journalists: a journey to Stormont Castle for a Northern Ireland Office (NIO) briefing; to RUC and British army headquarters for their views on the security situation; to the main political parties, unionist and nationalist, for their opinions. Mr Hurd was clearly determined to be as widely and well informed as he could before Spotlight was recorded. Also on his itinerary was a visit to the East Belfast headquarters of the Ulster Defence Association (UDA), the largest of NI's loyalist paramilitary groups. There he had talks with the UDA commander, Andy Tyrie. Six years later Mr Tyrie's memories of the meeting were hazy: 'All I remember about him is that at least he had the wit and the will to come and talk to other people.' (Irish Times, 11 September 1984).

The then NI Secretary Roy Mason had cleared Mr Hurd's meetings with Sinn Féin. So had his Party's spokesman on NI, Airey Neave. But when the Unionist Party found out about his trip to Ballymurphy, a formal complaint was made to the Conservative Party; Airey Neave's approval must surely have been endorsed by Mrs Thatcher, complained angry officials (Irish Times, 11 September 1984).

Mr Hurd had made only one proviso before the meeting with Sinn Féin. None of those he was going to meet would be IRA members or wanted by the authorities. The assurance was given - but not, evidently, via the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC). Within a week of the Ballymurphy meeting Gerry Adams was arrested and charged with IRA membership. If the memory of his trips to Ballymurphy and East Belfast caused Douglas Hurd to blush ten years later when he stood up in the House of Commons to announce, as Mrs Thatcher's Home Secretary, that broadcast journalists would henceforth be forbidden to talk on record to the sort of people he had talked to, Hansard makes no mention of it. If he felt any irony that his ban on broadcast interviews with Sinn Féin and the UDA would also,in the view of many reporters, discourage the media from precisely the sort of meticulous information-gathering expedition he had made in 1978, he showed no sign of it.


The broadcasting ban, or 'restrictions' as Whitehall prefers to call them, announced by Douglas Hurd on 19 October 1988, are the most stringent controls imposed on the electronic media since the Second World War. A watershed had been reached in government relations with British journalism - never again could the boast be made that Britain enjoyed complete freedom of speech.

Using powers under the BBC's Licence and Agreement and the 1981 Broadcasting Act which governs ITV companies, television and radio organisations were forbidden from carrying interviews or direct statements from proscribed paramilitary groups in NI, from representatives of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin or the UDA and from those who 'support or invite support for these organisations'.

The first part of the ban was mostly unnecessary. TV and radio companies had long since applied a voluntary prohibition on interviews with paramilitary groups, particularly republican ones. The last IRA interviews carried by the BBC and ITV were in 1974. The INLA was last interviewed in 1979 in the wake of Airey Neave's assassination and just before it was made illegal in Britain.[1]

The ban introduced by Mr Hurd extended censorship to a whole new category, to groups that were not only perfectly legal but had elected representatives in their ranks. At the time the ban was announced Sinn Féin had one MP, Gerry Adams in West Belfast, and some 55 councillors. Republican Sinn Féin, a breakaway group from Sinn Féin, had three councillors. Since the ban the UDA, via its political wing, the Ulster Loyalist Democratic Party, has won one council seat.

It was a dramatic extension of censorship in Britain and NI, all the more so since the law had been explicitly employed to control what the public was able to listen to or view. Censorship had always existed in Britain but it was invariably of a 'nudge and wink' variety, arranged in the singular ways of the establishment or self-imposed by journalists, companies and regulatory bodies well aware of the limits to official tolerance. Having it formalised in a ministerial edict, written down in black and white was however an entirely different matter. It was redolent of the methods used in authoritarian antidemocratic states. As Kevin Boyle, director of the free speech group, Article 19, commented on the day the ban was announced: 'Although the situation in South Africa is vastly different from the situation in Northern Ireland, the means now being used by the British government to stifle debate - political censorship - is the same as the means used in South Africa.' (Independent, 20 October 1988).

South Africa first introduced laws to control and limit freedom of expression in 1950. NI's own censorship regulations were thirty years older. They were contained in the 1922 Special Powers Act, a draconian law which empowered the Unionist Minister of Home Affairs to ban newspapers, films and books - as well as to intern without trial, ban political organisations, impose curfews and prohibit inquests. It was used from time to time to silence republican, nationalist and left-wing criticism of the government. In 1940, for instance, the Derry Journal, the nationalist newspaper of Derry, was banned, initially for six months, although it was lifted after a fortnight. [2]

It was never used though to interfere with radio coverage or television simply because there was no need to - the broadcasters did the government's job for it. As Rex Cathcart, author of the definitive of NI society, the grievances of the nationalist population and even the existence of artition were studiously ignored by broadcasters until 1951. From then until 1968 and the start of the civil rights movement NI's problems began to be acknowledged but emphasis was put on cross-community activity: 'The broadcasters aimed to build a consensus under the Unionist hegemony. The issues and situations which divided the communities scarcely got an airing. Whenever they did so, there was such a Unionist outcry that the local broadcasters were intimidated.[3] Between 1959 and 1968 a combination of Unionist government intervention and broadcasters' funk killed off four TV programmes.[4]

With the onset of the 'troubles' in 1969 and in particular the growth the Provisional IRA's violent campaign against British and northern security forces the pace and extent of censorship gathered dramatic speed. Between 1970 and August 1989, according to data collected by the Campaign for Free Speech in Ireland [5] and the London-based research group, the Irish Information Partnership, a total of 76 TV programmes on NI - documentaries, plays and even church services - were either banned, refashioned, cut or postponed because of either internal or external pressure. That was an average of one every three months.

In addition the broadcasting companies introduced their own internal controls and rules largely to obviate government and public criticism. At an early stage in the 'troubles', in 1971, the BBC and the Independent Television Authority (ITA), forerunner of the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), introduced 'the reference-up system' on programmes dealing with NI. This meant that all programmes on Ireland were effectively vetted by management or regulators and programme makers forced to abandon editorial control.

In 1979, after criticism of the BBC from the newly elected Mrs Thatcher when it was disclosed that a Panorama crew had filmed an IRA roadblock in Carrickmore, Co. Tyrone, all BBC programmes had to be approved by the NI Controller to avoid a repetition of the incident. Ulster Television (UTV) was allowed influence on ITV programmes. Both before and afterwards journalists complained of endless arguments and negotiations over scripts, sometimes centring on one paragraph or a single word.

There were other controls. The BBC's Director General's permission was needed before not only paramilitary members were interviewed but also members of political parties like Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams. This rule did not apply to extreme loyalists, however. And when people like Adams were interviewed, television and radio reporters were required to treat them in a 'forthright' and 'hostile' fashion.[6]

Overt censorship really began in earnest in 1971, the year of internment, controversy over British army behaviour and a surge in IRA recruiting and violence. From the outset certain programme subjects were the favourite for interference: those which dealt with nationalist or republican views of the 'troubles', programmes about the IRA and controversies over security policy or the record of the army and police.

An analysis of affected programmes from 1970 shows that 55 programmes, 72 per cent of the total, fell into this category. By contrast only five dealt with aspects of unionism or loyalism - interestingly three of these were in the short period since the November 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, seen by most unionists as a betrayal by the British government.

Another pattern emerges. More programmes have been interfered with at times of great violence and controversy over security policy. The censorship graph shows a peak in 1971 and 1972 - following the failure of internment, the growth of the IRA, Bloody Sunday and allegations of British army/RUC torture - and then falls off. It peaked again in 1977-9 when controversy flared over allegations of police brutality in places like Castlereagh interrogation centre and when the IRA was beginning to rebuild after the setbacks inflicted by the policy of criminalisation. Not all the affected programmes in either period dealt with these subjects but these do appear to have been times when an atmosphere conducive to censorship flourished. The next period of censorship followed the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Nearly 23 per cent of programmes interfered with between 1970 and the introduction of the media ban in October 1988 were made in the period after November 1985.

For the first time loyalists were seriously affected - the BBC for example stopped broadcasting live coverage of the Twelfth of July Orange parades in 1986 on the rather tenuous grounds that they would clash with a cricket match. Other programmes were interfered with because it was felt they might inflame loyalist passions over the Agreement.

Unionists blamed the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the enhanced say in NI affairs given to Dublin. But the majority of affected programmes since 1985, 11 out of 15, dealt with issues of concern to nationalists, such as the Stalker affair or the Birmingham Six judgement. Two were banned because they planned to show interviews with Gerry Adams. As in the 1970s, censorship in the 1980s was directed mostly at republicans and nationalists.

From an early stage, as Liz Curtis noted, censorship was often justified on the grounds that terrorism was theatre, that it depended for survival on 'the oxygen of publicity'.[7] Thus the military GOC Sir Frank King commented about media coverage of the IRA in 1974: 'All terrorist organisations thrive on propaganda and without the exaggerated attention of the media the IRA would probably have languished and died.'

British journalists, both electronic and print, were constantly reminded they were from a country whose soldiers were being killed by the IRA and that their programmes could and did give succour to the enemy. Programmes which caused waves, criticised the security forces or ignored government objections were bitterly criticised in parliament, by generals and senior policemen, by Cabinet ministers and by most of the tabloid press. Some individual journalists, like Mary Holland, were singled out for vilification, often with jibes that they were sympathetic to the IRA. The media were left in little doubt that if they did not put their own house in order, the government might do it for them.

In the atmosphere that was generated, company executives and regulatory bodies conceded ground and journalists quickly learned that a bit of self-censorship improved career prospects and reduced life's hassle factor. Those who believed the views of paramilitaries were relevant became a minority; those who believed in strictly controlled exposure or who favoured none at all grew in influence.

Some individuals like Mary Holland, Peter Taylor and Roger Bolton made brave stands or persuaded their companies to, but they were the exception to the rule. Many more reckoned that making programmes on NI was not worth the trouble. Mary Holland captured the pressures when she described the difficulties of covering allegations of RUC brutality in 1977: 'If an article or a programme or an interview is going to provoke rage from Airey Neave, cries of "IRA-lover" from Mr Mason and "flak" from the press, then everyone involved, no matter how courageous, from the researcher to the Controller instinctively reacts by thinking: "Oh God, can we face it?".[8]

There were always those in authority and elsewhere in public life who felt that existing censorship did not go far enough. Most notorious, but not untypical, was the Labour NI Secretary, Roy Mason. Just after he took office in September 1976, he gave journalists a flavour of his views when he told them he favoured a ban on all coverage of paramilitaries, enforced if need be by compulsory D-notices. Two months later he berated the BBC for its coverage of the IRA at a private dinner given by Corporation executives in an event that is celebrated in the BBC's history as 'the Second Battle of Culloden', so named after the hotel where the blood was spilt.

As the brandy and port were being handed round, Mason bitterly criticised the Corporation for being disloyal to the government and sympathetic to 'rebels'. He was supported by two other dinner guests, the Lord Chief Justice in NI, Sir Robert Lowry, and the British army's Commander of Land Forces, Major-General David Young.[9] Mason proposed a three-month blackout on reporting of terrorist activity; even his own assassination by the IRA should be ignored by the media, he told stunned BBC executives.

According to Labour's deputy leader, Roy Hattersley, Mason never brought these ideas to the Cabinet for approval. Merlyn Rees, his predecessor at Stormont, declared: it was foreign to anything we would do' (Independent, 17 November 1988). Whatever the truth, there were certainly others, not just generals or so-called terrorism experts, who sympathised with Mason's 'oxygen of publicity' school of media coverage. One such was the then leader of the opposition, Margaret Thatcher. Mrs Thatcher, a renowned opponent of terrorism, was a keen advocate of the 'oxygen of publicity' argument. She was to employ it regularly during her many assaults on television in the years following her election.


The attack on the media launched by the Thatcher government was not just inspired by coverage of NI. It also had its roots in the new administration's doctrinaire right-wing ideology, particularly opposition to public service broadcasting and a determination to subject as much of broadcasting as possible to the vagaries of the free market. Mrs Thatcher's policies for broadcasting, as in other areas, brought in their wake an unprecedented assault on civil liberties.

Mrs Thatcher's policies were controversial, seen by many as divisive and they were unpopular with a large section of the British public. As they were gradually implemented, the government's urge to stifle criticism of its policies in the electronic media grew accordingly. Most tabloids and the bulk of broadsheet newspapers already supported Mrs Thatcher's policies, some uncritically - but the most powerful medium, television, contained unpredictably free spirits. And many individual journalists, particularly in the BBC, as well as programmes and executives, were suspected of indulging a left-wing bias. Television became Mrs Thatcher's target and the tactics she used combined a threat to expose broadcasters to the cold winds of the free market with constant criticism of programmes and programme makers.

Affairs in NI were often to play a central role in the assault. They figured in Mrs Thatcher's very first clash with the BBC over the Carrickmore incident when the Prime Minister was said to have gone 'scatty' with fury when she learned of it. The government very quickly dropped hints that the BBC's licence fee was not immortal and that the BBC might have to look to other sources of income, advertising perhaps, or make do on less. The BBC governors apologised, Roger Bolton (editor of the offending Panorama programme) was nearly sacked and Scotland Yard launched an inquiry.

The Carrickmore incident gave Mrs Thatcher her first opportunity to set in motion her free market agenda for public service broadcasting - plans which at one time included ambitions to dismember and deregulate the BBC. Over time her targets widened to include commercial broadcasters. Plans were made to make companies operate in the free market and to force them to bid for franchises. There were proposals to make Channel 4 raise its own advertising revenue and to privatise ITN.

Mrs Thatcher received aid from other sources. Advertisers wanted to break the broadcasting monopolies and thus lower rates. Newspaper moguls like Rupert Murdoch joined the fray in the knowledge that weakening the broadcasting establishment would enhance the prospects of his own satellite television plans. His newspapers, particularly the Sun and The Sunday Times, were foremost in criticism of TV companies, the BBC in particular, when they offended Mrs Thatcher.[10]

Commercial pressure made BBC and ITV nervous and cautious, in no mood to resist attacks on individual programmes, programme makers, journalists and companies when they came. Current affairs programmes were a major target but so were other types; plays regarded as left-wing or unpatriotic were lambasted for instance. As time went on companies found that real and anticipated commercial threats from the likes of satellite TV made it sensible to make less time available for current affairs and more for game shows.

A watershed came with the Falklands war when programmes like BBC2's Newsnight were attacked and the loyalties of individual journalists questioned in parliament or in the right-wing press when they searchingly analysed Mrs Thatcher's war strategy or discussed military tactics.

The end of the war and Mrs Thatcher's re-election in 1983 signalled an intensification of the attack. The list of clashes with the government grew and although many of them involved NI matters, more dealt with issues of domestic concern: the Zircon special branch raid on BBC Scotland; Norman Tebbit's attacks on the BBC's Kate Adie for her coverage of the US bombing raid in Libya; the Real Lives row; the Spycatcher affair; Thames TV's Gibraltar programme 'Death on the Rock' and a new Official Secrets Act which would gag the media's coverage of the security services and particularly their surveillance of British citizens.

Changes were forced in the structure and upper echelons of public service television. The old guard at the BBC was turfed out and replaced. Marmaduke Hussey, a former executive at Murdoch's Times, became Chairman of the BBC governors, all of whom by 1989 were Thatcher appointees. Michael Checkland, a former finance director, was appointed Director General with a brief to cut costs -which meant programming cuts. John Birt was made his deputy and for a while Director of News and Current Affairs as well. Birt's appointment was highly significant. He had come from London Weekend Television where he had made his name with Weekend World, the station's main current affairs programme. Weekend World's philosophy disdained the sort of investigative journalism produced by programmes like Granada's World in Action. Weekend World's journalism, a creation of Birt and Peter Jay, was based on the notion that television current affairs had 'a mission to explain'. It was in many ways the antithesis of conventional current affairs television which was based on the idea that programme makers started off with a theory and then set about assembling evidence to support it. Weekend World set about assembling all the facts and then presenting them in such a way that it was left up to the viewer to discern what ideas or theories emerged. Inevitably such an approach was bound to be anodyne, even, in some eyes, boring. Birt brought that philosophy to the BBC with, many journalists believe, a deleterious effect on the Corporation's journalism.

Thatcherism, in all its manifestations, also impacted on television in other more subtle ways. The managerial, commercial and philosophical changes inevitably influenced the way programme makers saw the world. As one BBC executive put it:

I find it depressing looking at today's bright young things in television, men and women. Most of them have got their eyes firmly on the rung of the ladder rather than in illuminating some area of untrodden ground. It was always true but it's truer of more people now than it ever was. Every person on the BBC Board of Governors is appointed by Thatcher and the effect of that and Checkland/Birt has permeated down. The psychology of that is affecting the sort of ideas that are put up, ideas that have their finger on the pulse: how the NHS is going down the drain, how Thatcher has fucked up the schools, the level of homelessness. They want to make safe films instead because that's what they've seen in the chain above them - they've seen that other people promoted in the years of Thatcherism have been safe people, not all but too many of them.[11]


Mrs Thatcher's assault on British television was carried out in pursuit of her domestic economic aims but NI often became, wittingly or otherwise, the lever to achieve results. Eventually, thanks to political and violent events from 1981 onwards, NI helped pave the way for the ban and a move that many reckon to be seminal in her efforts to control the media in Britain.

The 1981 hunger strikes in the Maze prison, Long Kesh, had brought an unexpected bonus to the republican movement. The victory of the hunger strikers' leader, Bobby Sands, in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election in April that year and the success of anti-H Block candidates in the NI council elections the following month persuaded the leadership that Sinn Féin had an untapped electoral base.'

The 'armalite and ballot box' strategy was born. The IRA would continue to bomb and shoot while Sinn Féin would attempt to validate its campaign, stake its place at the negotiating table and put its moderate nationalist rivals, the SDLP, under pressure by seeking and winning votes. The policy got its first test in October 1982 when elections were held for a 'rolling devolution' Assembly devised by NI Secretary, Jim Prior. Against most of the predictions Sinn Féin won 5 seats, 64000 votes and 35 per cent of the nationalist vote. A year later in the Westminster general election Gerry Adams won West Belfast, Danny Morrison narrowly missed winning Mid-Ulster, Sinn Féin's vote topped 100 000 and its share of the nationalist vote reached 43 per cent.

The reaction of most of the media and many British and Irish politicians was one of stunned shock at these results, particularly the Assembly vote. The results flew in the face of received wisdom about the IRA and its relationship with nationalists. Since 1975/6 official British policy was to treat paramilitary groups like the IRA as terrorist criminals, not as politically motivated activists. Special category status in the prisons was phased out, internment ended and paramilitants processed through the courts using due process.

Paramilitaries were increasingly depicted as racketeers and gangsters who mainly exercised influence in their communities by threats. The image was not wholly undeserved and like all good propaganda there was some truth in the accusation. Loyalist and republican groups were getting increasingly involved at this time in dubious money-raising ventures like building site tax frauds, pubs and clubs. Loyalists had been involved in protection rackets virtually from the start.

Deep down though, the IRA's relationship with its community remained organic - in the age of confidential phones and sophisticated intelligence-gathering it could never have survived without popular support, at least within Catholic ghettoes. It was still a fish swimming in safe waters. Much of the media, with newspapers like The Sunday Times leading, nevertheless picked up and amplified the corruption theme without many reservations. The epithet 'godfathers of terrorism' entered journalistic argot. A typical description of the IRA's relationship with the Catholic community was this view, included in an analysis of IRA difficulties only one year before the Assembly election: 'Another main (IRA) anxiety is the possible loss of the support of the Catholic communities in NI, which was obtained, and retained, by intimidation alone. The Catholic communities in Belfast and Derry must be heartily sick of IRA domination and protection rackets, but as yet none dare say so.'[12] With this sort of stereotype widespread, rational coverage of paramilitary affairs became difficult.

No one ever knowingly voted for the Mafia, however, so Sinn Féin's performances in 1982 and 1983 exposed a serious credibility gap in government policy and something fundamentally amiss with media coverage. If Sinn Féin only got support by intimidation why hadn't people rebelled in the privacy of the voting booth?

Sinn Féin's performance posed another more immediate problem for officialdom - should its representatives be talked to at ministerial level? A decision in favour would implicitly mean the British government recognising that the IRA had some sort of popular nationalist mandate. And there was an awkward history, in the days when nationalist support of the IRA was regularly estimated in single percentage figures, of governments challenging Sinn Féin to test its support at the ballot box before it could be recognised.

The merits of this were briefly debated in the NI Office; a minority of ministers toyed with the notion that to include Sinn Féin in the political process might with time wean its leaders away from violence. Others calculated that this was fraught with political risks: Mrs Thatcher wouldn't tolerate it, furious backbenchers would see it as a reward for terrorist violence, unionists would be enraged and far from discouraging the IRA, recognition of its political wing might give it a new status which would further undermine moderate nationalists.[13]

Strong pressure in favour of this view came from the Dublin government where Dr Garrett Fitzgerald and his ministers were alarmed at the possibility that the British might again end up negotiating with the IRA - as they had done before in 1972 and 1974/5 -and that withdrawal might be on the agenda. Dr Fitzgerald had made his views clear when he refused to meet Owen Carron when he replaced the dead Bobby Sands as the Fermanagh-South Tyrone MP. Dublin's opposition added to the pressure to exclude Sinn Féin.

Within days of Gerry Adams' election, NI Secretary Jim Prior publicly ruled out talks with Sinn Féin, except at official level and only on constituency matters. Ministers, he said, would not have direct contact with its elected representatives as long as they were committed to violence. From then on the exclusion of Sinn Féin grew and spread, encompassing nationalists and unionists, taking various forms and happening on both sides of the Irish border. On each occasion the IRA's links with Sinn Féin were given as the reason.

The electronic media in NI were affected directly by one of the first manifestations of Sinn Féin's exclusion - when unionist politicians refused to appear in the same television or radio studios. The media accepted their veto. The delicate question of some unionist politicians' close links with loyalist paramilitaries was glossed over or ignored. NI-produced current affairs programmes, which often featured politicians in panel discussions, now divided these up into two: one where Sinn Féin, sometimes alone, sometimes along with the SDLP, was interviewed; the other where unionists. Alliance and the SDLP were interviewed together, invariably billed as 'the constitutional parties'.

The process of excluding Sinn Féin took other forms and was always justified by the Party's mandatory 'unambiguous' support for the IRA's violence. When, for example, the political parties in the Republic joined the SDLP in the New Ireland Forum in May 1983 to hammer out a common nationalist approach to NI, Sinn Féin was barred, although other parties with violent links, like the Workers' Party and the UDA, were invited.

Those who did talk to the Provos were attacked. In February 1985, the SDLP leader John Hume incurred the anger of Dr Fitzgerald's government when he took up a challenge to debate with the IRA leadership. When, three years later, he and some colleagues had a lengthy dialogue with Sinn Féin leaders about an IRA ceasefire, he was rounded upon in the North and by many in the South who accused the SDLP leader of throwing Sinn Féin a post-Enniskillen lifeline.

When people in Britain like Ken Livingstone and others in the Labour Party also met Sinn Féin, albeit on friendlier terms than Hume, they received the same treatment there.

In the North the Catholic hierarchy stiffened its opposition to Sinn Féin. The 'troubles' had weakened church authority in many nationalist areas - one index was falling Mass attendance in places like Ballymurphy. Like the government in Dublin, the church was also alarmed at Sinn Féin's potential appeal to the growing numbers of unemployed and dispossessed on both sides of the border. Such conditions had provided fertile ground already in the North and might prove the same in the South.

The Catholic Bishop of Down and Connor, Dr Cahal Daly, signalled the Church's mind when he followed government example and refused to meet Gerry Adams in his capacity as MP for West Belfast (other clerics, some of them senior, did maintain lines of communication, however). In Derry, Bishop Eddie Daly banned paramilitary trappings from IRA funerals, while before that the Catholic daily, the Irish News, banned IRA death notices.

In West Belfast and elsewhere community groups suspected of links with Sinn Féin or who employed Sinn Féin members lost British government employment grants under the Action for Community Employment (ACE) scheme. Instead Catholic church-influenced groups were given hundreds of ACE jobs at up to £80 a week to dispense.

In Dublin the Concerned Parents against Drugs movement, a working class protest group formed to stem the tide of heroin addiction in the face of perceived official apathy, was shunned by government and vilified by the media as a Provo front group because some Sinn Féin members were active in it.

What was happening was that Sinn Féin was being isolated, made political pariahs, by the British, by the unionists and, for the first time, by strong forces within Irish nationalism, including the government. No one would talk to Sinn Féin until the IRA gave up its violent struggle and if that meant ignoring Sinn Féin's many voters, then so be it.


All this had an effect upon the media. When the dominant message coming from so many powerful sources was that no one should talk to Sinn Féin, where did that leave journalists whose work, in theory at least, involved talking to everyone?

There were journalists who were keen to discover the reasons for Sinn Féin's electoral success, especially in the period leading up to the Anglo-Irish Agreement when 'nationalist alienation' was the buzz phrase.

Another strong strand, however, concentrated more on Sinn Féin's links with the IRA and violence. Two profiles of Gerry Adams, one by BBC's Panorama, the other by Granada's World in Action, set the tone. They both concentrated on Adam's alleged violent past rather than the reasons for his election.

It was around this time that it became almost de rigueur for television reporters to include a question about IRA membership during interviews with Sinn Féiners - a pointless exercise since they were hardly likely to incriminate themselves.

Others preferred to ignore Sinn Féin altogether. As time went on Sinn Féin began accusing sections of the media of deliberately leaving the Party out of programmes or downgrading it in an effort to favour its constitutional rivals, the SDLP. A programme on the economic plight of West Belfast, made by UTV's current affairs programme Counterpoint, was cited as a typical example.[14] It featured two local politicians on a walk-about of West Belfast discussing the area's problems and possible solutions. One was Hugh Smyth, a loyalist councillor from the Shankill Road known to have associations with the illegal UVF; the other was the SDLP's Joe Hendron, twice beaten by Gerry Adams in general elections. UTV planned to make the programme, however, without any input from the area's MP. Adams heard about the programme just before broadcast, protested and at the last minute UTV inserted a two-minute filmed interview with him. Joe Hendron, Sinn Féin complained, was being regarded more and more by the media as 'the real MP for West Belfast' while Adams was either ignored or relegated.

If media hostility grew it was not just because the two governments wanted Sinn Féin isolated. The mood was heightened by IRA violence, particularly by 'mistakes' in which civilians were killed. The armalite and ballot box' strategy had a number of contradictions, the greatest of which was that Sinn Féin's need to avoid alienating actual and potential voters, particularly in its own areas and in the Republic, put a restraint on the IRA which could produce tensions between the two.

When the IRA killed civilians or bombed factories out of business, that alienated people and could lessen Sinn Féin's electoral support. It also sparked off speculation about internal divisions. The contradiction was a potential Achilles' heel. The post-1982 catalogue of IRA blunders began with the bombing of Harrods in London in December 1983 when five people were killed. The day before, an Irish soldier and a policeman were killed in a shoot-out with the IRA as they rescued the kidnapped supermarket boss Don Tidey in Co. Leitrim. This incident helped forge the view in Dublin and London that the two governments faced a common foe in the IRA, as Garret Fitzgerald noted, and intensified the ostracisation process. The IRA's botched operations continued all the way to the 11 deaths in the November 1987 Enniskillen bombing and beyond, and encompassed a family blown up in mistake for a judge, an RPG-7 attack which ended with a rocket embedded in the blackboard of an infants classroom and a Protestant woman riddled in mistake for a nonexistent UDR brother.

The IRA's violence and its consequences for Sinn Féin became a natural subject for journalists to scrutinise. After incidents Sinn Féin leaders were asked how they could justify such violence and often responded with thinly veiled criticism of the IRA. That in turn encouraged speculation about an IRA split between 'hawks' and 'doves'.

Over time though legitimate journalistic interest in the conflicts between Sinn Féin's politics and the IRA's violence developed into something of a preoccupation, not to say obsession for some. Sinn Féin interviews and press conferences became almost exclusively contests between defensive Sinn Féiners and reporters trying to get a revealing and damaging response to the latest IRA disaster. Coverage also concentrated on alleged internal IRA-Sinn Féin divisions even though a split, at least a serious one, never developed.

Some reporters began to see this essentially confrontational approach as the only way in which the IRA and Sinn Féin could or should be covered and when the media ban was announced voices were raised complaining that it would no longer be possible. The ignominious performance of Enniskillen councillor Paul Corrigan after the Remembrance Day bombing was frequently cited as an example of how effective this approach could be. It was a valid point for a politician to make but many wondered whether it was valid territory for journalists.

The NI broadcasting branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) complained specifically and in indignant terms about this part of the ban in a statement issued on the NUJ's protest 'Day of Action':

We have pointed out in the letter [to Mr Hurd] that the new arrangements allow for interviews with Sinn Féin and similar organisations on social issues. We had an example of that on [BBC] Radio Foyle last Tuesday when [Sinn Féin's] Cllr Dodie McGuinness was interviewed about the possible closure of a maternity hospital. The logic of all this is that we will be allowed to ask about unemployment but will be prevented from referring to a bombing campaign against businesses providing jobs. This is ludicruous.[15]
The words 'and similar organisations' in the first sentence had been inserted by pen, as an afterthought, in the printed text of the statement before it was released.

Having highlighted IRA violence as virtually the only newsworthy feature of Sinn Féin, journalists were in no position to complain when IRA violence itself gave the government the opportunity to impose the broadcasting ban. By the time it happened such was the atmosphere of isolation and hostility surrounding Sinn Féin that a large number of NI journalists were ready to live with it. The ban represented the process of isolation taken to a logical conclusion. It was justified on the grounds of Sinn Féin's links with violence and since those links had dominated media coverage of the organisation this fundamentally weakened journalists' ability, not to mention will, to fight it. NI journalists were divided on the ban as NUJ officials from Britain quickly discovered. Some supported it privately or if they were uneasy about it, thought it should be given a chance. A few were horrified and fought for a tough NUJ response. But many more worried that opposition to the ban might brand them IRA sympathisers and based their opposition on everything but free speech grounds. As an article in Fortnight magazine put it: 'Broadcasters are more afraid than most of Mrs Thatcher - and in NI they are even more afraid of being thought to be soft on the IRA.'[16]


The media ban first figured as a possible government option in March 1988, seven months before it was actually introduced, and the incident responsible also brought another retreat from media chiefs in the face of Mrs Thatcher's anger. It happened after two off-duty British soldiers blundered into the Andersonstown funeral of an IRA man killed by loyalist Michael Stone during a gun and grenade attack on the funeral of the IRA trio shot by the SAS in Gibraltar. They were badly beaten up by a mob who assumed they were loyalist attackers, handed over to the IRA, stripped and shot with their own weapons. Much of the chilling incident was captured by television cameras and shown round the world.

Photographic evidence was clearly going to be an important aid to the RUC in identifying those involved in the incident and that meant acquiring film from press photographers and those TV companies who had crews present. Journalists though were traditionally wary of handing over their material to the authorities. Some refused to do it on principle; it could make them out to be police spies. Mrs Thatcher came to the RUC's assistance.

Two days after the killings RUC Chief Constable Sir John Hermon requested television companies to hand over their untransmitted film. The companies refused unless faced with court orders. BBC Director General Michael Checkland's response was echoed elsewhere: 'If we allow automatic free access to our material, the next victims could be our staff' (Independent, 23 March 1988). The same day Mrs Thatcher told the House of Commons that the media, like everyone else, had a 'bounden duty' to give their material to the police. And she added forebodingly: 'Either one is on the side of justice in these matters or one is on the side of terrorism' (Independent, 23 March 1988). Faced with the awful prospect of being once again labelled 'IRA lovers', the media buckled. The next day, 23 March, RUC detectives seized film from the BBC and ITN quoting two pieces of anti-terrorism legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the Emergency Provisions Act. After the material was handed over with no court order in sight, Michael Checkland now said that the BBC had never been above the law (Independent, 25 March 1988). The RTE office in Belfast followed suit. A day later Mrs Thatcher pushed home her advantage. Broadcasters also had a duty to give witness' in court to the attack as well as handing over their film, she declared.

Nearly a year later the trials began in Belfast of nearly thirty men charged with offences ranging from murder to grievous bodily harm. Among those who gave witness against them were television reporters, cameramen and sound technicians identified in court only by letters of the alphabet and giving their evidence from behind specially constructed screens. SAS soldiers and MI5 officers had been similarly disguised at the Gibraltar inquest. Two journalists had to leave Belfast when the IRA threatened them, an indication of a sourness towards the media that now existed in republican circles. Journalists had given evidence in Belfast courts before but some, like the celebrated Bernard Falk, had refused and had gone to jail for contempt of court.

An important precedent for giving in to government pressure had come from the BBC two months earlier when the NIO launched an anti-terrorism publicity campaign. Its main feature was a one-minute commercial showing car bombs exploding and a man being knee-capped by hooded men with the message that decent people could bring such things to an end by giving the authorities information via the RUC's confidential phone number.

It was shown on UTV but only after the IBA insisted on changes -the commercial dwelt on republican violence to the exclusion of loyalists. The BBC refused to broadcast it but after negotiations with the government, NI Controller Colin Morris agreed to allow a 15-second daily announcement on radio and TV from the NIO also urging people to use the RUC number.

Some BBC reporters realised what had happened; they complained that they were being linked too closely to the RUC, and that this would cast doubt on their confidentiality and put them in danger, according to an anonymous letter sent to the Independent (5 March 1988). The announcement was eventually abandoned after three months when the INLA phoned in death threats to BBC staff. The BBC never admitted there had been death threats because it would give terrorists 'the oxygen of publicity'. Now even the television companies had slipped into the language of the censor.

Within a week of the Andersonstown killings a newspaper report appeared, quoting Mrs Thatcher's press secretary Bernard Ingham, saying that the government was considering banning media coverage of IRA 'stunts' like firing volleys of shots over shrines of dead colleagues (Independent, 29 March 1988). In May, after the IRA bombed a British base in Germany, Mrs Thatcher complained that the media was giving the IRA too much publicity.

Intentionally or not the ground for the media ban was being laid. Another burst of IRA violence in the summer of 1988, including attacks on British bases and military personnel in Germany, England and NI, appears to have settled the matter. When at the zenith of this campaign eight soldiers were blown up in an army bus near Ballygawley, Co. Tyrone, in August, Mrs Thatcher ordered a high level security review.

Internment and other draconian security measures were on the agenda but when these were discarded for fear of being counterproductive - and unproductive in the absence of similar action by the Dublin government - Mrs Thatcher settled for lesser proposals. Curtailment of the right to silence in court and the reduction in remission of prison sentences were introduced. These could make life a little more difficult for the IRA but not insuperably so. A law was introduced forcing council election candidates to sign a pledge of support for non-violence; breaking the pledge - a likely possibility given Sinn Féin's support for the IRA - could lead to councillors being disqualified.

The broadcasting ban - brought rapidly to the top of Mrs Thatcher's list of measures when Gerry Adams warned government officials that they all ran the risk of attack after the IRA bombed the home of NI's top civil servant, Sir Kenneth Bloomfield - was a different matter. It had an important plus for the government. In the absence of measures like internment the ban smacked of toughness. But it could also hurt Sinn Féin. It removed the organisation from television screens and by so doing isolated it from its voters and potential electorate. It was a damaging blow to a party whose political/military strategy depended for success on winning a steadily growing share of NI's nationalist vote.

The implications for the media however were much more serious. Journalists in NI were in the main too intimidated to oppose it and their colleagues in Britain too shell-shocked by Mrs Thatcher's previous attacks to protest coherently. The most stringent piece of peace-time censorship, a move that would possibly further intimidate the media in other areas, was thus guaranteed an easy passage. Mrs Thatcher had won her most resounding victory yet over the electronic media.

Rex Cathcart could have included commercial television in this conclusion written shortly after the ban was announced: 'When the history of the BBC over the past 20 years comes to be written in the light of the full record, it will be found that NI has provided the means by which the professional broadcasters have steadily been brought to the government's heel.'[17]


There were a few straws in the wind in the autumn of 1988 which, with hindsight, suggested what was on the way. In September Channel Four pulled an After Dark programme which was to feature Gerry Adams on a panel of guests after strenuous objections from Professor Paul Wilkinson, a terrorism expert from Aberdeen University noted for his right-wing views. Most journalists though saw this as an isolated case of self-censorship brought on by the postBallygawley atmosphere.

The first intimation anyone had that Mrs Thatcher's Cabinet might go so far as to force such censorship on journalists came in a lead story in the Daily Telegraph on 17 October which reported that ministers were considering banning both press and television interviews with the IRA and other paramilitary organisations, as one of the security responses to Ballygawley. The report was inaccurate in important respects - the ban was not to apply to the press nor just to the IRA - but near enough the mark to set alarm bells ringing. Only two days later Douglas Hurd rose in the House of Commons to announce the specifics of the restrictions (see Appendix to this chapter), and the ban was in operation. It had all happened with the minimum of notice and with no opportunity for public debate. The most serious infringement on freedom of speech in peace-time was rushed through by ministerial edict. Parliamentary debates were arranged, but after the fact; the chance that these would change the government's mind was virtually non-existent.

Rumours flew that Douglas Hurd was personally opposed to the ban, recognizing inter alia the damage it could do to Britain's image abroad, but had decided that a fight with Mrs Thatcher in her post-Ballygawley mood was not worth it. Publicly though he showed no signs of dissent.

From an early stage it became apparent that the government planned to use the similar censorship regulations in the Irish Republic to justify the move, particularly since the Anglo-Irish Agreement had welded the two governments together in the common fight against the IRA. As with other security moves under consideration, such as restricting the right to silence, the broadcasting ban was defended on the grounds that it 'harmonised' with Irish law.

Four other arguments emerged during the four parliamentary debates held on the broadcasting ban. The first was that 'offence had been caused ... by the appearance of the apologists for terrorism'; .the second that such appearances 'afforded terrorists undeserved publicity'; the third that these appearances 'had tended to increase the standing' of terrorist organisations' and lastly that statements made on radio and TV by the likes of Gerry Adams could be intimidatory. The Sinn Féin President's remarks after the Sir Kenneth Bloomfield bombing were cited as evidence of the latter.[18]

It was left to Labour deputy leader Roy Hattersley to point out that media coverage of Sinn Féin was in fact already minimal; in the whole of 1988, for example, Independent Television had devoted a mere four minutes to interviews with Sinn Féin and its supporters. Three minutes and 59 seconds of that were, he claimed, hostile to Sinn Féin. 'How much assistance does the Home Secretary think those four minutes gave the IRA?', he asked.

Throughout this and other debates it was clear from virtually all the speeches that Sinn Féin was the government's main target, although technically the ban applied equally to violent loyalist groups. During the major House of Commons debate on the ban on 2 November, for instance, Mr Hurd made no mention of the UDA at all until he rebutted a claim made by Labour's NI spokesman Kevin McNamara that the government had originally planned to confine the ban entirely to republican groups.

The immediate concern of the media though was the vagueness of the ban, deliberate vagueness many thought, in some important areas. Exemptions to the ban were clear enough - it would be lifted during elections and could not apply to parliamentary speeches - but it was not clear to whom it would apply and what all the circumstances were.

Douglas Hurd's directive also barred the broadcast of interviews with or remarks made by 'supporters' of groups like Sinn Féin but the government made no effort to define a 'supporter'. Would it include Bernadette McAliskey-type figures? Could people like Ken Living-stone and Clare Short be affected, or anyone like them who advocated Irish unity and criticised the British presence or security policy? Would it apply to the many loyalist politicians in NI who followed a tradition dating back to Carson by rattling the occasional paramilitary sabre?

The government did not say and was clearly leaving it up to journalists and their employers to define and enforce this part of the ban. To many in the media it looked as if the government had done this deliberately in the hope that organisations like the BBC would play it safe and in practice apply the ban as widely as possible or not bother at all to test the definition.

The same clause caused another initial uncertainty. It banned any statement which supported or invited support for the named groups. Did this mean that written reports or captions of statements from Sinn Féin or UDA members could not be broadcast? There were other grey areas. Did the ban cover historical footage or plays and songs? Again the government left all this undefined during the first crucial days when the media struggled to come to terms with the sudden changes imposed on it.

Left alone media lawyers, unhindered by programme executives, defined Douglas Hurd's order in the strictest fashion, extending the ban far beyond what even the government had in mind and, in the BBC's case, even before the Home Secretary's statement to the House of Commons. Within a fortnight Home Office officials held talks with the BBC and IBA which went some way towards softening the broadcasters' own interpretations but the interim period had shown media managers willing to impose an extraordinary degree of self-censorship.

The BBC's first directive issued on the day of the ban by the Corporation's Controller of Editorial Policy, John Wilson, was a good example. It began: 'We understand that the government action will be very broad'. According to his interpretation the ban would go so far as to forbid even the reporting of statements made by proscribed groups never mind actuality. It would even bar other journalists from talking about the likes of Sinn Féin on the BBC. 'The government order applies also, we believe, to reports by news-readers, presenters, correspondents and reporters in the sense that they will not be able to quote what the banned organisations or other people say if those quotes support any of the organisations. Contributors to programmes are covered in the same way when they are talking about any of the organisations.'[19]

The BBC also decided that the ban would apply to court reports in the sense that if Sinn Féin or UDA members or their supporters made statements from the witness box which could be seen as supporting the named groups they could not be reported. Just exactly what 'support' meant not even the BBC lawyers were ready to say:

The important thing is to watch out for comments which can be taken as supporting or urging support for any of the organisations affected. We will have to be careful about quoting newspapers: a newspaper which quotes an IRA person speaking in support of the IRA cannot be reported in any of our programmes.[20]
Channel 4's legal advice, similar to that offered informally by the IBA, was if anything more restrictive. The company agreed with the BBC: the ban covered paraphrased or voiced-over reports of Sinn Féin or UDA interviews, the reporting of press statements issued by banned groups and offending court reports. Channel 4 took the ban two stages further, however. It would, its lawyers said, cover 'works of fiction, whatever their provenance or theme' and the ban was also to be as retrospective as the historical development of technology allowed: 'The ban is not limited to material produced or recorded after 19th October. It would cover any such material recorded at any time in the past - for example, newsreel footage shot before the creation of the Republic of Ireland.'[21] Unbidden by government, Channel 4 had volunteered to remove from its screens a substantial slice of twentieth-century history. None of the media lawyers in any of the companies had suggested that there were grey areas where the ban could or should be tested.

If the government had harboured any anxiety that the BBC and the commercial companies would resist Douglas Hurd's restrictions or push them to the limit, it could now rest easy. The first reactions of media managers showed that the battle was half won.


Journalists in both the electronic and print media were publicly and officially appalled by the broadcasting ban. The General Secretary of the NUJ, Harry Conroy, spoke for many when he expressed fears for the future of democracy in light of the government's action: 'Freedom of expression means nothing unless it includes the freedom of minorities to put forward their views, no matter how unpopular or repugnant these views are to the majority' (Irish Times, 20 October 1988).

His concerns were shared by others in organisations which represented working journalists. Alan Sapper, General Secretary of ACT!' called the ban 'a very dangerous precedent'[22], while the International Federation of Journalists commented: 'You cannot extinguish opinion you don't agree with. To do so makes a mockery of democracy.'[23]

Reaction abroad was similar. The harshest comments came from newspapers in the United States where such interference with freedom of speech would be impossible without a constitutional amendment and a major public debate. Any US administration which contemplated such a move would be sure to provoke a fierce political controversy. Americans were astonished at Mrs Thatcher's move. Typical of their reaction was the normally anglophile New York Times (3 November 1988): 'Britain's good name as mother of parliaments and seed bed of political freedom is an asset more precious than the crown jewels. How bizarre for it to be tarnished by a Conservative government.'

If the government was embarrassed by the reaction of allies it must have been mortified by this comment from South African President P. W. Botha: 'The South African press should exercise self-discipline and smother the views of people advocating violence. If they do not, they mustn't complain when we adopt measures similar to those used by the British government in the fight against terrorism.'[24]

British newspapers divided on predictable lines in their reaction. The Guardian, the Independent, the Observer and the Daily Mirror attacked the restrictions largely on freedom of speech grounds. Most of the tabloids and right-wing broadsheets supported Mrs Thatcher as they had done with virtually all her controversial policies. Typical was the view of the Daily Mail (20 October 1988): 'The Daily Mail advocates a complete ban on Sinn Féin. Meanwhile we are in no doubt that half a ban is better than no ban at all.'

Not all of Mrs Thatcher's traditional supporters were as uncritical, however. Many, echoing the concerns of the Irish government and John Hume, the leader of the SDLP, wondered about the wisdom of the move rather than about any encroachment on civil liberties. Today (20 October 1988), for example, remarked: 'Yesterday the Government handed the IRA a propaganda victory. It will take another atrocity to wipe out this propaganda coup for them. It is not too late for Mr Hurd to withdraw the ban.' This view centred on the idea that the ban would give political ammunition to IRA supporters in places like the United States and soil Britain's image abroad. In other words the ban could actually help the IRA and Sinn Féin; it was something, as the SDLP's Seamus Mallon said, 'the IRA wanted'.

It was a variant of another theme that emerged in the days following the ban, expressed for one by the NUJ's Belfast broadcasting branch: the ban would stop broadcasters giving Sinn Féiners a hard time over the IRA's violence. The counter-productive aspects of the ban rather than its deleterious impact on civil liberties soon became the focal point of criticism both within and outside the media.

At the coal-face in NI where the ban would bite hardest some journalists worried about the effect the restrictions would have on their coverage of the 'troubles'. The consensus was that it would stimulate self-censorship, discourage programmes critical of government policy and even stifle normal coverage of the NI situation.

Barry Cowan, at the time host of BBC Radio Ulster's popular Talkback programme and one of NI's leading broadcasters, commented:

However you view their motivations the Shinners have got involved in a lot of social issues. We are going to find ourselves in the insidious position that RTE journalists are in, of having to ask someone before interviewing them: 'Are you or have you ever been a card-carrying member of Sinn Féin?' What I think will happen, in the short term at least, is that no one will go near a subject that might actually provoke those kind of difficulties. I do think that sadly it will very much narrow our vision in what we actually attempt to cover. People will naturally fight very shy of doing anything that will even remotely bring them into conflict with the authorities (Sunday Tribune, 23 October 1988).

Another BBC figure, a television producer, told the author:

The tendency might be to avoid programmes on NI, especially controversial ones. Put it this way, I think they'd think twice now about making a programme like the Stalker one. It's not inconceivable that you could get a return to the old days before civil rights when NI was just ignored and uninvestigated (Sunday Tribune, 23 October 1988).
Perhaps reflecting the mood of the moment, the producer insisted he remain anonymous. Similar worries concerned Eamonn Mallie, then NI political correspondent for Downtown Radio and IRN:
Because of the ban, we will now have to advise ourselves, like the Diplock judges, of the law. The spin-off effect, because we're not allowed to carry these people on the air, is that what will creep in will be self-censorship and I think broadcasters will be more reluctant to carry the (second hand) statements of these people (Sunday Tribune, 23 October 1988).
Alongside those publicly voiced anxieties there was also a good deal of ambivalence among NI journalists about the ban and in some quarters even quiet approval of the government's action. 'I remember X on the phone being interviewed about the ban and giving all the classic liberal arguments against it', recalled one broadcasting reporter. 'A few minutes later, when the interview was over, he was telling people in the office: "Thank Christ I don't have to talk to those bastards anymore".' [25]

Broadcasting journalists divided politically on the ban, mirroring NI's divisions. 'They had this really big problem of taking sides', recalled a British NUJ official familiar with union discussions going on in Belfast. 'It became: "You are a Fenian if you oppose the ban". There were a lot of people there who didn't object to the ban at all and it was an enormous problem.'[26]

When it came to taking a public stance on the ban, as journalists in NI had to when the NUJ organised a protest day of action, the fear of being seen as 'a Fenian' clearly showed. A press statement issued by the NI Broadcasting branch scarcely mentioned the free speech objections to the measure; instead it was defensive, apologetic and almost indignant that the government had thought local journalists anything but hostile in their treatment of terrorist sympathisers.

The statement, issued in the name of Ulster Television producer Jamie Delargy, read in part:

There may be an impression that Mr Hurd had to crack down because supporters of the paramilitaries were appearing frequently on TV and radio. The reality, as you will see from the figures contained in our letter to Mr Hurd, is quite different. Only half of one per cent of TV news broadcasts has been given over to interviews which would now be banned. If I could put it like this, we are talking about less than a minute in every three hours of news programme time.

We have always tried to do our job in a responsible manner. But now Mr Hurd tells the House of Commons we have been used by the paramilitaries to spread fear and threats by means of interviews. In effect he's saying we have been grossly irresponsible. We resent that, we resent it because it's not true. When paramilitaries issue threats as they do from time to time to sections of the population they are communicated by us to the public not by means of an interview but by written reports read out by a newsreader. We do this precisely because we want to avoid paramilitaries using TV and radio to menace the population.

I expect at this state some people are still asking why broadcasters are defending the right of paramilitary support groups to spread their propaganda on TV and radio. But that's not at all what we're defending. If I could put it like this. It's often said that interviewers put the questions the public want asked. What we're standing up for here today is the public's right to hear directly, without any restrictions from Mr Hurd, the answers to those questions.[27]

An accompanying letter to the Home Secretary repeated the Branch's concern that while the ban might not apply to interviews with listed groups about social issues, it would prevent 'rigorous questioning' about 'the paramilitary organisations they support'.[28] Fear of being labelled an IRA sympathiser was not confined to Belfast. It infected journalists working in Britain as well. Nearly a decade of Mrs Thatcher's strident attacks on the media for providing terrorists with 'the oxygen of publicity' had taken their toll. The summer months had also seen an unprecedented political and media assault on Thames TV's 'Death on the Rock' programme which had investigated the controversial SAS shooting of three IRA members in Gibraltar the previous March.

With Rupert Murdoch's papers leading the field, Thames was accused of sloppy journalism, coercion of eye-witnesses and anti-security force bias. There were hints of pro-republican sympathies amongst the This Week staff and key new witnesses discovered by the programme like Carmen Proetta were pilloried by the tabloids. Such was the pressure that Thames had been forced to set up an investigation of 'Death on the Rock' headed by a former NIO minister, Lord Windelsham.

"'Death on the Rock" helped to soften people up', commented NUJ deputy General Secretary Jake Ecclestone. 'Anybody who stuck their heads up after the ban risked getting hit with a flamethrower and accused of being soft on terrorism - that sort of thing went through people's minds. You only need one person to trail that smelly herring and everyone dives for cover.'[29]

By the time the media ban was announced broadcasting journalists had been thoroughly intimidated. They had witnessed the ordeal experienced by Thames' This Week editor Roger Bolton and reporter Julian Manyon and unsurprisingly, few wanted to stick their heads above the parapet. According to one NUJ official fear of being characterised as soft on terrorism was a significant reason why a number of broadcasting chapels, including that at ITN, were reluctant to ballot their members over strike action:

There was a lot of political uncertainty about the ban amongst some of the chapels. There are a lot of people who are very readily taken in by the terrorism tag, that if you are seen to take or want action against the ban then somehow you are siding with the terrorists. It was worst in Belfast but it reared its head in London as well.[30]
It was against all this background that journalists and their unions had to decide what action to take to register their opposition to the ban.

The last time Mrs Thatcher's government had resorted to overt pressure on television, broadcasting journalists had reacted vigorously and decisively, sending an impressive signal to the government that they would not accept interference with their work. The confrontation came in August 1985 when the BBC Board of Governors decided not to screen a documentary called 'Real Lives - at the Edge of the Union', featuring interviews with two Derry politicians from opposite ends of the NI political spectrum: DUP man Gregory Campbell and Sinn Féin Vice-President Martin McGuinness. The objection was to the interview with McGuinness. During the programme Campbell accused McGuinness of being Chief of Staff of the IRA; McGuinness denied this but accepted the allegation as a compliment.

The Board of Governors' action was the direct result of government pressure. On 27 July Mrs Thatcher, then on a trip to the United States, was asked by a Sunday Times reporter at a press conference whether the BBC should be allowed to interview the IRA's Chief of Staff. Not surprisingly she said no. The Sunday Times inaccurately reported her remarks in the context of the 'Real Lives' programme. Two days later the then Home Secretary Leon Brittan, taking the cue from his Prime Minister, wrote to the BBC telling the Governors that it would be 'contrary to the national interest' to show the film.

TV and radio journalists reacted furiously to this clumsy piece of interference. The NUJ recommended a one-day strike which was readily approved by broadcasting chapels throughout Britain. On 7 August, the day 'Real Lives' was supposed to be screened, all the British national and regional broadcasting media, BBC and commercial, staged an unprecedented 24-hour news blackout. Journalists in NI organised a special screening of the banned programme on the pavement outside the BBC's Belfast studios. Eventually the BBC Governors backed down and announced that 'Real Lives' would be broadcast after all, albeit with a few minor changes.

Broadcasting journalists who hoped that the Hurd ban, a much more wide-ranging and explicit piece of censorship than the 'Real Lives' episode, would, at the very least, provoke a similar show of defiance were to be disappointed.


Within 24 hours of Douglas Hurd's announcement in the House of Commons the broadcasting industrial council of the NUJ called for a day of protest and a lobby of parliament. Significantly though the NUJ did not specify what form the protest should take nor did it call for a repeat of the 'Real Lives' news blackout.

Pressure for a strike came instead from grassroots members particularly in the BBC and it was only after this that the NUJ actively supported the idea. Within days, however, the strike was suddenly called off by NUJ General Secretary Harry Conroy in circumstances which caused division and dissension in union ranks. The episode brought accusations that the NUJ had failed to properly organise against the ban thus easing the pressure on the government. It left scars in the union that will take a long time to heal.

Union activists divided into pro- and anti-Conroy camps. His supporters claimed that he had acted in the best interests of the union and, given the dwindling support for the strike amongst union members, he had no option but to call off the one-day blackout. His critics called his action 'undemocratic and cowardly' and blamed union officials for failing to sell the strike decision to members.[31]

Accounts of what really happened and who was to blame are as many as the people involved. What emerges though is a consensus on four points: many journalists were intimidated by the terrorism tag; the media in general had been demoralised by Thatcher's political and economic attacks; there was a lack of leadership and coordination on the part of the NUJ officials; and BBC management played an important but not entirely explained role in the whole affair.

The facts are straightforward enough. Ten days after the ban members of the BBC's TV news and current affairs chapel (local branch) voted by a large majority in favour of a 24-hour strike provisionally set for 10 November and agreed that the entire chapel membership should be balloted. They were joined by colleagues in the BBC World Service who of all broadcast journalists were probably the most angered and upset by the government action. Many of them were from Eastern bloc countries or had fled to Britain from undemocratic regimes elsewhere in the world precisely because it offered the freedom to say whatever they wanted. They believed the ban would seriously undermine the World Service's hard-earned name for impartiality and truth. They voted six to one in favour of strike action and even wanted to ban interviews with British politicians until the ban was lifted.

During the same week, however, journalists at the ITN chapel voted against strike action, an event that later would have dramatic consequences for the strike. Nevertheless the NUJ executive agreed to meet on 2 November to decide whether to go ahead with the strike. Some 50 Mothers and Fathers (chairpersons) of NUJ broadcasting chapels (M/FoCs) assembled at the NUJ's Acorn House headquarters and after a three-hour meeting voted overwhelmingly for action and to ballot their members.

They urged chapels in Britain to 'organise stoppages of work on November 10th to protest at the assault on freedom of speech and the public's right to know'(Irish News, 3 November 1988). NI broadcasting journalists were to be exempted from the ballot and the strike action. 'They were told that they need not take part because of fear of violence from loyalists and fear of being seen as lining up with terrorists', recalled an NUJ official.[32] But when NUJ members in Belfast found out they objected and the decision was reversed.

Four days later, however, Harry Conroy announced that the strike had been called off. He revealed that over the previous two days he had held discussions with senior BBC and ITV executives and secured their agreement to participate in a public protest meeting and lobby of parliament and to insert so-called 'health warnings' into reports affected by the ban. In return the NUJ agreed to abandon plans for industrial action. He said: 'Our fight is not with them. Our fight is with the government. It is apparent that the broadcasting organisations and the NUJ are at one in wanting the lifting of the government ban' (Irish Times, 7 November 1988).

The harshest criticism levelled at the NUJ leader afterwards was that he had taken the decision unilaterally without the approval of the union executive; only a few officials were privy to the weekend talks. Nevertheless the executive subsequently backed Conroy's decision by 15 votes to three.

A major plank in the union's defence afterwards was that Harry Conroy was faced with a strike that was crumbling at chapel level before it had even started and in the circumstances made the best deal possible. A repeat of the 'Real Lives' strike was, in other words, unrealistic. But how much of this was a self-fulfilling prophecy brought about by an initial lack of direction coupled with lukewarm enthusiasm for strike action on the part of the NUJ leadership? The union's first recommendation a day after the ban was merely for unspecified 'action', which might or might not include a full or partial news blackout. The contrast with the 'Real Lives' experience could not have been greater, as Don Brind, FoC in the BBC TV news and current affairs chapel, noted:

If we'd got a union-wide view the pressure would have been off them [the chapels]. The 'Real Lives' snowball rolled not because the union issued a directive to strike, because it can't, but because the call to arms was couched in such terms that people needed very good reasons for standing aside. After the ban people interpreted what the union said as basically 'do what you can'. Everybody thought it meant different things, a particular form of action was not recommended whereas with 'Real Lives' it was always a one-day strike.[33]
There was also a potentially disastrous uncertainty about what to do on the part of key union officials. The broadcasting organiser John Foster, who had the difficult task of marshalling TV and radio journalists under some sort of protest banner, evidently had mixed personal views about industrial action. Only two days after the ban he told the author: 'Strike action would in my view be tactically wrong and just wouldn't work. Thatcher's chosen her moment right' (Sunday Tribune, 23 October 1988). Yet just over a week later when M/FoCs had voted for a strike he said: 'What other way can trade unions react to an attempt to undermine the structure of broadcasting freedom?' (Irish News, 3 November 1988). Ten months later Foster admitted that the NUJ leadership, himself included, was partly to blame but put most of the responsibility on lack of support for strike action at chapel level:
What should have happened is that we should have got the London FoCs together and worked out what to do. But we didn't; we went off half-cocked really and we didn't call the FoCs together to talk through what we were going to try for. The chapels simply went off saying we'll do something but we're not going to do much. The key problem was the lack of central organisation. It started off like a stone with its own momentum instead of the centre grabbing hold of it. But everyone was against it. When we called [the strike] off I phoned around all the key FoCs and not one could assure us they would support it, not even those who had balloted for it. For example Bush House [BBC World Service] couldn't say. At the time we called it off very few chapels were in favour - certainly Belfast wouldn't support it.[34]
Harry Conroy offered the same defence when he came under a torrent of criticism at the NUJ's annual conference seven months later:
The reason why it was called off was that all the reports I was receiving was that there was no building up of support but rather that support was withering away. I didn't like making this very difficult decision.[35]
Others saw it differently:
Although the reason for calling off the strike was that not enough chapels would support it there were a lot of chapels who hadn't balloted at all. There were about half a dozen for and the same against but Conroy said it would have appeared bad if not everyone had come out to support it. That, I suppose, was a matter of judgement.[36]
Whatever the truth, the situation was complicated by the absence of the leaders of the two most important broadcasting chapels whose united support for the strike was vital for success. Don Brind, FoC of BBC TV news and current affairs, was on a BBC course while Giles Smith, FoC of the ITN chapel, was on holiday. Between them the two chapels controlled virtually all TV news output in Britain and had they both agreed on a strike the rest of the industry would probably have followed suit.

Less experienced deputies filled in for Brind and Smith and there was virtually no coordination between the two chapels until it was too late. While BBC TV news reporters voted for a strike ITN union members voted by a show of hands against. The argument that clinched it for the anti-strike camp in ITN was that their management had shown stronger opposition to the ban than had BBC executives. 'ITN people felt their management had stood in line with them and therefore there was no justification for taking action against them whereas in the BBC the perception was that management hadn't taken a strong enough line,' recalled Don Brind.[37]

But ITN had backed the BBC over the 'Real Lives' ban, so why the difference? 'Then the ITN chapel had been won over by a very powerful speech by Vincent Hanna who was then on the National Executive Committee for the BBC,' said Brind. 'His eloquence was a very important factor.' This time round Hanna, now running his own independent production company, condemned the NUJ action as a political strike against the lawful action of a democratically elected government (Independent, 7 November 1988). Brind continued:

Things had also moved on since 'Real Lives'. Then the BBC had been in the firing line and now it was shifting towards ITV so there may have been a kind of wariness about getting into the firing line. I think that was a factor. Everything hinged on whether ITN would change their mind and the failure to get them to change their mind was fatal for the strike. What should have happened was a phone call to Giles Smith from me and then an agreement between us on what we should go to our chapels with. But we were both away. If we had got those two key chapels to take a common position then the union would have been in a much stronger position vis-à-vis the other broadcasting unions. Instead there were ad hoc meetings and therefore no joint proposals. It all went wrong very early on.[38]
The absence of Brind and Smith was undoubtedly crucial but so too was the failure of any other NUJ official to step into the breach and provide the missing leadership. Others were apparently ready to exploit the perceived difference between 'Real Lives' and Douglas Hurd's ban: that in the former the journalists' beef was with management because it had interfered with editorial independence while in the latter management had nothing to do with it. The journalists' argument, as Harry Conroy was to put it later, was with the government, not the companies. The failure to win ITN to the strike helped strengthen their hands. Among them were the BBC's Director General Michael Checkland and his deputy John Birt. It was the former who first canvassed the idea with Harry Conroy that management might join in NUJ-organised protest if the strike was called off. Another NUJ official recalled:
There was a meeting between Checkland, Harry Conroy and Tony Hurd [General Secretary of BETA] over another matter and Checkland said to Harry: 'Can I have a word with you about the strike?' Checkland said: 'Look, you're just hitting the BBC and we're not in dispute with you. It makes the BBC look very odd and puts us in a very difficult position. If you're not hitting the ITV why are you just hitting the BBC when you're in dispute with government?' That's when the ball started rolling. Checkland said: I'd like you to talk to John Birt'. Birt and Ron Neill [then deputy director of news and current affairs] were involved and from there on it really became a question of whether Birt would share a platform with the union and whether anyone from ITV would take part. That was where things went.[39]
The BBC executives did not, it seems, let matters rest there. They organised other meetings which seemingly helped weaken the resolve of BBC journalists:
Birt called together a meeting of staff and there was another meeting called by the people in TV news which went on the Ringman [internal BBC communication system] which rehearsed the arguments against, the fact that it was going to be a one-legged strike and so on. It was reported to me that people were wobbly as a result and that's why another chapel meeting was called.[40]
Before BBC journalists could meet again the strike had been called off.

Another NUJ official took up the story:

On the Friday evening [November 4th] John Foster got a call from someone in the BBC saying: 'It's all falling apart'. Foster came back to union headquarters, met Harry Conroy and then an indication was given by management that if the strike was called off they would appear on a public platform with them and that they would put health warnings in. Negotiations went on very late and John Birt and Richard Dunn [chairman of the ITV Association] made themselves available with extraordinary ease. Foster and Conroy went down to Broadcasting House, met Birt and he very readily agreed to appear on this platform and as a result the decision was taken by Harry and one or two others without going through the procedures which had recommended the strike in the first place to call it off there and then. Birt played a crucial role.[41]
Other officials were more sympathetic to Conroy:
The dilemma faced by Conroy was: do we use what we've got, the position of strength of having got a ballot in an important big chapel, to negotiate the beginnings of a broad front against the ban - unions and management - or do we risk the whole thing slipping away and turning into a fiasco? I have to say I supported him.[42]
With the strike over the NUJ was left to organise a lobby of parliament and a public protest meeting in London addressed by a smattering of politicians, union leaders and a distinctly uncomfortable-looking John Birt. By common consent the protest was a flop. Few journalists bothered to turn up and the event got minimal media coverage - the cruellest irony of all. 'Not one of the media organisations represented by their bosses had a reporter, let alone a camera crew present,' complained the NUJ newspaper.[43] In Belfast the sole action organised by the NUJ was a press conference hosted by union officials and a few executives and attended only by fellow journalists.

The union then turned to legal action in Europe as an alternative, if more expensive, means of protest. With luck a decision by the European Commission on Human Rights on the legality of the broadcasting ban might come sometime in late 1991, by which time the ban might well be written indelibly into the new Broadcasting Act and journalists so used to working under it that they regard censorship as a normal part of life. 'The union has put all its eggs in the European basket' was the caustic comment of one NUJ official. 'It's playing it up for all its worth along the lines of "We're really leading the fight". Even if we win the European case though the British government may well just ignore it. They derogated over the Prevention of Terrorism Act decision and they'll probably do the same again if they lose on the ban. Where will we be then?'[44]

The episode of the strike that never was has left its marks on the union as even NUJ loyalists admit. Commented Jake Ecclestone: 'There was a lot of unhappiness, a lot of feeling that the best judgement had not been shown and that it would have been better to have given real leadership and gone ahead with the strike even if not everyone had come out.'[45]

Others put it more strongly: 'The whole thing was very dodgy. The effect has been shattering and lasting. It was a very serious defeat, one of the most serious in the union's history.'[46]


The strike was called off primarily because BBC and ITV management made promises to the NUJ leadership to join the protest campaign and to register their objections by inserting South African-style 'health warnings' in reports from NI affected by the restrictions. To what extent then have the companies kept their side of the bargain?

One possible course of action suggested to them came a day after the ban by the former law lord, Lord Scarman, who had presided over a government inquiry into the outbreak of the 'troubles' in NI in 1969.

Scarman said the ban was not only an incursion on freedom of speech but suggested that it might not be enforceable since it had no basis in statute law. The government had such powers, he thought, only for use in 'national emergencies'. The ban could not be enforced, he went on, 'unless the media are sufficiently timid to accept an executive order'. He continued. 'They [the broadcasting organisations] ought to consider very, very carefully whether they should not test it in the courts. This is what I think. I am not a legal adviser and I have no right to put myself forward as their legal adviser. What I am saying is very tentative, but underneath this necessary cloak of tentative opinion are very strong feelings' (Independent, 21 October 1988).

A legal challenge, whether or not it succeeded, was one obvious way the companies could demonstrate not only good faith with the NUJ but the strength of their opposition to the government's action. The BBC and ITV both declined to take up Lord Scarman's suggestion. As a Corporation spokesman put it: 'The BBC doesn't believe that that route is one which is going to be successful. Our lawyers looked at it and we're not alone. ITV did the same and it's not a course of action we want to pursue. We oppose the ban but not by that route.'[47]

Some time later BBC Director General Michael Checkland was asked at a private gathering of journalists why the Corporation had not mounted a legal challenge. His answer, according to one who was present, perhaps indicated the extent to which self-censorship had permeated all levels of the media: 'We didn't think it would have any impact on the government.'[48]

Both the BBC and ITN did of course object at the time of the ban but in significantly different ways. ITN put forward its editor David Nicholas for interview on that day's news programmes. The BBC put forward no one and contented itself with a joint statement from Marmaduke Hussey and Michael Checkland.

Since then BBC Deputy Director General John Birt has written an article for the Independent (21 November 1988) eloquently attacking the ban, former governors like Mark Bonham-Carter have condemned broadcasting organisations for their 'astonishing' inaction (Independent, 21 January 1989) while NI Controller Dr Colin Morris also publicly criticised the government (Irish News, 13 January 1989). Ironically one of the most coherent and sensible attacks on the ban came from a former NI Controller, James Hawthorne, who meticulously dismantled the government's case piece by piece (Independent, 14 November 1988).

But that has been about the sum of it. Neither the BBC nor any of the ITV companies are monitoring the ban to find out how it has affected coverage - 'too costly,' said a BBC spokesman in Belfast -and there is no record of any other protest activity.

Asked what else the BBC had done to further its promise to the NUJ to lobby against the ban, a BBC spokesman replied: 'I can't say off the top of my head. We have made our views public but I can't give you every instance that we've told the Home Office and the government. It is not something the BBC takes lightly but what we said is that if it's the law, it's the law and we stick by it.'[49]

One thing the BBC and ITV companies could have done to express solidarity with the NUJ was to associate themselves with the union's European action, not least to share the considerable cost involved, but again they both refused. This refusal was actually cited by High Court Judge, Lord Justice Watkins, when he threw out the NUJ's application for a judicial review of the ban: 'Because restrictions apply to extremist groups on both sides in NI in our judgement the restrictions do not prevent either the BBC or the ITV from discharging its duty to report current events with due impartiality. It is we think of significance that neither of them has felt the need to challenge the Home Secretary's direction.'[50]

NUJ lawyers also attempted to use John Birt's Independent article to strengthen their contention that management also opposed the ban but when they approached Birt asking if he would transform his article into an affidavit, he refused. 'He said we're either taking the case or we're not,' recalled Don Brind.[51]

There has also been controversy over the extent to which the companies, particularly the BBC, honoured the promise to adopt a system of 'health warnings' for affected reports. Many journalists expected two things of the health warning. It would have an agreed, regular wording just as such warnings on affected reports from South Africa have; it would also be used automatically, not just when Sinn Féin interviewees were directly affected but when it would be otherwise normal to have a Sinn Féin reaction - for instance in a round-up of comment from politicians in NI on a particular event. According to Tim Gospill, editor of Journalist, John Birt began to back away from this commitment almost immediately after the strike had been called off. 'I tried to interview him on the day of the protest about how rigorous the use of health warnings would be. He was most brusque and said: "I can't say; it will be a matter of judgement on each occasion", or something like that.'[52]

According to his report of the interview at the time, Birt confirmed 'that this [health warnings] would not be automatic; there would be no set wording or ruling on how or when a warning would be given.'

Both the BBC and ITN have confirmed that they do not use a specified, agreed form of words in health warnings and a fairly narrowly defined set of circumstances for its use. 'Whenever a report has been compiled in a way different to the way it would have been compiled before the ban, we signal it,' said a BBC spokesman.[53] 'They never had any intention of keeping their word on the health warnings,' commented Gospill. 'It was clearly something they did to buy off the action.'[54] 'BBC management have been pretty craven about the whole thing,' said Don Brind. 'They have kept to the letter of the agreement with us but made no attempt to enforce the spirit.[55]


Not all the effects of the broadcasting ban are measurable. The refusal of the broadcasting companies to monitor its effects is one major reason. Another is that by its very nature the ban has produced intangible results - programmes not made, interviews not filmed and so on. When censorship means programmes are pulled or altered,it is easy to gauge; when it means inactivity, it is often impossible to assess.

In the weeks immediately following the ban there was a spate of affected programmes but as the weeks turned to months and the media got used to the restrictions they died off. The first affected item was, ironically, a BBC NI television interview with UDA leader Tommy Little on his organisation's past links with the Libyan government. Other casualties included a Channel 4 programme on Irish republican women, radio interviews with Bernadette McAliskey, interviews with plastic bullet victims and relatives of the Guildford Four, a Pogues' song about the Birmingham six and, most absurd of all, an Irish traditional song called 'Kelly the Boy from Killane'.[56]

A number of programmes in the production pipeline were also abandoned, according to Paul Hamann, Executive Producer of BBC documentaries, who had started in the job just before the ban. 'I had a couple of Irish films up my sleeve, new ways of looking at NI, but since the recent broadcasting laws were passed both these films have bit the dust' (Guardian, 15 May 1989). How many other programmes died similar deaths elsewhere can only be guessed at.

The pressures brought on programme makers by the ban were subtle, as another BBC executive explained:

The single most insidious thing about the ban is the way it has affected producers. They're just not putting up ideas in areas where it would come into conflict with the ban because they think it's not worth trying to get round it or they think they might be thought lefties or editors would reject it out of hand. It's the psychology of it which I find the most pervasive thing about it.[57]
With time it may be that the tendency to encourage self-censorship will prove to be the ban's real impact. 'The danger is that people will be less inclined to cover Ireland and in particular the republican area of it because of the potential hassle factor,' predicted Peter Taylor, one of television's most experienced Irish hands. 'The danger is that it will put Ireland further off the agenda, it will deter people from probing, analysing, investigating that crucial area which is the nature of the republican movement. You could get more reactive programmes. People will cover Ireland when there are atrocities but analytical programmes will be thin on the ground.'[58]

According to Sinn Féin's Danny Morrison, contact with both the electronic and print media, never mind coverage, dropped off dramatically after the ban:

We monitored the media and discovered that in the three or four month period before the ban there were something like 500 phone calls, ranging from requests for interviews through to asking for information. That dropped to about 100 in the four months afterwards. It's an occasion for opening a bottle of champagne when we get a request for an interview from the broadcasting media at the moment. Broadcasting journalists don't even bother phoning us up because of the internal fights in their organisations, having to go and get clearance and such like. Anybody who goes out of their way to fight for objectivity in the broadcasting media now is considered to be a Provo, there's no question of that.[59]
The experience of some journalists suggests that a mixture of self-censorship, boredom and laziness has led to the reduction in coverage of Sinn Féin. According to one BBC reporter in Belfast:
There has been a reduction in coverage of Sinn Féin, certainly in terms of seeing them on the screen, talking to them about issues like housing and particularly we can't put them on the spot about IRA fuck-ups. The ban is also troublesome and inconvenient. People are also cautious and there's a little bit of self-censorship creeping in. It's easier to interview them on the phone and then to write them into a report than to go out with a camera or a tape recorder for material you can't use. I've a feeling there are also people who won't even bother to phone them up. That means there can't be 'health warnings' because there's nothing to warn about.[60]
Mrs Thatcher's broadcasting restrictions have, it seems, become the ultimate in censorship. It has made journalists, through intimidation, boredom or indolence, the instruments of the ban when they should be its principal victims and most vigorous opponents.


The text of the statement on 19 October 1989 by Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announcing the broadcasting ban, Broadcasting and Terrorism', is as follows:

With permission, Mr Speaker, I wish to make a statement about access to the broadcast media by certain organisations in Northern Ireland.

For some time broadcast coverage of events in Northern Ireland has included the occasional appearance of representatives of paramilitary organisations and their political wings, who have used these opportunities as an attempt to justify their criminal activities. Such appearances have caused widespread offence to viewers and listeners throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in the aftermath of a terrorist outrage.

The terrorists themselves draw support and sustenance from having access to radio and television, and from addressing their views more directly to the population at large than is possible through the press. The Government has decided that the time has now come to deny this easy platform to those who use it to propagate terrorism.

Accordingly, I have today issued to the chairmen of the BBC and the IBA a Notice, under the Licence and Agreement and under the Broadcasting Act respectively, requiring them to refrain from broadcasting direct statements by representatives of organisations proscribed in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and by representatives of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin and the Ulster Defence Association. The Notices will also prohibit the broadcasting of statements by any person which support or invite support for these organisations.

The restrictions will not apply to the broadcast of proceedings in Parliament, and in order not to impair the obligation on the broadcasters to provide an impartial coverage of elections the Notices will have a more limited effect during election periods.

These restrictions follow closely the lines of similar provisions which have been operating in the Republic of Ireland for some years past. Representatives of these organisations are prevented from appearing on Irish television, but because we have no equivalent restriction in the United Kingdom they can nevertheless be seen on BBC and ITV services in Northern Ireland, where their appearances cause the gravest offence, and in Great Britain.

The Government's decision today means that both in the United Kingdom and in the Irish Republic such appearances will be prevented.

Broadcasters have a dangerous and unenviable task in reporting events in Northern Ireland. This step is no criticism of them. What concerns us is the use made of broadcasting facilities by supporters of terrorism.

This is not a restriction on reporting. It is a restriction on direct appearances by those who use or support violence.

I believe that this step will be understood and welcomed by most people throughout the United Kingdom . . .


1. Liz Curtis, Ireland: The Propaganda War (London: Pluto Press, 1984) p. 139.
2. Michael Farrell, Northern Ireland: The Orange State (London: Pluto Press, 1976) pp.93-4.
3. Fortnight, November 1988.
4. Curtis, op. cit., Appendix.
5. Ibid., Appendix.
6. Ibid., p. 183.
7. Ibid.,pp.142-4.
8. Ibid., p. 143.
9. Ibid., pp. 161-2.
10. See Tom O'Malley, Switching Channels (Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom).
11. Off the record interview with BBC executive, August 1989.
12. Edgar O'Ballance in Paul Wilkinson (ed.), British Perspectives on Terrorism (London: Allen & Unwin, 1981) p. 81.
13. Off the record conversation between author and NIO minister, January 1984.
14. Counterpoint, 7 May 1989.
15. NUJ, NI Broadcasting branch, press statement, 10 November 1988.
16. Fortnight, December 1988.
17. Fortnight, November 1988.
18. Affidavit from Clive Scobie, Home Office Official, presented to the High Court, Queen's Bench Division, London, 16 March 1989.
19. BBC Directive, 18 November 1988.
21. Letter to producers from Don Christopher, Senior Programme Acquisition Executive, Legal Services, Channel 4, 24 November 1988.
22.Film and Television Technician, November 1988.
23. Information on Ireland Briefing, What they said about the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin, November, 1988.
24. Journalist, December 1989.
25. Off the record interview with BBC reporter (A), August 1989.
26. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
27. NUJ, NI Broadcasting branch, press statement, 10 November 1988.
28. Letter to Douglas Hurd from NI Broadcasting Branch NUJ, 8 November 1989.
29. Interview with Jake Ecclestone, NUJ Deputy General Secretary, August 1989.
30.Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
31. Journalist, report of the Annual Delegates Meeting, May 1989.
32. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
33. Interview with Don Brind, FoC BBC TV news and current affairs chapel, August 1989.
34. Interview with John Foster, NUJ Broadcasting organiser, August 1989.
35. Journalist, report of the Annual Delegates Meeting, May 1989.
36. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
37. Interview with Don Brind, August 1989.
38. Ibid.
39. Off the record interview with BBC NUJ official (B), August 1989.
40. Ibid.
41. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
42. Interview with Don Brind, August 1989.
43. Journalist, December 1989.
44. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
45. Interview with Jake Ecclestone, August 1989.
46. Off the record interview with NUJ official (A), August 1989.
47. Interview with BBC press officer, August 1988.
48. Off the record interview with Fleet Street journalist, August 1989.
49. Interview with BBC press officer, August 1988.
50. Transcript of High Court ruling, supplied by Tim Gospill, editor of NUJ newspaper, Journalist, August 1989.
51. Interview with Don Brind, August 1989.
52. Interview with Tim Gospill, editor of NUJ newspaper, Journalist, August 1989.
53. Interview with BBC press officer, August 1988.
54. Interview with Tim Gospill, August 1989.
55. Interview with Don Brind, August 1989.
56. Information on Ireland Briefing, Some incidents following the broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin, 29 November 1988.
57. Off the record interview with BBC executive, August 1989.
58. Interview with Peter Taylor, August 1989.
59.Interview with Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin Director of Publicity, August 1989.
60. Off the record interview with BBC NI journalist, August 1989.

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