Sep 1 1993

Importing British Censorship from Northern Ireland

An executive order bans from the BBC‘s airwaves direct statements by members and apparent sympathizers of groups the British government considers “terrorists.” The broadcast ban was applied to three legal organizations, including one whose president was elected member of the British Parliament.

When soliciting pledges, U.S. public TV and radio hosts often boast about the British news programming that they bring to U.S. airwaves. What they don’t say is that such programming sometimes comes with British censorship.

The British Broadcasting Corporation is a fully funded government agency, with a board of directors appointed by the Queen (under government recommenda­tion). No pretense is made that the BBC‘s journalistic independence is ensured: Its license states that a cabinet “minister may direct the [broadcasting] authority in writing to refrain from broadcasting any particular matter or matter of any par­ticular class, and the authority shall com­ply with the direction.”

In 1988, British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd, the cabinet minister in charge of domestic affairs, announced an executive order banning from the air­waves direct statements by members and apparent sympathizers of groups the British government considers “terror­ists.” Aimed at Irish nationalists, the “broadcast ban” was applied to represen­tatives of three legal organizations, in­cluding Sinn Fein, a party whose presi­dent was an elected member of the British Parliament. Also banned are “statements by any person which support or invite support for these organizations.”

BBC director general Michael Checkland has admitted that the broadcast ban handicapped his institution (BBC News Release, 11/22/89). “We have protested and we continue to protest at this mea­sure because it interferes with our task of reporting current events fully and fairly and sets a damaging precedent.”

Despite this hobbling censorship, U.S. public broadcasting often relies on BBC reports for coverage of Northern Ireland. U.S. public broadcasters have close ties with the British system: John Tusa, a managing director of BBC World Service, sits on the board of directors of American Public Radio, the main U.S. distributor of the British news program. NPR allows the BBC to share its satellites worldwide.

James Mullin, president of the South New Jersey chapter of the Irish-Amer­ican Unity Conference, brought these facts to the attention of the board of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, according to a 1967 law, was sup­posed to give public broadcasting “maximum protection from extraneous influ­ence and control.”

Board member Victor Gold (a conserva­tive who co-wrote George Bush’s autobiog­raphy) responded that he was “in complete sympathy with your position that CPB should not be funding, directly or indi­rectly, any program which partakes of polit­ical propaganda, especially regarding a sit­uation as complex as that in Northern Ireland.” But the board as a whole declined to take any action about the public broad­casting system’s use of censored reporting.

On FAIR’s radio program CounterSpin (7/16/93), Mullin argued that BBC reports should not be barred from U.S. airwaves, but should be clearly identified as containing state-censored news. Moreover, says Mullin, U.S. public radio and television have a responsibility to provide equal airtime to alternative per­spectives on Northern Ireland.

The way British programming slants public broadcasting’s view of Northern Ireland was illustrated by Understanding Northern Ireland, a documentary aired in May on PBS stations. The program was originally produced for Britain’s Channel 4, subject to the restrictions imposed by the broadcast ban. The U.S. version re­ceived funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Throughout the special, the conflict in Northern Ireland was presented as a strug­gle between “tribes” in which the English find themselves “reluctantly involved.” ‘Two armed camps with the British caught in the middle,” the narration says at one point at another, it referred to “bewildered British troops caught in the middle.”

The program featured quotes from pro-Union militants like Ian Paisley and British cabinet ministers like James Callaghan, along with Irish politicians from the South. The missing perspective was the nationalist one, voices barred from British broadcasting under the 1988 ban. Not one speaker was heard from Sinn Fein, or from anyone sympathetic to the republican cause.

According to Article 19, an interna­tional anti-censorship group, Under­standing Northern Ireland was censored by the British government “because of statements by Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Eamonnn de Valera, and Sean MacBride, one-time IRA chief and Nobel Peace Prize recipient.”

The PBS broadcast of the show did touch lightly on the British system’s failings in the North, specifically with respect to false imprisonment and illegal killings by British security forces. But because it was produced under censorship, it still denied viewers the full range of debate on the Irish question.