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U.K.: The 'Oxygen of Publicity' -- How The Antiterrorist Media Clampdown Failed

  • Kathleen Moore

Russia has moved to tighten restrictions on the press following last week's hostage crisis in Moscow. Under the new rules, media cannot distribute information that hinders or reveals too much about counterterrorist operations. The Media Ministry wants to go further, barring journalists from seeking interviews with terrorists or allowing them to broadcast live.

This sort of thing couldn't happen in the West where press freedoms have a longer tradition, right? Well, not quite. Take the United Kingdom, for example. In the 1980s and 1990s, in a doomed effort to cut off the Irish Republican Army's "oxygen of publicity," the government introduced a broadcasting ban on interviews with not only paramilitary organizations banned in Northern Ireland but also their political wings.

Prague, 5 November 2002 (RFE/RL) -- It was Margaret Thatcher, then-British prime minister, who famously said countries should "starve the terrorist and the hijacker of the oxygen of publicity on which they depend."

In the mid-1980s, deadly bombings by the Irish Republican Army, or IRA, were common both in Northern Ireland and in mainland Britain. Thatcher herself survived an IRA bombing at her Conservative Party's annual conference in the English coastal town of Brighton.

In 1988, Thatcher's home secretary, Douglas Hurd, wrote to the main broadcasting authorities to "request" that they refrain from airing interviews with members of 11 organizations.

The list included the IRA and other groups that were fighting British rule in Northern Ireland and seeking to unite the province with the Republic of Ireland. Loyalist paramilitaries, militant in their quest to keep Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, were on the list too.

But most controversially, the political wings of those organizations, notably the IRA's Sinn Fein, a legal political party with elected officials, were also listed.

Bob Franklin is a journalism professor at Sheffield University in the United Kingdom. He said Hurd's "request" was legally enforceable without any new legislation. "No one was in any doubt that this was an invitation to tea and cakes with the home secretary. This was a legally binding, enforceable obligation that journalists, if they breached it, would be breaching the law of the land and would be subject to certain comebacks on that, up to and including, I suspect, imprisonment," Franklin said.

Britain is not alone in trying to rein in broadcast media as a way of denying terrorists publicity. In the United States, following the 11 September attacks, the five big television networks agreed to review video tapes of Al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before airing excerpts. But, though they were undeniably under pressure from the U.S. administration, this was a voluntary decision, unlike the British ban of 1988.

The result of Britain's ban was instant, and, critics said, absurd.

Broadcasters could show pictures of Sinn Fein members being interviewed but not broadcast their voices. At first, subtitles were introduced. But broadcasters soon switched to dubbing.

The result was a whole cottage industry of actors employed to dub the voices of Sinn Fein leaders and synchronize the words to the on-screen images.

The ban also meant Sinn Fein could still speak on social and other issues, as long as it avoided politics. This ended up being counterproductive, as Rohan Jayasekera of Index on Censorship, a monitoring group, explained. "As [then-BBC Director-General] John Birt pointed out when he looked at the local broadcasts of the BBC in Northern Ireland, it made Sinn Fein look like social workers, because they never ever talked about politics, they only ever talked about schools and drains," Jayasekera said.

The ban also made it sound rather hollow if British journalists tried to promote freedom of speech in repressive countries, as one prominent British journalist found when he interviewed Libya's Moammar Qaddafi. Jayasekera said: "Like good journalists should do when confronted with someone like that, [he] put the penny's worth in for freedom of expression and freedom of speech. And, of course, Qaddafi turned round and said: 'Look what you're doing to Sinn Fein. They were not a banned party, they were not illegal, they had councilors and political representatives, there was no question of banning them, so why were they being censored in this way?'"

By the mid-1990s, Northern Ireland was also becoming a hotter political issue, with the first tentative talks that would eventually lead to the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement and a devolved government for the province. If journalists could not freely quote Sinn Fein, how could they report on the emerging political debate?

The ban was scrapped in 1994, and broadcasters can now interview members of paramilitary organizations, though the IRA does not give them.

The 1988 ban came at a time of poor relations between government and media in Britain: Thatcher's conservative government routinely criticized the BBC for alleged left-wing bias, and one politician famously called it "the Bolshevik Broadcasting Corporation."

Sheffield University's Franklin said home secretaries have made similar requests on some five other occasions of acute civil unrest in the last century, such as the 1926 general strike.

Nowadays, government-media relations are much improved since 1988, Franklin said, but the laws are still in place that would allow a future home secretary to impose restrictions.