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16 October 2008 Edition

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Remembering the Past: The British broadcasting ban


In October 1988 the British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd announced in the House of Commons that all Sinn Féin spokespersons and representatives were to be banned from television and radio.
For years the truth about the war in Ireland had been subject to self-censorship in the British media but this was the first time that such an overt ban had been imposed. This was highlighted by David Pallister, writing in The Guardian on the Hurd order:
“The election of Bobby Sands in 1981 came as a shock to most of the British media. This newspaper remarked that his death-bed victory had thrown years of myths out of the window. And the biggest myth is that the IRA in its violent phase represents only a tiny minority of the population. The media of course was largely responsible for the myths created simply because they failed to investigate the feeling of the nationalist community...Self-censorship and the inevitable ignorance that it engenders has worked as effectively as any government ban.”
In justifying the censorship order to the House of Commons Douglas Hurd cited the similar order under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act in the 26 Counties. Since 1971 this had not only banned Sinn Féin spokespersons and representatives from the airwaves but had been widened by RTÉ management to restrict all kinds of expressions of republican opinion, even ballads. The widening of the ban to include all members of Sinn Féin, regardless of the context or capacity in which they were interviewed, was later found to be unlawful by the courts.
Initially British broadcasters reacted to the ban with confusion as it was not clear how widely it would apply. A radio station axed an interview with Bernadette McAliskey even though she was not a member of Sinn Féin. However, such was the opposition to the ban among British broadcasters, that, unlike their RTÉ counterparts, they eventually undermined it. Actors were employed to do ‘voice-overs’ on footage of Sinn Féin interviewees. This reduced the ban to farce and by highlighting the censorship itself it made many people in Britain question their government’s policy in Ireland.
The broadcasting ban also brought international embarrassment for the British government. The head of the white racist regime in apartheid South Africa, P.W. Botha, warned his country’s already censored press: “They must not complain when we institute regulations similar to those of the British government.”
Renowned journalist John Pilger wrote: “Consider the irony: the freedoms recently gained in Gorbachov’s Russia are those being abandoned here.”
As the Peace Process developed the absurdity and injustice of the ban became totally exposed and the British government had to abandon it in 1994.
The British broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin was imposed by Douglas Hurd on 19 October 1988, 20 years ago this week.

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