‘It’s the IRA broadcasting ban all over again

Posted By: October 01, 2014

David Cameron’s and Theresa May’s proposed media 
an on some nonviolent extremists is unworkable, dangerous posturing
Jean Seaton,  The Guardian.com  Wednesday 1 October 2014.
Theresa May, backed by a casually enthusiastic prime minister 
on the Today programme, has suggested that aban on some 
nonviolent extremist groups and speakersappearing on television 
and social media should be introduced. It seems a shame neither 
politician seems to have spoken to that wily, principled Conservative 
former home secretary Douglas Hurd before they proposed 
something as unworkable, ineffective and dangerous.

Hurd, pushed by Margaret Thatcher but also perhaps by a 
bomb in Belfast, introduced a “broadcasting ban” in 1988 
against the IRA and other “extremist” organisations’ spokespeople. 
This was put in place because the alternative – proscribing 
organisationsthat held seats in the Commons – would have 
been worse. It would have damaged the constitution 
and parliament, so the broadcasters were sacrificed instead.

Hurd defended it as a necessary shot across the bows of the 
IRA, but not as a successful ploy for influencing public 
opinion – although it did temporarily assuage the indignation 
of the press. Hurd would, I suspect, have warned the home 
secretary and indeed Cameron of all this, had they asked.

In 1988, it looked like an unprecedented government attack
on the independence of the media – especially the 
BBC – which was the prime target. It did immense 
damage to the BBC’s worldwide reputation. This was 
not just punitive to the corporation but damaging to the national 
interest at home and abroad. BBC World Service staff, sensitive
 to censorship all over the world, went on strike. It had absolutely 
no effect on the “extremists” of the moment.

What were the arguments for it? They looked simple, seemed 
plausible, and were much the same as those advanced now. 
It was argued that access to the media enhanced the reputation 
and authority of enemies of the state, that extreme views were 
given wider reach by the media, and that the impressionable 
would be persuaded by such propaganda. Indeed, in many 
ways the IRA was a formidable propagandist and British 
governments, for all their mishandling of the crisis, had been 
desperately trying to control a volatile conflict.

It was also suggested that it was offensive to see such opponents 
spoken to as if they were reasonable. They were men of violence 
who merely exploited freedom of speech and ought to be denied it. 
The worry was that they used the media to legitimate their politics 
and recruit public opinion and volunteers, and that they used 
statements in the media to threaten and launch action.

What were the arguments against it? The most important one 
was that it was a self-pleasuring ban. In other words, it did more 
to make those imposing it feel happy than it did to stop IRA propaganda.
 But perhaps it is more powerful when ill-intentioned people are
interrogated, explored and tested. Their views may be abhorrent
 but precisely because they are dangerous they need to be
understood, investigated and held to account.

Back then, the long-term conflict with governments about 
exposing such people was also a dispute about who 
defined power. Broadcasters argued that the IRA and other 
groups held power on the ground and that the public needed 
this reality to be identified. Sweeping it under the carpet
 because it was unpleasant was not an option. Expose, 
interrogate, explain, question, understand: these
were the things the media had to do.

Who, then, argued against the ban? The BBC and ITV 
recognised a threat to their integrity. They defended 
the public’s right to understand, and sought to 
undermine the ban in the public interest.

More surprisingly, for a decade before the ban, 
battle-hardened officials in the Home Office and 
Northern Ireland office, and senior mandarins in the 
Cabinet Office struggled to stop a ban. Pragmatically, 
they believed it would be ineffective. But as one weary
 legal officer reviewing the case in early 1987 wrote,
 it would cause more problems than it solved:
 “Many people want to ban many things.
 Many people want to ban things they do not like. 
But there is no evidence that any such ban is effective. 
It is not the British way. The British way is to hold 
up vile people to account and scrutiny.”

I suspect Hurd would have agreed. It was imposed for 
short-term political reasons, and was ineffective. Posturing, 
which is what the proposed ban is based on, 
does not make a policy when the threats are real.