HC Deb 01 August 1980 vol 989 cc2002-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Newton.]

2.30 pm
Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

There is much public concern about the behaviour of the agents of the media in relation to criminals. Journalists have interviewed escaped prisoners; Idi Amin has been televised. Such incidents arouse moral outrage on the part of the public.

Why should the media appear to be a law unto themselves? That question is particularly acute in relation to terrorism. This morning my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General defined terrorism in a way which can be summarised as "acts of violence for political ends". Terrorism thrives on publicity. Publicity is an essential element in the aims of the terrorist. It is morally wrong to consort with criminals. In relation to terrorists, is also criminal.

Section 11 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1976 provides that anyone in contact with terrorists has a legal duty to inform the police.

Last year two incidents occurred in which the BBC, acting through its staff, in my opinion, broke the law. The first was a televised interview with a member of an Irish terrorist organisation who, according to the transcript of the broadcast, said We have murdered Airey Neave", and explained how and why that foul deed was done.

The second incident was the filming at Carrickmore in Northern Ireland of a road block set up by the Provisional IRA.

It is common ground that the police were not informed in both cases.

The conduct of the BBC staff involved in this matter was disgraceful and, I believe, criminal. What the BBC and its apologists fail to remember is that in Northern Ireland we are fighting a vicious war in which British lives are being lost almost every day. It is a war with battles just as bitter and cruel as any during the Second World War. What would have happened during that war if the BBC, or a member of its staff, had interviewed Dr. Goebbels and asked him to explain why the Nazis thought it necessary to kill British troops or to exterminate Jews? The people responsible for such an interview would have been strung up on the nearest lamp posts. Yet there is no difference in principle from what the BBC has done in these cases.

Why has the BBC not been prosecuted? I asked my right hon. and learned Friend that question recently in a written question and on 4 July he replied that, acting within his authority, he had decided not to prosecute but that he had written to the chairman of the governors of the BBC a letter which, on 18 July, in reply to a further question from me, he refused to publish.

The matter cannot be left there. I do not believe that the difficulty in this case is insufficiency of evidence. My right hon. and learned Friend has not sought to suggest that it is. The only ground must be public policy within the guidelines laid down by a former Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, as he then was, in this place on 29 January 1951, as reported in Hansard for that day, at column 681.

What public policy could justify letting the BBC off scot-free when a serious crime has been committed? If it has been let off with a caution, why are we not entitled to know? Judging from unofficial leaks that I have heard from the BBC, it seems that it has rejected any criticism of its conduct and that of its employees. Its apologists talk piously of political interference and censorship. The law must be obeyed however mighty the culprit, and that applies just as much to Granada Television as to the BBC.

It is Parliament that makes the law. We were elected to make it. It is for us to set the limits. No one elected the governors of the BBC or authorised them to define the law.

The incidents of which I speak may not be the most serious, but they are not the only ones that cause one to have worries about the way in which the BBC and members of its staff are exercising their duties. Some curious items have been broadcast, notably on the World Service, by the BBC—for example, the broadcasting of IRA songs, which leads one to suspect that some BBC staff are in active sympathy with the IRA.

Has my right hon. and learned Friend let off the BBC? If so, why? If so. what guarantee do we have that this and similar offences will not be repeated?

2.37 pm
Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I welcome this opportunity to make a brief contribution in this important debate. I believe that there are various issues which should be ventilated publicly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) described the programmes which gave rise to our grave concern. I wish to confine my comments to the "Tonight" programme broadcast on 5 July 1979, which broadcast an interview with the alleged murderers of my predecessor, Airey Neave, and an employee of the BBC, Mr. David Lomax.

Soon after this broadcast I contacted the then Director-General of the BBC and expressed my objections to this interview. Sir Ian Trethowan, in a written response to my objections, stated that we should remind the public of the thinking and nature and character of those people who are committed to acts of terrorism and violence. He continued: it is not enough to report the daily acts of violence in the Province. I see it as part of our duty to look at its causes and its practitioners. I believe that in this instance the BBC made a serious error of judgment. The programme deeply distressed the late Mr. Neave's family, his friends, colleagues and constituents, and was regarded by many as a national outrage. His murder was fresh in their minds. In addition, various allegations, albeit groundless in truth and fact, were made about him which were nevertheless harmful and tasteless.

So the first charge that I press against the makers of this programme is that of appalling taste and the timing of the broadcast, which was offensive to all who heard it. I accept, however, that matters of taste are matters of opinion and a value judgment in the eye of the beholder. The counter-argument would be that the sensibilities of those I have already mentioned should be subordinated to the wider national interest as expressed in Sir Ian Trethowan's letter.

However, the BBC enjoys an unparalleled reputation as a medium concerned with the highest standards of truth, blended with balanced comment. Such a reputation carries onerous responsibilities towards the public. The public regard, and rightly so, serious programmes produced by the BBC as having weight and credibility.

In the instance of this programme, the BBC gave its cloak of status and credibility to a murderous illegal organisation which otherwise would have skulked in the shadows of obscurity to which it naturally belongs before it is brought to justice. In giving this evil organisation an opportunity to parade its corruptive argument justifying its murder in the guise of a political exposition to a massive audience, the BBC gave it assistance in terms of publicity. To these illegal gangs, wedded to murder in pursuit of their goals, publicity acts as nourishment for its crazed members and supporters, and as a seed-bed for recruits. Such publicity acts as a spur in terms of raising morale; and that can lead to further violence.

It is possible that the programme organisers breached the law in terms of the way in which they conducted the interview. I understand that they did not inform the authorities until after the event. In short, they placed their desire for a scoop before the overriding national interest which must be, unarguably, to bring those responsible for the appalling murder of Airey Neave to justice.

However, I recognise the dilemma in which the prosecuting authorities find themselves in retrospect, as to what action—if any—they should take. I am not party to all the facts surrounding this incident, nor am I a lawyer. As a layman, it would seem to me that it might be difficult to prove criminal intent on the part of those BBC authorities responsible for the programme. If a breach of the law has been committed, it could be argued that those responsible were unaware that they were acting in contravention of the law and were genuinely sustained by the belief that they were acting in the public interest. It is relatively easy to launch a prosecution but much harder to achieve a conviction in the courts in such circumstances.

Doubtless, consideration must be given as to the possible byproduct of such a prosecution. The stars of the programme, the murderers, might secure substantial quantities of gratuitous publicity for their seedy cause. Let us not forget that it was for publicity that the organisation sought the interview in the first place. Also, there is the risk that in the event of an unsuccessful prosecution the finding of "not guilty" would be translated into a victory for the murderers. The real issues might become obscured.

I see only one reason why the Attorney-General might wish to prosecute such an august body as the BBC in such circumstances—namely, if lessons had not been learnt and if there were a possibility of an encore. In that case, the Attorney-General might feel obliged to demonstrate that no one—be he never so powerful—is above the law.

I hope that lessons will have been learnt and that those responsible for the programme will not congratulate themselves. I hope that they will think most carefully before making another similar programme.

2.41 pm
Mr. Stephen Hastings (Mid-Bedfordshire)

I rise briefly to support my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), and to congratulate him on bringing this issue before the House. Concern is widespread, and growing. There is evidence of that support in the number of Conservative Members who are here to support my hon. Friend. It is not just that the programme represented an extremely repulsive error of taste among those at the highest levels of the BBC, but in addition, we are concerned that terrorism and bestial murder are being dignified beneath the cloak of some bogus media ethic.

I understand that such a programme would never be permitted in the Republic of Ireland. Not only are programmes not permitted about organisations that are proscribed in the Republic of Ireland, but in addition no programmes are permitted about organisations that are proscribed in Northern Ireland. If the Act is not man enough to cope with such a situation, and if there is no room for the only logical result—namely, a prosecution—it should be made man enough. There is no shortage of Conservative Members who are prepared to support an amendment of the Act. I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will reassure us.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that legislation is not a matter for an Adjournment debate.

2.43 pm
Mr. Edward Gardner (South Fylde)

I should like to speak on behalf of my late colleague and friend, Mr. Airey Neave, and to express my repugnance of the type of programme which was produced on 5 July, and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) has referred.

The immediate power and influence of television is unsurpassed. Therefore, that power should not be abused. It should be used responsibly.

I do not want it to be said of the BBC what Mr. Baldwin said about the press in his day—that it enjoyed the power of the harlot; power without responsibility.

I received many letters from my constituents immediately after the programme, expressing their personal dislike of, and dismay about this programme. If that is the kind of programme that emanates from the media, the reputation that Mr. Baldwin attributed to the press when he was Prime Minister will be emulated by the reputation of the people who put out programmes of this type.

2.46 pm
Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)

Does the hon. Member have the permission of the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) to speak in the debate?

Mr. Stanbrook

The hon. Member has my permission.

Mr. Kilfedder

I wish to place on the record once again that Ulster people were absolutely horrified by the interview to which my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has referred. They were aghast that a national organisation such as the BBC could not only put over a programme which attacked Mr. Airey Neave, who served this country so well, but should try to undermine the security forces in Northern Ireland who are trying to keep law and order.

Like every other urban guerrilla force, the IRA thrives on publicity and welcomes an opportunity to put forward its view. The programme should be condemned and action should be taken in such circumstances.

2.47 pm
Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

I wish briefly to express a view which is not in any way designed to make political capital out of a great tragedy for the House of Commons. But I should be failing in my duty if I did not join with my Ulster colleague, the hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder), in saying that we condemn utterly the activities of those who were not merely alleged to have committed the crime, but who confessed to it. As on previous occasions, we express the hope—so far in vain—that a more responsible attitude will be shown by the BBC and the other organs of the media. I hope that due notice will be taken of the unanimous view expressed in the debate today.

2.48 pm
The Attorney-General (Sir Michael Havers)

I am grateful for the manner in which my hon. Friends have contributed to this debate. The facts are important, so I shall summarise them briefly.

On 30 March 1979 Mr. Airey Neave was murdered in circumstances that are well known. Within a short time of the explosion that caused his death an organisation calling itself the Irish National Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the explosion. By reason of the detail provided, it was thought that the claim was true. Between March and July 1979 a BBC production team for the "Tonight" programme was attempting to contact a terrorist spokesman in Ireland, and these efforts culminated in complex arrangements for the team to meet a representative of INLA in Dublin on 3 July.

On 5 July during the "Tonight" programme the BBC television services broadcast an interview between a member of its staff and a man purporting to be a spokesman for INLA. There was widespread public revulsion as a result of this broadcast, which I shared. It was not the interview itself which might constitute an offence under section 11 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act, but information received in the course of making the arrangements for it and the identity of the spokesman.

The other incident was at Carrickmore. Another BBC production team preparing an item for broadcast as part of the "Panorama" programme was in Dublin. Shortly before the team was due to leave for Belfast an anonymous telephone call was received inviting the team to go to Carrickmore in Northern Ireland where there would be something for it to film. The team went and witnessed a road block set up by suspected members of the Provisional IRA who were armed. A number of passing motorists were stopped and questioned. The team filmed and sound recorded what was happening, and members of the team could have been under no misapprehension about what was happening. Although they were aware that what they had witnessed was a criminal offence, no member of the team took steps to inform the police or the Army. They contacted the Army the following day, seeking its assistance with further filming. By that time the Army had got wind of what had happened and raised it with the team. Only then did any member of the team report any details of what had been witnessed.

Having briefly outlined the facts of each incident, I should first like to say that I profoundly disapprove of the conduct of the BBC staff directly involved, which was, in my view, deplorable. However, I could not base a decision to institute proceedings on disapproval only, however deeply felt. I had to have regard to the general circumstances of the alleged offences, the prospects of obtaining convictions and what in the long term would be in the best interests of the public.

I was satisfied that the actions of the BBC staff were of a kind that would have constituted offences under section 11 of the 1976 Act. It is worth reminding the House and perhaps the public of what that section provides: If a person who has information which he knows or believes might be of material assistance—

  1. (a) in preventing an act of terrorism … or
  2. (b) in securing the apprehension, prosecution or conviction of any person for an offence involving the commission, preparation or instigation of an act of terrorism …
fails without reasonable excuse to disclose that information as soon as practicable … to a constable or … in Northern Ireland … a member of Her Majesty's forces, he shall be guilty of an offence. A number of factors in the end made me decide against proceedings in both cases, each of which I considered individually but at the same time, and with the benefit of leading counsel's advice and the views of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

While it is not usual practice to disclose the evidence that I have before me in reaching a decision, I can point to one or two parts of it that had some influence on me. In the INLA incident—and because it involved an interview with someone who boasted of being associated with the muderers of Airey Neave it was therefore the more deplorable one—the events took place in the Dublin area, and any information that could have been passed to the United Kingdom authorities would have been of limited value. Moreover, such as would have been available was of limited value.

That could not be said of the Carrickmore incident, because there the BBC staff were witnesses to an act of terrorism. It would have been foolhardy of them to report the incident while in the immediate area, but their failure to do so later was wrong. They sought, belatedly, the advice of a BBC legal adviser, and acting on the advice given decided still not to report the matter. That advice was, in my view, unquestionably wrong. Moreover, I doubt that bad legal advice could be regarded as a reasonable excuse for failing to inform the proper authorities. Nevertheless, I took into consideration the fact that advice had been sought and given.

It must be obvious to everyone that the BBC staff were being used by INLA and the Provisional IRA for propaganda purposes. While that makes their conduct more regrettable, one factor that I had to bear in mind—and this was pointed to in the excellent contribution by my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon)—was whether by instituting proceedings, particularly if unsuccessful, I may be adding to such propaganda. I do not say that that was a major factor in reaching my decision, but it was one that I bore in mind.

Another factor that influenced me was that, by the time the papers reached me for a decision, the BBC had already taken steps to tighten control over reporting of terrorist activities in Northern Ireland. I am glad that the corporation took that step of its own accord. It reminded me of the success of my choosing to refer to the Press Council the conduct of some newspapers over the question of payment of witnesses in a recent case.

There were grounds to believe that the action that the BBC had already taken would prevent a recurrence of the conduct in question. That this would be the consequence of any action that should be taken was, to my mind, of great importance. I would add that, although neither incident could, in my view, be regarded as remotely falling into the category of proper reporting, the BBC and the press have a duty, which, apart from being dangerous, must be very difficult to perform fairly, to inform the public about Northern Ireland affairs.

Those are some of the reasons for my decision.

I was, however, determined that my decision should not be interpreted as a licence to journalists to have relation- ships with terrorists outside the legal restrictions which operated on all others. There is no such licence, and that must be clearly understood. Therefore, after I had decided not to prosecute, I saw the chairman of the BBC governors, Sir Michael Swann, to convey to him personally my views on the matter and the strength of my feelings. I also wanted to make certain that he understood that my decision did not imply that I took the view that conduct of the kind which had taken place could not constitute an offence. I followed this with a letter reaffirming the views that I had expressed at our meeting, making it quite clear that if similar incidents took place again I would take a stricter view of what had happened and those who participated would be on warning that, subject to the evidence and circumstances of the case, they risk criminal proceedings under the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act. I trust that there will be no repetition, and I welcome the fact that the BBC has taken clear steps to prevent one. But the warning remains.

So, for the benefit of others who have not seen the correspondence, perhaps I may broadly summarise what I believe the law to be. Anyone who has contact with terrorists puts himself potentially in the position of acquiring information which would place him under a legal duty to report it as soon as possible to the proper authorities. Those involved in such contacts must consider carefully the consequences of their acts and the risk they run if they do not report quickly relevant information which has come into their possession.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Three o'clock.