20 February 1997 Edition

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``Spotlight'' back on SDLP

BBC ignored important evidence

By Martha McClelland

BBC's Spotlight current affairs programme on Tuesday of last week - which claimed to be investigating electoral malpractice in the Six Counties - ignored information from a former senior member of the SDLP that the SDLP engaged in serious malpractice in Derry.

Spotlight reporter Stephen Walker engineered a programme which implied that Sinn Féin was involved in vote-rigging, a claim for which no proof was presented.

Gerry Murray was chairperson of the SDLP in Derry until, only three days before the 1993 Council by-election (an election won easily by Sinn Féin's Cathal Crumley), he resigned from the party after discovering blatant electoral malpractice. This event rocked the SDLP at the time.

Murray was approached by Walker during research for the programme and Murray detailed to Walker the evidence he had.

``Walker contacted me on an ``urgent'' basis,'' said Murray. ``He was totally uninterested in my information about malpractice. After hearing my evidence, his interest in speaking to me was gone. I believe it didn't suit his purpose in making the programme.''

Murray's resignation letter, printed in the Derry Journal at the time, stated, ``I am appalled that SDLP councillors have been in possession of confidential postal and proxy vote applications of approximately 200 Cityside voters.'' At a Council meeting Sinn Féin's Gerry O hEára named the SDLP councillors present at a meeting when an Electoral official walked in and slapped a sheaf of papers on the desk saying ``Here's the Shinners'' postal votes''. These applications had already been handed in to the Electoral office and contained confidential information. The local press recorded a widespread outcry after the election about denial of postal and proxy votes applied for.

Murray has made an official complaint to the BBC against the makers of the Spotlight programme. He stated that he has no axe to grind but accused the programme makers of ``extreme anti-Sinn Féin bias'' and of being one-sided. ``I decided to go public on this issue because this programme calls into serious question the political motivation of those in authority at the BBC who sanctioned broadcasting such a clearly biased programme.''

Martin McGuinness described the programme as ``a party political broadcast on behalf of the SDLP.'' McGuinness said ``This programme was clearly designed to cast doubt on Sinn Féin's integrity and to try and explain away the growing electoral mandate of our party. Stephen's Walker's commentary implied that Sinn Féin was involved in organised electoral mandate - while producing not one shred of evidence in support of this claim. The finished programme confirmed our initial suspicions when Walker first approached us regarding the programme. Mr Walker told us the purpose of the programme was to explore the differing political philosophies of the two main nationalist parties and the reasons for the lack of an electoral pact. At no time did he tell us that the thrust of the programme was going to be an exposé of alleged electoral fraud. Nor did he confront any member of our party with any evidence supporting such allegations.

``The suppression of [Gerry Murray's] information, which was easily verifiable - unlike the spurious nature of the allegations on the programme - demonstrates the blatant dishonesty and ulterior motives of the programme producers. If the BBC is to preserve its professed commitment to impartiality and fairness then it is imperative that it disassociates itself from Stephen Walker's attempt to unfairly influence the electorate by manufactured and unsubstantiated allegations. For his part, Mr Walker must state why he felt compelled not to use the information supplied by Mr Murray, which would have exposed the hypocrisy of SDLP members who are driving this smear campaign against Sinn Féin and our voters.''

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