Saturday 19 October 2013

Oxygen of folly

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the implementation of the British Broadcasting Ban by their Home Secretary Douglas Hurd.  It was a rather desperate response to events at the height of The Troubles.  March 1988 had seen things escalating with the inevitability of a Greek tragedy.
  • 6th Three members of an IRA active service unit executed by an SAS active service unit in Gibraltar.
  • 16th Three dead and 60 injured in an attack by a loyalist gunman at the funeral of the Gibraltar victims in Milltown
  • 19th Two British soldiers killed while/for watching the funeral of one of the Milltown victims
The latter two events were extensively filmed by the television crews present and there were freedom-of-the-press issues about whether they should/would turn over their film to the security forces. June and August saw two very bloody bomb attacks on vehicles carrying British soldiers in Northern Ireland. Clearly something had to be done, and seen to be done, by Mrs Thatcher's government.  They were particularly fed up with the fact that, after each atrocity, the media would ask for a sound-byte from those believed to be close to the perps.  Tory Chairman Norman Tebbit, who had been injured and whose wife had been permanently disabled in the Brighton Bombing of 1984 said the media were giving the other side "publicity that they shouldn't have had". Mrs Thatcher, trained as a chemist, came up with the more memorable "deny terrorists the oxygen of publicity".

So Hurd implemented a couple of sections of 1981 Broadcasting Act, which proscribed the broadcast of the words of any members of ten 'terrorist organisations' including the acronyms IRA UDA UFF INLA UVF . . . was the Judean People's Front among them? I forget.  I make the facetious remark because the ban turned into a farce. Initially the voices-of-evil were replaced by subtitles but then dubbing took over. The words of Gerry Adams, democratically elected Sinn Fein MP for West Belfast, was too powerful for the public to hear but those of an actor could be dubbed over footage of him speaking. As trained actors were used in the dubbing, the rhetoric often became more powerful.  The dubbing got so good that occasionally nobody realised that there was a voice-over.

Apart from being fatuous in its implementation, the ban dug huge pits in the high moral ground from which the British addressed such global political issues as Apartheid in South Africa. The explicit acknowledgment that Sinn Fein's rhetoric was more powerful than the government's should have given them pause but the ban stayed in force for nearly six years. Once in place, it was difficult to step back from the position because that would seem to be seen to be soft on terrorism.  It wasn't rescinded until two weeks after the announcement of an IRA cease-fire in 1994 and British broadcasting returned to the status quo ante or same old, same old.  I won't talk about the shameful position on censorship w.r.t. events North of the border that was enforced by the Irish government and enthusiastically taken up by RTE.  But rescinding the broadcasting restrictions on RTE in early 1994 did help the Brits back across the line of sense.

John Birt, D.G. of the BBC, announced "We can once again apply normal and testing scrutiny to all sides in the debate".   I think many people would have greeted this with a hollow skeptical laugh at the time.  Do I think we're nearer to unbiased broadcast media now? Do I Fox!

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