The Gibraltar Shootings

The shooting dead of three IRA members in Gibraltar in 1988 by an SAS team was a hugely controversial event. Two current affairs programmes sought to get to the truth of what happened. One was a This Week programme, Death On The Rock, made by Thames Television; the other was an edition of BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight. The programmes were broadcast in the face of an onslaught from Government. Here are two reflections of that episode and what it meant.

The independence of the BBC and the impartiality of its programmes are inextricably linked and this link was most recently at issue in the row over the showing of the BBC Northern Ireland's Spotlight programme about the Gibraltar shootings. Many of our critics took the view that the BBC was acting anything but impartially in transmitting the programme; that we were in fact down right biased in favour of the terrorists. I happen to believe that this incident was an acid test of the BBC's commitment to impartiality.

Consider...here was an extraordinary event which took place in broad daylight on a busy street in front of witnesses. Not one but two senior Cabinet Ministers described publicly what had happened - the Foreign Secretary in the House of Commons and the Defence Secretary on BBCTV's Question Time. The Ministers did not confine themselves to a bare announcement of the deaths or suggest that to make any further comment might prejudice the Coroner's Inquest. Had they done so, the moral pressure on the media to match their reticence would have been irresistible. But both ministers went on to give some details about the shootings, referring to such matters as the challenges by the security forces, the terrorists' possibly reaching for their weapons, the presumption of a bomb in the car and so on. In other words, they placed the Government's version of events squarely in the political domain. And it is the duty of the media in a democracy to subject to scrutiny any aspect of a controversial event in the public domain about which there is widespread concern, provided there is no legal inhibition on their doing so...

...It was perfectly proper for Government Ministers to appeal to the BBC and Thames Television not to transmit their programmes - talk about Ministerial blackmail and arm-twisting is nonsense. But it was also perfectly proper for the broadcasting authorities, once they had made sure they were acting within the law, to go ahead - which they did only after the most searching deliberation, for these are grave matters, and any appeal from Ministers of the Crown must be treated with great respect and earnest consideration.

So we went ahead…this time to the Government's discomfiture. But next time, should our commitment to the truth lead us to support the official position in a contentious issue, then our account will have added authority because we have been consistent in the exercise of our impartiality. Had we withdrawn a programme we conscientiously believed should be transmitted, why should the public have any faith next time round that our impartiality is still intact?

Thames Television were to lose their ITV franchise four years later.

Roger Bolton, Editor This Week from his book Death On The Rock (WH Allen/Optomen). Excerpt reproduced by Kind Permission of WH Allen/Optomen.

Colin Morris

Relief came from an unexpected quarter. The BBC Northern Ireland current affairs programme Spotlight had done its own investigation into the events in Gibraltar and intended to transmit it a week after our programme. Sir Geoffrey Howe tried to stop that one too. The new regime in the BBC were in a tight corner. They decided to let the programme go ahead but restricted its transmission to the audience in Northern Ireland, for which it was intended. Usually in such a case the programme, or significant chunks of it, would be repeated on the network. When Alex Thomson, the reporter, pointed out that the issues were clearly of national interest and therefore that the programme should get a network transmission he was told, ‘Look, you've won one battle, don't push your luck.' The preservation of the institution came before its journalistic duty. Can you imagine a national newspaper not reprinting such a story from one of the regional newspapers in the same group as itself? Sir Geoffrey Howe called the BBC's decision a tragedy which went against twenty years of high standards. We saw it rather differently. The Spotlight film fully confirmed what we had reported and went rather further, if anything.

From Tip-Toeing through the Minefield, a convocation lecture given by Dr. Colin Morris, BBC Controller, at the University of Ulster, Jordanstown, May 18, 1988.

Roger Bolton

Roger Bolton ©BBC

Open image in pop-up

Colin Wheeler Cartoon

Colin Wheeler Cartoon ©Colin Wheeler

Open image in pop-up

Belfast Telegraph May 1988

Belfast Telegraph May 1988 ©Belfast Telegraph

Open image in pop-up

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.