War of the Words
Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the introduction of the so-called 'Broadcasting Ban'. It began as a new counter-terrorism strategy aimed at silencing the apologists for terror and denying them the oxygen of publicity. That, at least, is how the prime minister of the day, Margaret Thatcher, and her home secretary, Douglas Hurd, defended their decision, on 19 October 1988, to introduce some of the most stringent controls imposed on the broadcast media since World War Two.
The broadcasting ban, or 'Restrictions' as they were officially known, extended to 11 republican and loyalist organisations believed to support terrorism, but many believed that Sinn Féin and the IRA were the main targets. At best, it could be said that it was half-hearted censorship. Newspapers would be permitted to carry statements from those organisations, and television news programmes would be permitted to show images of spokesmen at press conferences, but their voices would have to be removed.
With 20 years' worth of hindsight, Douglas Hurd now says he accepts that the ban soon became enormously counter-productive.
Not least because broadcasters quickly found a way to subvert the terms of the new law by having actors re-voice the words spoken by Sinn Féin spokesmen. When a similar ban had been introduced by the Republic of Ireland in 1971, the Irish government saw to it that their prohibition could not be circumvented by this kind of dubbing.
Unaccountably, when the British government introduced its restrictions, in the wake of a major atrocity, it left a legislative back door open which journalists soon used as a route to get their story out.
Satirists lampooned the ban, free speech campaigners across the world questioned the Thatcher government's commitment to democratic values, and even the reputation of the BBC, as a politically independent broadcaster, suffered.
Despite the legislations' loopholes and the reaction against it, Danny Morrison, Sinn Féin's former director of publicity, maintains that the ban, which remained in place for six years, seriously frustrated Sinn Féin's media strategy at the time and ultimately harmed the party electorally.
In the BBC Radio Ulster programme The War Of The Words, brilliantly produced (as always) by my colleague Owen McFadden, I talk to some of the key players in this curious episode in history of the Troubles about how the ban came about and what effect it had on the emerging political peace process.
Did it eventually become a bargaining chip in the negotiations leading to the IRA ceasefire of 199? And given the role of the media in the so-called 'war on terror', could such a ban should be re-introduced today?
The programme was broadcast this morning, but you can listen again here.