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British "Anti-terrorist" Measures and Freedom of Speech in the Six Counties

Updated on February 12, 2012

Historically speaking “Antiterrorist” measures in the United Kingdom have proved to be detrimental to freedom of speech, particularly In the occupied six counties. These measures took many forms and were mainly, although not wholly aimed at the republican community. The approach of government varied from applying pressure on the media to outright censorship, broadcasting bans, internment without trial of political prisoners as well as proscription of both political parties and civil rights protests. Although all of these are very direct attacks on freedom of speech there were also more subtle implications for these methods. While they would have the very direct effect of imprisoning a suspect or preventing the message of certain politicians being heard, there was also the indirect effect of creating a climate of fear. This then detracts from the likelihood of someone with alternative views from the accepted position from airing them. In these conditions a culture of censorship by omission emerges.

Public discussion and so genuine free expression was particularly stifled by measures of media censorship. This often took the form of self censorship within an organisation, although it often came as a result of external pressures from authority. As an apparatus of the state it is unsurprising that the BBC fell victim of these pressures rather often. Within the BBC all Northern Ireland reporting had to travel through the organisations hierarchy to gain approval, a process also shared by ITV. This would certainly have a detrimental effect upon the quantity of reporting on Northern Ireland and most likely the quality too.

An example of the external pressures applied on the BBC regarding the occupied territories is the case of the 1985 At the Edge of the Union film which featured an interview with Martin McGuiness. Prior to air date the BBC’s Chairman of Governors Stuart Young received correspondence from Conservative Home Secretary Leon Brittan. In this he requested that the film be dropped. Brittan had not yet seen the film. The board of governors agreed to the minister’s request. The reason for this would be subject to much suspicion as multiple governors had been appointed during the government of Margaret Thatcher of which Brittan was a member. If the governors motives receive the benefit of the doubt in lack of tangible evidence then this is simply a case of the BBC crumbling in the face of government pressure, rather than one of overt censorship. With that said it should still not be understood in isolation, but with consideration of Thatcher’s wish to “starve the terrorists of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend”.

Instances like this had long been a staple of BBC reporting of Northern Ireland. Views which did not match those of the establishment had long been subjected to censorship from within the organisation. Indeed in 1971 BBC chairman Lord Hill said that the organisation was subject to “scrupulous editorial watch”, effectively a top-down censorship upon journalists. This led Jonathan Dimbleby to write in the New Statesman in December of that year, “Its (BBC) reporters and editors now stand transfixed, censored, in a maze of insuperable restriction.’ Dimbleby believed this to be a systematic and institutionalised problem. It was the opinion of the establishment that the British public should not know the truth of what was happening in the six counties.

When the BBC (or any broadcaster) did challenge the official line it was met with strong condemnation. A case in example being when in 1977 the Tonight programme interviewed a catholic school teacher; Bernard O’Connor. RUC officers had tortured O’Connor and by telling this story the BBC were accused of aiding the ‘terrorists’ and 11 days after it aired an RUC constable was shot dead. Criticism came from other media outlets, the government, unionist politicians and the RUC. The ever sensationalist tabloid press would lay the blame for the killing at the feet of the BBC. Such controversy would perhaps dampen the appetite of broadcasters to present coverage of happenings in the six counties in future instances. Once again we see that external pressures were proving detrimental to freedom of speech.

It was not only journalists at the BBC who were having their reporting suppressed. At ITV, 5 episodes of World In Action were concerned with Northern Ireland. Only two of these would ever make it to air as the Independent Television Authority chairman Lord Aylestone had deemed that Republicans should get as much coverage as the Nazi’s had in World War II. Also banned was Thames Tv’s This Week which covered the Queen’s jubilee tour date in Northern Ireland. Unlike the coverage of the Queen’s other appointments this show veered from the message of unity authorities wish to be expressed and instead showed the further divisions the event was causing. Censorship was being made easy by virtue of section 16(1) of the 1976 Amendment Act. This gave government the power to withhold any broadcast which they deemed to have the potential to incite. This rather vague law provided ample opportunity for repressive government. At this stage the government had quite clearly moved their position from one of interference to outright censorship.

While the television companies did on occasion attempt to give an accurate and depth of coverage to the region, the print press on the other hand were extremely subservient to the official line and most often promoted it happily. This was described by Kevin Dowling of the Sunday Mirror as ‘happy story syndrome’, an editorial demand to paint an image of near inactive soldiers welcomed by the community. The media, particularly the print press had become accustomed to espousing a pro Union, Anti Republican stance, thus doing the public a great disservice. This typified the press attitude of accepting what soldiers said as truth and prompted a flow of misinformation. An example being the shooting of Bernadette Mcalliskey by the UDA. After this incident the media concentrated on the apparent heroism of the soldiers who found her, showing little interest in who the perpetrators were. The general approach could perhaps be viewed as lying by omission. The Daily Mirror’s approach though was one of direct misinformation. Coverage of the shooting centred around quotes from after the event attributed to Mcalliskey where she vowed to continue the struggle. This quote was a fabrication as Mcalliskey was physically unable to speak until days later.

Extensive media controls during the ‘troubles’ is quite evident. This encroachment on freedom of speech also filtered into political life. At different times multiple groups were proscribed including the IRA, INLA and UDA. While this could perhaps be justified on ‘antiterrorist’ grounds, the measure also extended to strictly political organisations such as Sinn Fein. While some had claimed Sinn Fein was the political wing of the IRA, the same people would make the same judgement regarding the relationship of the IRSP to the INLA. Unlike Sinn Fein the IRSP avoided being proscribed. From the 1973 Emergency Provisions Act onwards Sinn Fein was a legal political party.

Another method of clamping down upon freedom of speech in the political arena was the policy of internment introduced in 1971. The policy was said to be aimed at terrorists . Given the disproportionate killing of civilians one could be forgiven to expect mainly loyalist paramilitaries to bear the brunt of the policy. However, when a list of 450 names were drawn up, no loyalist was on it but it did include Ivan Barr, the chairman of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association.

The NICRA were the organisation behind the civil rights march in Derry, June 1972, the event known as Bloody Sunday. This was the most brutal and repressive clampdown on the apparent bourgeois liberty that is freedom of speech. A demand for equal rights produced the most aggressive British measure yet as 13 marchers were killed by the paratroopers, 7 of whom were teenagers and all were unarmed civilians. In the aftermath of the event misinformation was prevalent. This was in part down to the Widgery Report carrying out an investigation which prevented the Sunday Times from making their own findings known.

Having then returned to the issue of the media’s freedom to report, it may be apt to draw one last example; the 1988 ban on directing broadcasting on groups with suspected terror links. Once more Sinn Fein bore the brunt of the measure, the most notable incident being the ban on Gerry Adams voice. His image could be shown but his words spoken by an actor. The absurdity of the measure was most prevalent in a film made by Peter Taylor about Long Kesh. In this prisoners voices could be heard as they were speaking in non-official roles. However, the voice of an actor had to be used when an IRA spokesperson for food complained about the size of the sausage rolls. As the words of Sinn Fein members could technically still be heard, the extent to which this is a measure against freedom of speech is unclear. It does however serve to mark these politicians out as something other and outside the accepted political spectrum. From this perspective it is clear that this does impact freedom of speech as it conditions the otherwise neutral viewer into accepting the ruling class ideology and so alters opinions in a way that impacts what it is one will wish to express.

The 1988 broadcast ban can then be viewed as a peculiar opinion forming measure. This ties in with the aforementioned subtle practices of covert censorship, self censorship and external pressures on media source. At the same time it was a very direct and overt central measure imposed on media. The ban then appears as a collection of contradictions and peculiarities which embodies all of the central aspects of all the measures applied by the United Kingdom government in the name of “anti-terrorism”. As has been shown these measures went way beyond impacting only those who could be in any way construed as being a terrorist. Anyone with a republican point of view was liable to not have access to a mainstream platform on which to project their voice. In modern Britain it may be time to ask have we not learnt the lessons of the recent past, given the widespread demonization of the Muslim population under the "anti-terrorist" umbrella.

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