The Guardian (London)

October 19, 1989

LENGTH: 902 words

HEADLINE: 50 MPs sign petition against year-old ban on broadcast interviews with Sinn Fein


BODY: THE Government's ban on broadcasting interviews with Sinn Fein and 10 other republican or loyalist organisations has seriously inhibited coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict, campaigners against the year-old ban will claim today.

A petition, co-ordinated by the Campaign for Press and Broadcasting Freedom and signed by over 50 MPs, will be handed in to Downing Street today. Opponents say the ban has not only forced interviews with listed organisations to be shown with a voice over text or run with subtitles but also had the more insidious effect of forcing programmes to be dropped through self-censorship.

Even the voices of long-dead participants in earlier phases of the Anglo-Irish conflict had been silenced. The petition is supported by the National Union of Journalists, ACTT, the technicians union, the Broadcasting and Entertainment Allance, the international anti-censorship group Article 19, and the National Council for Civil Liberties.

A year ago today after the coach bombing at Ballygawley, Tyrone, in which seven soldiers died,Mr Douglas Hurd, the Home Secretary, announced that interviews with Sinn Fein and 10 other organisations would be prohibited. 'Direct access gives those who use it an air and appearance of authority which spreads further outwards the ripple of fear which terrorist acts themselves create in the community,' he told the Commons. Mr Hurd denied that this was an act of censorship, claiming it would put broadcasters on the same footing as print journalists.

The ban covers proscribed organisations, including the Provisional IRA, Sinn Fein, the Ulster Defence Association, and the Ulster Volunteer Force. The restrictions, similar to regulations in force in the Irish Republic since 1978, were made under the BBC's charter and the 1981 Broadcasting Act. 'This legislation was designed for use in wartime,' said Ms Liz Curtis, author of Ireland: the Propaganda War.

The main target has been Sinn Fein, which received 11.3 per cent at the last local elections. This fell to below 10 per cent in the European elections. Its spokesman said yesterday: 'In the 10 months to October 1988 there were 14 appearances on network television, in the year following there were only five occasions.' The number of inquiries to the party's press centre in Belfast declined by more than two-thirds. ' People are not getting an important political view from one of the protagonists to the conflict in Ireland. It is impossible for them to make rational choices.'Mr Gerry Adams, the organiation's president, denied the party had been seriously damaged and said that anyone failing to uphold the right to information was ensuring that only anti-republican views were given.

The Information on Ireland group has compiled a list of incidents connected to the ban. Last December the then Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr Tom King, called in a video of an episode of the US television series Lou Grant which dealt with a fictional IRA gun-runner. Channel Four had been concerned that the newspaper soap might contravene the ban. The episode had been shown on British television 10 years before.

The Independent Broadcasting Authority issued a circular last November to all commercial radio stations that The Pogues' single, Streets of Sorrow/Birmingham Six, should not be played because it alleged that 'some convicted terrorists are not guilty' which might 'invite support for an organisation proscribed by the Home Secretary's directive.' The song's lyrics declared: 'There were six men in Birmingham, in Guildford there's four, that were picked up and tortured and framed by the law. And the filth got promotion, but they're still doing time, for being Irish in the wrong place, and at the wrong time.' At one stage the Guildford-based commercial radio station, County Sound, cancelled an interview with Errol Smalley, the uncle of one of the Guildford Four who had campaigned for their release. He was later interviewed on the station after challenging the decision.

A film for Channel Four by Derry Film and Video entitled Mother Ireland, which looked at women and Irish nationalism, was dropped. It had included an interview with Mairead Farrell who was shot dead by the SAS in Gibralter. The film later won an award at a women's film festival in Paris before being shown on TV stations in much of Europe. In the Belfast office of Visnews, the television news agency, two versions of reports covering Sinn Fein are put out. One is for sale abroad, the other - with voices removed - is for Sky Television.

Much controversy has centred on the trend towards using voice-overs rather than subtitles. Mr David Miller, of the Glasgow university media group, said: 'The use of subtitles is being seen by some broadcasters as though it is propagandist in favour of Sinn Fein ...There is a contrast with South Africa. Reporters there often herald their films with: 'This has been produced under ..government restrictions.' 'Reports from Northern Ireland that bypass banned organisations do not.'

Although the chairman of the BBC, Mr Marmaduke Hussey, spoke this month of a 'very dangerous precedent' neither the BBC nor the IBA has challenged the ban in court. However,two cases are being brought - one by a Sinn Fein councillor in Belfast and the other by broadcasting journalists. The journalists' case has now gone to appeal.