§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hurd)
I beg to move.
That this House approves the Home Secretary's action in giving directions to the BBC and IBA to restrict the broadcasting of statements by Northern Ireland terrorist organisations and their apologists.On 19 October I told the House that I had issued directions to the BBC and the IBA requiring them to refrain from broadcasting statements by Northern Ireland terrorist organisations and their apologists. The imposition of any restrictions on broadcasting, however well justified, is a serious step. This step was taken only after long and careful consideration by the Government. It is because of the seriousness of the matter that I emphasised, when I made my statement, that the House should be given an early opportunity to debate, and I hope endorse, the action that we have taken.
Those who live by the bomb and the gun and those who support them cannot in all circumstances be accorded the same rights as the rest of the population. This is a principle that the House has accepted many times when passing legislation to give the police and the courts certain carefully limited but exceptional powers for the prevention of terrorism. The principle is contested by the Opposition, but I believe that it is accepted by the majority of our constituents. It is common sense. We shall soon be putting to Parliament new and stronger proposals that will bear particularly on the funds of terrorist organisations.
Those who practise and support terrorism and violence should not be allowed direct access to our radios and television screens. In a nutshell, that is what the Government's action is all about. The same conclusion was reached long ago by the Republic of Ireland, which imposed similiar restrictions.
One essential point about the effect of the notices that I issued deserves repeating. The notices do not restrict the secondhand reporting of events. Comparisons with the extensive reporting restrictions in countries such as South Africa are misleading, especially when they are made by members of the South African Government. The notices restrict only the direct access of members of these organisations and their supporters to the air waves. Their activities and the words they utter can still be reported, as they are, in the press, but we are denying them the ability to appear on television and thereby obtain a spurious authority and respectability. In the words of last week's Irish Independent,Sinn Fein are not being silenced … merely put in their place.
§ Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)
I fail to understand why it is all right for someone's words to be reported by another individual but not for them to speak for themselves, unless the Government are frightened that Sinn Fein or Ulster Defence Association persons speaking for themselves would be more appealing and attractive than the Government want them to be. I cannot understand the logic of allowing the words to be reported but not allowing the originator of the words to use them in public.
§ Mr. Hurd
In that case, the hon. Lady will not agree with the notice, because it is based on the distinction between the reporting of events and words and the direct access of members of proscribed organisations, or those uttering words in support of them, to people's television screens in their living rooms. There is a clear distinction in reality, and I shall return to that point before I conclude.
§ Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)
In view of my right hon. Friend's understandable comments about South Africa, and in the light of reports that other countries are queueing up at the doors of Her Majesty's Government to remove from our television screens people whom they regard as terrorists, would it not be appropriate at some stage for the Government to separate terrorist groups such as the IRA and ETA—which have access to the ballot, the freedom to live where they want in their own land and to stand for election—from legitimate freedom fighters who oppose state terrorism, such as the Palestine Liberation Organisation or the African National Congress, which have offices in London?
§ Mr. Hurd
My hon. Friend is trying to draw me on to ground on which I do not intend to tread today, although it is very interesting. These notices are and will remain confined to Northern Ireland organisations.
As the House knows, the notices that I have issued contain two exemptions—one for parliamentary proceedings and the other for statements made during an election. We were concerned not to take measures that might trench on parliamentary privilege. We must remember the position of broadcasters in relation to parliamentary matters. Under the licence and agreement, the BBC is charged with providing an impartial account, day by day, of proceedings in both Houses. It might be difficult for the corporation to carry out this requirement—especially with regard to debates on Northern Ireland—if restrictions were to apply to our proceedings.
A similar point applies to elections. Under the Broadcasting Act 1981, the IBA has a statutory duty to treat impartially matters of political or industrial controversy or current public policy. In the annex to its licence and agreement, the BBC has undertaken to fulfil a similar responsibility. We believe that it will be possible to carry out this requirement fully in everyday circumstances as the notices will not prevent the broadcasters from reporting indirectly the activities of the organisations concerned.
An election period is different. The ability of candidates and their supporters to make a personal appearance on radio or television is crucial to balancing the interests of political parties in obtaining access to the electorate. That, after all, is the basis of the broadcasting requirements under the Representation of the People Act 1983. The application of the restrictions during an election period would face the broadcasters with an insurmountable conflict between their legal duty to implement the notice and the legal requirements of impartial treatment of political controversy. Such a position would raise significant legal difficulties.
For those reasons, we decided that a candidate representing one of the organisations concerned and his supporters should be free to make personal appearances on radio and television during election time, provided—this is important—that their statements are made in support of the candidate and his constituency contest.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
I listen with amazement to what my right hon. Friend is saying. It is perfectly obvious that one tries to gain the support of a community for election to office over many weeks and months, not over a three-week election period. Does it not instantly put one party at a disadvantage to another, and is that a fair system?
§ Mr. Hurd
I do not agree with my hon. Friend. There are, as the law provides, special circumstances surrounding an election period. We are trying to prevent the broadcasting authorities being put in a position where they cannot carry out their responsibilities, as defined, during that period. In everyday circumstances—between elections —the notices will not prevent them from carrying out their duties.
In statements made soon after my announcement, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) seemed to beckon to Sinn Fein to take advantage of the exemption, which I have just mentioned, to make its case to the British people at the forthcoming Govan by-election. Indeed, he talked in the House about the near certainty of its doing so. In the event, it decided to ignore the right hon. Gentleman's invitation.
§ Mr. Hattersley
The word to which I take exception is "invitation", not "near certainty". The idea that I was inviting Sinn Fein to do that is no doubt how the Home Secretary will conduct this debate—an alternative to argument being abuse.
§ Mr. Hurd
There is no abuse. The right hon. Gentleman dangled the prospect before Sinn Fein. That is precisely what he did, and his reaction following my announcement was to talk about "near certainty." It was widely reported in the press. If the right hon. Gentleman does not like the word "invitation," I shall substitute that he dangled the prospect before it, which is precisely what he did.
Sinn Fein decided to ignore that prospect. If press reports are right, it thought hard about it and decided against. Perhaps it was wise to do so. The same legal requirements that ensure an even-handed treatment of candidates by broadcasters at election time could not have given Sinn Fein the great publicity bonanza that the right hon. Gentleman might have envisaged. The same rules that make necessary the exemption would prevent it from gaining much advantage.
The right hon. Gentleman's prediction was not the only one that has so far proved false.
§ Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)
Does the Secretary of State agree that the battle with those who espouse terrorism in the north of Ireland must be fought not in Govan, in this country or in the Republic of Ireland, but on the streets of Belfast and on the roads of places such as south Armagh, where I live? We can judge the restriction that the right hon. Gentleman has introduced only by the effect that it will have there, not by the effect that it will have anywhere else. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that this restriction is furthering, rather than restricting, the propaganda weapon that is used?
§ Mr. Hurd
I am coming to the hon. Gentleman's point, which is the core of the argument. Before doing that I was 1076 trying to deal with the points that the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook, rightly or wrongly, raised when he commented on my announcement.
All sorts of predictions have been made, not only the one made by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook. We read on good authority that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) would be taking his seat, as if there were no requirement of an oath of affirmation or allegiance. We read that the "Any Questions" programme, on which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) appeared in Antrim last week, would be disrupted, but she will confirm that that did not happen either.
To be fair, it is natural that there should be some anxiety and controversy at the start of such an arrangement—as there is, from time to time, in the Republic. There are some who, for reasons of their own, prefer to remain permanently confused about the scope of the notices. However, I believe that my announcement and the terms of the notices were as clear as we could make them.
§ Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)
I am worried about the way in which the right hon. Gentleman is presenting his argument. The point that he is missing, which is the core of the argument and forms the basis of our accusations against him, is that he is allowing the paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to set the political agenda. Every discussion and every headline during the past few weeks has been about the paramilitaries. It is not a question of Govan or of Mr. Adams taking his seat. The point is that the right hon. Gentleman has allowed the paramilitaries to set the political agenda. That is why they have made the headlines, day in, day out, for the past two weeks.
§ Mr. Hurd
I agree that that is part of the core of the argument. I am trying to clear away points that have been raised and predictions that have been made—which, incidentally, have turned out to be quite false—before I deal with the core of the argument. I am trying to deal with detailed matters, and I shall then return to the principal concern, on which I feel just as strongly as the hon. Gentleman.
There will, of course, be occasions when the broadcasters, as now, have to use their judgment in deciding whether to include particular material in a programme. One such issue concerns the question whether a person is representing a named organisation at the time he appears on a programme. It is true that a member of an organisation cannot be held to represent it in all his daily activities. The key to the issue is the word "represent." When a councillor is speaking in Northern Ireland, it is not the subject about which he is talking that will decide whether his speech can be broadcast directly, but whether he is talking on behalf of one of the named organisations. —[Interruption.] I am trying to clarify a point that I think is now clear to all, other than to those who wish to remain permanently confused.
As the director of Radio 4 made clear this morning—although he did not like it—a Sinn Fein councillor speaking about council matters on behalf of his group will not be allowed direct access. There will be borderline cases where that distinction will require careful judgment, just as the broadcasters had to exercise careful judgment under 1077 the previous arrangement. However, in practice I do not believe that the decision will be too difficult in the vast majority of cases.
In the reactions during the days—
§ Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)
The Home Secretary, in his statement on 19 October, said that he had no criticism as such of the broadcasting authorities. If he does not believe that they have gone out of their way to interview spokesmen for those who argue for and justify terrorism, why does he not leave these matters to their editorial judgment?
§ Mr. Hurd
We did, of course, consider that, but we thought it more sensible and honest for the Government to bring forward and to take responsibility for this measure. That is what we have done. I am surprised at the hon. Gentleman. If we had simply said to the broadcasters, "We want you to exercise your judgment, albeit very difficult" and had not brought the matter before the House, would that have been a better way to achieve the objective? It would not. The way in which we are handling the matter—including this debate, during which various views will be expressed, and not all of them in support of the Government—is a much more straightforward way of setting about matters.
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
I apologise for not being in the Chamber for the first few minutes of the right hon. Gentleman's speech. He mentioned borderline cases and how comparatively easy it would be to solve them. Did the Government consider introducing a change in the law to deal with these matters? The passing of this motion will have no effect on the law in Ireland or anywhere else. The Government have sought to deal with these matters by Home Secretary edict, backed by a motion that will have no binding effect in the courts. Did the Government not think that the appropriate method would be to change the law of the land to deal with such a departure from free rights and free speech?
§ Mr. Hurd
The right hon. Gentleman is contradicting his hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who suggested that we should have handled the matter in a roundabout way and relied on the broadcasters to use their judgement to achieve the same effect. I carefully read what Lord Scarman said, as, no doubt, did the right hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that there is a serious question about the legal basis of the notices. That being so, it would have been deeply quixotic to have proceeded in any other way. There is precedent and there is the law.
§ Mr. Hurd
I have already given way once to the hon. Gentleman. I should like to continue my speech.
In the reactions during the days following my announcement, there were some who felt, as the Opposition do, that the Government had gone too far, and there were others who felt that we had not gone far enough. Opposition Members continue to claim that this is a major incursion upon the right of freedom of expression. As I have made clear tonight, that cannot be so because broadcasters remain free to report the activities of those organisations and the actual words used by their 1078 representatives. Some of my hon. Friends and Members on the Unionist Benches have argued that the right even to report statements by those organisations should be restricted. That would be going too far. There is the obvious case of the aftermath of a terrorist outrage when it is essential, as a matter of public information, that any admission of responsibility by a terrorist group be fully reported.
Some of my hon. Friends and Unionist Members would like the Government to proscribe Sinn Fein. As they know, we believe that proscription is a fitting measure only for organisations that are actively and primarily involved in terrorism. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has frequently pointed out, the status of Sinn Fein and the UDA is kept carefully under review by the Government. There has been criticism, and it will continue, from those two extremes—one saying that we have gone too far and the other that we have not gone far enough. I believe that, both inside and outside the House, the balance that we have struck will achieve wide general support.
§ Mr. Henry Bellingham (Norfolk, North-West)
My right hon. Friend is obviously aware that his announcement received a very bad press in America. Does he agree that it is imperative to stress that the Republic of Ireland has had such restrictions since 1960?
§ Mr. Hurd
I was about to make that point.
I wish to pick up something that I heard the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) say before I made my announcement, but following press reports of what it was thought I would say. He put the greatest stress on the need for even-handedness. He criticised our proposal mainly because he thought that it did not include the UDA and the UVF. I cannot say that we took his advice because it had always been absolutely clear to us that the proposal would have to be even-handed. It is, and I hope that when he replies to the debate he will be fair enough to temper his views accordingly.
Always on these occasions—as has happened with interruptions this evening—the argument is that by depriving the IRA of one weapon we are actually giving it another and bigger one—
§ Mr. Hurd
The hon. Gentleman confirms that point. It is argued that we are giving the IRA a propaganda advantage across the world that will outweigh the disadvantage of being shut out of our own television screens. That argument deserves rather closer dissection than it usually gets. An Irish-American or an Irish-Australian who is already sympathetic to the IRA will not have his opinions changed, one way or the other, by this proposal. An Irish-American or an Irish-Australian, who is naturally, temperamentally and intellectually sympathetic to the Fianna Fail or Fine Gael parties in the Republic, will not go through some great anti-British convulsion because we are practising what the Governments of both those parties have practised in the Republic for many years past. I suggest that he is more likely simply to be surprised to learn that we have not, for years past, been doing the same as the Dublin Government.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
What will the Irish-American citizen say when he reads that the British Government are abandoning the first amendment to the American constitution?
§ Mr. Alton
I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said this evening. It is proper that we should bring our law into line with that of the Irish Republic. Does he agree that security and justice run hand in hand? While we are right to bring our security laws into line with those of the Irish Republic, our laws concerning justice and the way in which we administer it in Northern Ireland through the Diplock courts should also be brought into line with the law of the Irish Republic by replacing those courts with three sitting judges.
§ Mr. Hurd
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has constantly kept the matter under review, as, of course, I did, but from time to time he has given his decisions and beliefs on that point. I had hoped that the hon. Gentleman would say what he did say in the first part of his intervention, and I am grateful for the support from the Opposition parties that it conveyed.
I refer now to what I regard as the core of the matter. Particularly since the outrage at Enniskillen a year ago and the renewed intensity of the terrorist campaign, I have several times thought how difficult it is for us in this House to understand not the facts, which are clear enough, but the emotions produced by such events in that part of our country. Right hon. and hon. Members who represent Northern Ireland do what they can from their different viewpoints to enlighten us, but they would be the first to admit that there is a barrier to overcome. The words they use, the way they put things, and their occasional intense preoccupation with ancient rivalries may sometimes lead us on this side of the water to forget how real and intense are the anxieties that they are seeking to convey to us. But we must not allow ourselves that luxury of forgetfulness.
It seems to me that, in recent months, two such anxieties have come to the fore with a new intensity. The first is the anxiety that so many guilty terrorists escape conviction or, if convicted, spend too little time in prison. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is, of course, fully aware of these concerns. His proposal to allow courts to draw certain inferences from an accused who insists on remaining silent makes clear his understanding of that point. I do not want to go further into that matter, because it is his business, not mine.
The second anxiety is the one that we are discussing today. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) will recognise this point from his time in the Army. When there is a terrorist attack and television screens carry to mourning people pictures of tears and bloodshed, it is hard for us on this side of the water to understand the outrage that is felt when, soon afterwards, there can appear on the same screens, 1080 particularly in Northern Ireland, people who, just keeping on the right side of the law, justify and glory in what has been done and threaten more of it. That is the difference between direct access and the report. It is not surprising that a member of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a member of the UDR, or any law-abiding citizen of the Province finds it hard to understand how we can be wholly serious in our efforts against terrorism if that kind of triumphalism is acceptable.
But there is more to it than that. It is not simply that people are affronted—we can live with affront—by the direct access of men of violence and supporters of viollence to television and radio. That direct access gives those who use it an air and appearance of authority which spreads further outwards the ripple of fear that terrorist acts create in the community. The terrorist act creates the fear and the direct broadcast spreads it. The men of violence and their supporters have used this access with skill. They hope not to persuade—this is where we get into the cosy luxury of discussion which is unreal—but to frighten. So far from being outlaws hunted by the forces of law and order and pursued by the courts, they calmly appear on the screen and, thus, in the homes of their victims and the friends and neighbours of their victims. We are dealing not just with statements that are offensive, but with the use of the media to deliver indirect threats. We owe the people of Northern Ireland the effort of imagination that enables us to understand what that experience is like and to understand how the fight against terrorism is hindered by it.
§ Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)
Does the right hon. Gentleman's argument not presuppose that the case of the IRA is so powerful, that people's attachment to democracy is so weak and that our abhorrence of violence is so inadequate that such an argument being put forward on television can bring us all to our knees? If that is the case, why did the right hon. Gentleman not do something about it over these last 10 years?
§ Mr. Hurd
There speaks the English broadcaster. There speaks the person who thinks that broadcasting and television are just a matter of whether or not one persuades. We are not talking about that; we are talking about fear and the creation of fear. The hon. Gentleman may disagree with the argument, but he clearly was not listening to it. His intervention was unreal.
All those who know Northern Ireland, whatever their opinions, respect the integrity and wisdom—as I learnt to do—of Dr. Robin Eames. Archbishop and Primate of the Church of Ireland. On the evening of my announcement, Dr. Eames said:Sinn Fein have made no secret of the fact that they are in favour of the armed struggle. I have to represent at times those who are the objects of that armed struggle and I know what they've suffered. We know where they—the terrorists —stand. Is any good going to come from people who've suffered so much being subjected to more of their propaganda?I hope that no one in this House will scorn or neglect that expression of feeling.
Of course, this decision will not by itself solve the problem or defeat the terrorist. If that is a criticism, it is something that we accept. As my right hon. Friend has constantly made clear, no single measure is going to defeat the Provisional IRA or, indeed, the Protestant paramilitaries. We are deliberately not announcing a package of measures, but reaching and implementing decisions one by one, as we review the whole range of issues and 1081 possibilities that can further help protect a free democratic society from the evil of terrorism and its associates. This is a serious decision, and we shall keep its operation under careful review, but I am satisfied that it is needed, and I have no hesitation in commending the motion to the House.
§ Mr. Roy Hattersley (Birmingham, Sparkbrook)
I beg to move, to leave out from 'House' to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof:
'reaffirming its determination to defeat terrorism in Northern Ireland, refuses to support the Government's restrictions on broadcasting and broadcasters, believing those restrictions to be incompatible with a free society and likely to assist rather than frustrate the terrorists by providing them with the opportunity to argue that the Government will not allow the wide expression of opinion which is essential to democratic debate and peaceful change.'.
I am not in the least surprised that the Home Secretary should have made the accusation about the Opposition in general and about me in particular encouraging Sinn Fein to participate in English by-elections. Such allegations are an alternative to thought and argument and an option that is far easier than defending what the Government propose on its dubious merits. That sort of allegation is typical also of the Government's dangerous arrogance. One of the Government's least attractive characteristics is their belief that, in all matters affecting security, anyone who disagrees with their judgment or criticises their record is acting against the national interest.
Let me make it clear at the beginning of the debate that I and my right hon. and hon. Friends do not propose to take any lessons in standing out against terrorism from the Government who gave free passage out of this country to the murderers of WPC Fletcher, rather than risk a row with Libya; nor do we propose to take lectures on defeating terrorism on the premise that what the Home Secretary now proposes will make the smallest contribution to the destruction of terrorism and the defeat of terrorists in Northern Ireland.
The argument is not about whether something that will help in a mutually accepted cause will work and whether it should be applied, but about the merits of it, even on the basis of what the Home Secretary said.
Anyone who for a moment believed that the IRA might even be inconvenienced by the broadcasting ban which the Home Secretary now proposes must have been absolutely disillusioned by the demonstration of the results of that ban on "The Media Programme" on Channel 4 on Sunday. I remind the Home Secretary what happened. A Sinn Fein councillor was interviewed on the effects of the ban. There was some understandable disagreement among lawyers whether the interview could be legally broadcast since the proscription is so imprecise that the Government cannot define its boundaries. In the end, the IBA advised against the interview being broadcast and the programme makers, perfectly legally, showed pictures of the interview without the original sound and dubbed the Sinn Fein councillor's voice with the voice of a commentator or actress. To the casual viewer, the interview was in no way different from one where the actual voice was employed. Anyone turning on the broadcast two seconds after it had begun would have assumed that he was seeing the literal interview. I cannot see what damage is done to terrorism 1082 and terrorists in Northern Ireland by the Government making themselves look ridiculous by imposing that sort of meaningless and pointless restriction on broadcasters.
Apologists for this restriction attempt to justify it with two assertions which originally appeared in the Home Secretary's statement and which I shall quote exactly as he made them. First, broadcasts by representatives and supporters of terrorist organisations causewidespread offence to listeners and viewers.Secondly, terroristsdraw support and sustenance from access to radio and television."—[Official Report, 19 October 1988; Vol. 138, c. 885.]Those two distinct arguments are not incompatible, but they are separate claims and must be justified separately. Too often—the Home Secretary did it again today—the allegations that the IRA and UDA will be helped rather than harmed by the ban is countered with arguments about causing public offence. Concern about banning broadcasts because they cause offence is greeted with claims that at least it will defeat the IRA. I propose to examine individually the two distinct reasons given for limiting broadcasters' freedom—public offence and the defeat of terrorism.
I do not doubt for a moment that the sight of a supporter of the IRA justifying a bomb outrage is offensive to most British people. It is offensive to me. The bogus apologies and hypocritical statements of regret are more offensive still. But the question we must answer is not whether that causes offence—undoubtedly it does—but whether in a free society causing gross and justifiable offence is sufficient reason for limiting the broadcasters' right to broadcast.
If the Home Secretary has any doubts about how steep and slippery is the slope at the top of which he stands, he has only to ask the BBC for transcripts of the phone-in programmes of the past 10 days about his restrictions. His many supporters were virtually unanimous on one point: they found IRA spokesmen offensive and did not wish to see or hear them. But that was only the beginning. They went on to list other individuals and organisations which they found equally offensive and which they believed should also be proscribed and prohibited. If the Home Secretary has not been given the information about these supporters of his, for who, I suspect, he has little time, and who no doubt cause him a great deal of embarrassment, he has only to consider the question asked by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley). I do not know whether his question, which received no answer, was asking for an extension or pointing to the logic of the Home Secretary's position, but either way he was saying that, once such a ban is started, there is no way of knowing how far it will go or where it will lead.
The criterion of causing widespread offence to viewers and listeners is dangerously subjective. It is only necessary to ask some questions which follow from its application to see how great a contagion it can cause. Is anything which causes widespread offence to be banned? If not, who decides within that category what widespread offence should be banned and what should not be banned? How is widespread offence to be measured? Widespread offence is a meaningless concept. It is one of those catch-all omnibus, all-embracing criteria which suit the convenience of authoritarian Governments. It is the sort of criterion which should not be used in a free society. I have no doubt that in Eastern Europe and South America there are all 1083 sorts of prohibitions on broadcasters, broadcasts and newspapers because widespread offence would be caused. Widespread offence, although I feel it in this particular, is not an adequate excuse for censorship in a free society.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stafford)
Will the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to explain why, early in 1977, the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at a dinner in Stormont, called for a ban on terrorist interviews and went so far as to say that the BBC's treatment of Northern Ireland news was sometimes ill advised to the point of disloyalty? How does he square his comments with those of that Labour Secretary of State for Northern Ireland?
§ Mr. Hattersley
In two ways. First, in that particular, my right hon. and noble Friend to whom the hon. Gentleman referred was simply wrong. More important, he was so wrong that he did not put it to the Cabinet, of which he, some hon. Friends and I were members. If he had, he would have received the same sort of reaction from the overwhelming majority that I am trying to describe this evening—that banning the expression of a view because it causes widespread offence should not be acceptable in a free society, no matter how genuine the offence or how much offence is caused.
In a free society, limitations should be imposed on broadcasts and broadcasters when, and only when—[Interruption.] I see that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is congratulating his hon. Friend on making that point. He said, "Well done." [Interruption.] He was just having a little chat. Perhaps he would like to consider the next point.
In a free society, limitations should be imposed on broadcasts and broadcasters when, and only when, it can be conclusively demonstrated that real and desperate damage would be done to members of that society if the restriction were not imposed. We can all think of occasions when prohibitions might be necessary. Usually in such circumstances—a recent kidnapping case is an example—broadcasters apply self-restraint. But a ban should be imposed only when damage to society is substantial and certain and can be demonstrated. Certainly no such case can be made for what the Government now intend. The evidence suggests that the ban will help rather than harm the terrorists' cause.
During the whole of this year, independent television has broadcast four minutes of interviews with supporters and associates of Sinn Fein. Some three minutes 59 seconds of those interviews were highly critical, in that the interviewer demanded to know of Sinn Fein how it could even attempt to justify the horrors and enormities for which the IRA was responsible. The total amount of interviewing time was less than four minutes. Some of the material might have been screened twice—on both the early news and ten o'clock news, but four minutes of new material was the total in a year. How much assistance does the Home Secretary think those four minutes gave the IRA? If he thinks that it might be significant, he will be appalled to learn that, thanks to the ban which he introduced two weeks ago, three or four times as much broadcasting time on Independent Television News has been devoted to discussing and describing the IRA and sometimes even defending it. That is a direct result of what the Home Secretary has introduced.
1084 Naturally, that has been broadcast in reported speech. The Home Secretary seems to believe that there is something peculiarly attractive to potential IRA recruits in seeing the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) speak straight into the camera. I find that impossible to believe. The overwhelming probability is that his restrictions will make Sinn Fein more attractive to the weak-minded viewers than it was two weeks ago. Its ghastly, fawning apologies and its craven justifications will not be broadcast directly, so television interviewers will not be able to challenge it. However, from time to time, when there is a bomb outrage, its hideous sentiments will be quoted in reported speech. I have no doubt that its opinions will be insinuated into broadcasts through surrogates, denying Sinn Fein membership but expressing the views of Sinn Fein.
The potential gain—even for those who accept the implication of the Prime Minister's cliché about the oxygen of publicity—is miniscule. The potential loss is enormous. I ask the Home Secretary this directly: does he believe that Noraid has missed the opportunity to tell Irish Americans that the president of NBC News said on British television and radio last week that Britain is now the only Western democracy with broadcasting censorship? Does he believe that broadcasting that opinion, right or wrong, in the United States will help or hinder Noraid?
§ Mr. Hattersley
If the hon. Gentleman wants to shout, "What about Ireland?", it is for him to answer the point, but he will struggle to understand it if I repeat it to him. The fact is that it is the president of NBC News who made that point.
I ask the Home Secretary again: does he not believe that Noraid is even now flooding Irish-American areas of America with the NBC president's judgment that we have introduced censorship? Does he believe that that has been enormously helpful to his cause?
I ask the Home Secretary a second question: does he not believe that the republican areas in Northern Ireland will be equally flooded with leaflets quoting Mr. P. W. Botha's endorsement of the Government's new controls over broadcasting, and emphasising the South African president's opinion that the Home Secretary's suppression of press freedom in Britain justifies the suppression of press freedom in South Africa? Does he think that Mr. Botha's views are being spread in republican areas, and, if so, is that helping our fight against the IRA or hindering it?
The important point is not the damage caused to Britain's international reputation, great though that is, or the harm that the Government's justification of the prohibition has done to our standing in the world, but the help that their action has provided to the terrorists, who are able to exploit in every possible way the pointless action that was taken two weeks ago. They have been presented with the opportunity to argue that the weapons of political debate and democratic success have been denied them; in consequence, they have been offered the opportunity to argue that what they choose to call the armed struggle is the only way in which they can advance their cause. The damage that the Government are doing to the fight against terrorism must not be obscured by the clear absurdity of their actions. All the analyses of how this 1085 ban will work show that prohibition is a joke—but it is a bad and dangerous joke, and one which will damage the cause that the Home Secretary pretends to be pursuing.
The extent of the absurdity can be measured by the confusion about what can and cannot be broadcast. I remind the Home Secretary of the procedure used to notify the broadcasters of the true position. Quite properly, the BBC was told of the Home Secretary's proposals the night before he announced them to the House. I understand that they became effective at the moment of his announcement, and the BBC and the IBA had to prepare themselves for their instant application. The BBC was told the previous night, and it took legal advice. Two independent sources agreed on the areas which the proposals covered. In his statement, the Home Secretary interpreted his order far more liberally than the BBC's lawyers—one house lawyer and one independent lawyer—believed to be the case.
The BBC's lawyers were again consulted. They reminded the BBC that the law is not what the Home Secretary announced in the House of Commons, but what the courts decide. They had no doubt that the order was a great deal more repressive, shall I say, and comprehensive than the Home Secretary had made out. Meetings were held between the Home Office and the BBC. The BBC continued to argue that the Home Secretary's representation of the law was more liberal than the law allowed.
After a further meeting, the Government agreed to send out a further document, which amended the scope of the original words and ensured that the law would be applied in the way in which the Home Secretary had apparently believed was already embodied in the words. That document contains this paragraph:Whether at any particular instance hein his letters and regulations, the Home Secretary does not consider the possibility that women may be involved in such matters—is representing the organisation concerned will depend upon the nature of the words spoken and the particular context. Where he is speaking in a personal capacity or purely in his capacity as a member of an organisation which does not fall under the Notice (for example, an elected Council), it follows, from that interpretation, that paragraph 1(a)"—that is the prohibiting paragraph—
will not apply.As a result of that clarification, the BBC now believes that Sinn Fein councillors can broadcast as councillors, as distinct from being members of Sinn Fein. It is therefore possible for them to give interviews on exclusively local authority matters. In short, the fears of the hon. Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone (Mr. Maginnis) are justified. Sinn Fein will be allowed to represent itself as the caring guardian of local interests, but it will not be cross-examined on its support for terrorism.
Notwithstanding that, and the helpful Home Office advice concerning Sinn Fein broadcasts about butterfly collecting, the IBA and the BBC still regard the order as so imprecise that they are not sure what can and cannot be broadcast over wide areas. As I understand it, they are known in the trade as grey areas. I have no doubt that, sooner or later, the BBC or IBA will be forced to test those grey areas in court.
§ Mr. Mallon
The right hon. Gentleman has done a service to the House by highlighting that anomaly. It is one of the confusions that the Secretaryof State has referred to. 1086 If, on a Tuesday, Sean Bloggs makes a statement as a member of Armagh council, that, in effect, in law can be covered by TV and radio. If on a Thursday, as a spokesman for Sinn Fein, Sean Bloggs makes the same statement, it cannot be broadcast. Is that not the essence of the confusion and ambiguity that exists?
§ Mr. Hattersley
The hon. Gentleman's point is obviously, and dangerously, right.
I discussed with the BBC some of the possible ambiguities. It gave me an example yesterday of a great fire occurring in the centre of Belfast in which a number of people were killed. An eye witness to the fire was a councillor, who was also a Sinn Fein councillor. That eye witness account could be broadcast if the fire had not been caused by the IRA. It certainly could not he broadcast if it were caused by the IRA. The BBC does not know how it would proceed if no one knew how the fire had been caused. There is no way that one can describe this situation without realising the nonsense of the Home Secretary's position and the disrepute into which he brings the Government.
§ Mr. Hattersley
Although the Home Secretary now shakes his head, the Government concede that the guidelines are confused and contradictory. I believe that they know that, sooner or later, they will be tested in court, because I had the pleasure of watching the Minister of State being asked on television last Sunday what broadcasters should do when they are confronted with those so-called grey areas.
Of course, the Minister of State's answer was fatuous, but it was also terrifyingly revealing about the Government's view of press and broadcasting in a free society. He said that, before broadcasting a programme on Northern Ireland, directors and producers should telephone the Home Office and ask, "Is this covered by your restriction, or not?" No free broadcaster in a free society, in preparing a broadcast, would or should want to phone the Ministry of the Interior and ask whether the item was acceptable for transmission to the general public. I am assured that broadcasters, from both independent television and the BBC, simply will not accept such a regime.
The idea that broadcasters should have to ask the Government's permission before they transmit news and current affairs programmes is unacceptable in a free society. It is what we always believed happened in countries that do not enjoy our traditional liberties. Broadcasters must make their own decisions about what is right under the law. Under such a Government as this, the Home Office cannot be trusted to interpret the law, especially since, on the evidence of its advice on classification and further reclassification, it has no idea how far the law extends and what it covers.
Any accurate account of what the Government propose—a restriction on free broadcasting, which is confused and ill defined, which cannot harm the terrorists and probably will help them, which enables Mr. P. W. Botha to compare his regime to our democracy and which would not be constitutionally acceptable in other democracies—leaves unanswered a crucial question: what are the Government's real motives in pursuing so indefensible a policy? Why do 1087 they humiliate themselves and damage the interests of the country for no tangible gain? I believe that the folly has two causes.
The first cause is the Prime Minister's authoritarian instinct—the mindless reflex that automatically wishes to suppress and extinguish those views that she finds objectionable, whatever the real cost. We all recall the careful leaks that described the Prime Minister's outrage at a specific broadcast. Whether it was wise and right to retaliate is not the sort of consideration on which the Prime Minister spends much time. The IRA is assisted and our liberties are damaged because the Prime Minister was offended by the broadcasters' judgment over a single programme. On such an occasion as that, the Prime Minister is almost as contemptuous of our liberties as she is of her Cabinet colleagues.
The second reason why we are presented with this example of the authoritarian and the absurd combining in a single policy is the Government's hope to create the illusion of activity. Part of the tragedy of Northern Ireland is that there is no quick, easy or certain solution. One of the burdens borne by every Government, certainly by this Government, is the demand, especially from the less responsible newspapers, for them to take new initiatives. The call to do something is rarely accompanied by descriptions of what that something should be. That was the unthinking response by some newspapers to the horrors perpetrated in the summer. Of course, the Government responded with promises that something would be done when they were not sure what that something would be.
For a Government faced with the agonising responsibilities of Northern Ireland, which I in no way diminish, there are only two possibilities. One is capitulation, which is as unacceptable to the Opposition as it is to the Government. The other is holding fast and steering a steady course—defeating terrorism under the law, refusing absolutely to copy the conduct of the terrorists and carefully avoiding any risk of being represented as the enemy of the liberty that the Government aim to defend. That steady course must be built on a real determination to understand and rectify real grievances. It will not be helped by the suppression of free broadcasting, and it will not be helped by gimmicks.
The suppression of free broadcasing will not even placate the Government's mindless critics, the people who demand tough action without even considering its morality or its real effects. Meanwhile, the terrorists will see the Government thrashing about and will take pleasure and comfort from the absurdity of the Government's position.
We regret that the Government have behaved so foolishly. We shall not endorse their foolishness. We shall vote for our amendment.
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)
The right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) seriously misrepresented what the Government are seeking to do. He suggested that a form of censorship is to be imposed on the reporting of what the terrorist organisations in Northern Ireland do merely because they are to be denied the ability to appear on television or to 1088 have their words broadcast. I do not remember which way the right hon. Gentleman voted when we debated whether proceedings in the House should be televised—
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
That makes my point for me. One of the arguments that first persuaded us to let the broadcasters into the Chamber, and subsequently to make it possible in the near future to have the televisers, was the argument that simply to report the House of Commons was to deny it the place that it should have in the centre of our society, and that only by bringing the cameras into the Chamber could one give it an immediacy and impact on the country overall that would return to it that pride of place that all of us seem to believe it should have. If one holds that argument about this place, I do not see how it is possible to argue, as the right hon. Gentleman did, that to deny broadcasting and television to the terrorist will not inevitably reduce his ability to have an impact on the audience that he would wish to persuade.
I should like to jog back a few years, to an evening when, in one of the television rooms in the House, I was watching a programme about Northern Ireland, its politics and the terrorism that has beset it. Sitting beside me was Mr. Don Concannon, the former Member for Mansfield, who was a distinguished Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office. The programme started with a long shot over a derelict part of Belfast and, taken with the commentary, gave the impression that the dereliction had been the result of IRA bombing, so much so that Concannon exclaimed, "Why do they do it?" and I found myself in complete agreement with his sentiment.
The pictures that we had been watching and the commentary that we had been listening to gave the impression that that dereliction was the result of the IRA's activities, when in fact it was the result of the bulldozers clearing away some of the bad housing that has beset Belfast for so long to make way for new. But those who did not know Belfast as well as I do would not have been able to make that judgment. They would have concluded from that shot and that commentary that the dereliction showed the death and destruction on a gigantic scale that the IRA had been able to wreak in the capital of Northern Ireland.
§ Ms. Short
The hon. Gentleman's story is extremely worrying. He is talking not about a representative of the UDA of Sinn Fein speaking on television, but about what he claims was a misrepresentation of a scene of dereliction, as if that too should be banned. Is that his logic, and does he intend to control all programmes that are made about Northern Ireland?
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
With the greatest respect to the hon. Lady, I have just started my speech. I am sure that she would like me to encompass everything that I have to say in 30 seconds so that she can make her speech, but I am afraid that she must bear with me, as I want to develop the point that I am making.
I was referring to the reaction of a former Minister with responsibility for Northern Ireland and my own reaction as someone who has taken an interest in the affairs of that troubled Province. Our reaction was, "Why do they do it?" Why do the television people think that they can put on a programme of that kind and expect their audience to understand what had caused that dereliction? Or had they some other purpose? No doubt the companies concerned 1089 would say that they used the shot merely as a means of tracking in at the beginning of their film. But that shot, like so much else, raises yet again the question, "Why do they do it?" Why, in 1979, did the BBC make a film featuring a supposed IRA roadblock at Carrickmore? Fortunately, that film was never shown because its existence became known before it could be put out, but why did people at the BBC even think it worth creating such a film? Why did they think that their audience was longing to see the programme, "Real Lives—the Edge of the Union", which gave Martin McGuinness and the IRA such a good opportunity for television coverage? Having seen the programme, was anyone any clearer about the problems of Northern Ireland? Did it help our understanding in any way?
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
I am glad that the hon. Lady can say that she gained something from that programme, because I certainly did not.
When the then Home Secretary suggested that the programme should not be shown because of its propaganda value to the IRA and the governors of the BBC agreed with that view, there was a walkout—presumably to prove that neither the Government's concern nor the wishes of the board of governors cut much ice with the news staff. Like my earlier examples, that again prompts the question, "Why do they do it?" If one believed in a conspiracy theory, one might suggest that there are those in the media who are politically prejudiced in favour of the goals that the IRA claims to have set for itself—a united, extreme Socialist Ireland by way of the bullet and the ballot box. But I acquit them of that charge —I do not think that that is the real reason.
I believe that the television and broadcasting people, like the media generally, have a blind belief in what is called the freedom of the press, and that ideal transcends any other consideration. It also colours the Opposition amendment today. To the media, the concept of the freedom of the press represents an absolute right to report or interview whomsoever they wish, regardless of the values that that person may hold and be known to hold. Because they allow that ideal to dominate their thoughts, they refuse to recognise the validity of any arguments that suggest that they should limit their reporting operations. Their defence is the argument that anything that prevents full media coverage is by definition a threat to democracy. As a former journalist, that is where I part company from them.
At the end of the day, a journalist, no more or less than any other citizen, enjoys his or her freedom to work because the Government of the day maintain the laws without which a free society cannot protect the rights of its people. If the media think that they can be equivocal about supporting parliamentary democracy and the rule of law, they deceive themselves, and probably their viewers and readers as well. The IRA has made no secret of its belief in the Armalite and the ballot box. It has placed itself outside the law with its campaign of murder, shootings, bombings and violence and its willingness to admit who the latest victim is. It uses every opportunity provided by an over-willing press to show off, whether it be the volley at the graveside, the funeral oration by the hon. Member for 1090 Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), or the flowers left to mark the place where members of the active service unit lost their lives in Gibraltar. The IRA has used the media with a flare for public relations that must make professional PR men green with envy.
§ Mr. Marlow
The media would have us believe that their concern is to give us as much information as possible, but what they are really about is providing entertainment, and when they use the concept of freedom of speech in pursuit of their activities they are really concerned about improving their ratings. Sadly, when they are chasing an audience they have no concern whatever for the propaganda benefits to the IRA and the suffering so callously caused to the victims and their relations. Is that not the root of the problem? The media say one thing, but the reality is totally different.
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
The paradox of that list of opportunities that the IRA have exploited is the same media's coverage of the remembrance day explosion at Enniskillen or the death of the young light infantrymen in their bus. The media will be there to show us pictures of the latest victims of terrorism, their funerals, the sobbing widow and the mourners and to report the words of the minister or priest at the end of the service. They see nothing incongruous in their open-mindedness and their unwillingness to make any difference between those who openly flout the law and those who have lost their lives trying to uphold it.
§ Mr. Mallon
The hon. Gentleman mentioned Enniskillen. Apart from the statements of Gordon Wilson and the sentiments that he expressed, which none of us will ever forget, surely the most effective thing at that time was the way in which good journalism took apart the chairman of Fermanagh council, the spokesman for Sinn Fein, laying bare its whole philosophy and approach. That was the most destructive element for Sinn Fein, but it could not have happened if that man had not been allowed to present his views on television and subject himself to good television journalism, which can achieve more than a thousand words spoken here.
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
I hope that the hon. Gentleman is right, but I do not remember that interview, although the words of Marie Wilson will remain in many of our minds for a long time to come.
Those who run the media argue that they are impartial observers reporting events in Northern Ireland as they happen, but can a free press in a parliamentary democracy be impartial as between the forces of law and order defending that democracy and the terrorists who have rejected the parliamentary process in favour of the gun to win support for their cause? Despite the proposed restrictions, if the hon. Member for Belfast, West chose to take his place in the Chamber today, he could take part in this debate and his words would be broadcast throughout the country, but he has turned his back on this the Mother of Parliaments, and on this democracy because he wishes to pull it down. It is no use arguing that what he stands for and what our parliamentary democracy stands for are the same thing. If the media claim to be impartial in the way that they believe they can, are they not in reality giving licence to the terrorist and a spurious respectability to the dreadful and lawless means that the terrorist has chosen to achieve his ends?
1091 That is why I welcome the limitation, mild though it is, that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has imposed on interviews and live coverage of the IRA, the UDA and the UVF. It comes not a moment too soon and provokes the following thought. Instead of railing against it, should not those responsible for the BBC and IBA be asking themselves why they did not voluntarily impose some restraint along the same lines? I questioned the chairman of the BBC, Marmaduke Hussey, in a letter about the recent programme "Spotlight" dealing with the killings in Gibraltar before the inquest was held there and asked why it had been shown only in Northern Ireland. He replied on 3 June 1988 as follows:The BBC's motives in making the 'Spotlight' programme were straightforward. The aim was not to influence public opinion but to inform it.He continued:And far from being insensitive to the audience in Northern Ireland, the showing of the 'Spotlight' programme was in fact a response to the considerable interest shown in the Province in the Gibraltar events.I was sufficiently interested in his reply to write to the controller of the BBC in Northern Ireland about the response to the killings in Gibraltar. On 21 June, 18 days after the chairman's letter, Dr. Colin Morris wrote:We had 70 telephone calls before the programme protesting; the majority of which were hostile to the programme's intention. About 10 per cent. were in favour of the programme being shown. We had eight letters from viewers. Seven against the programme and one in its favour.I have to conclude from those letters that Mr. Hussey was wrongly informed by whoever drafted his letter for him, but this underlines the BBC's blindness to anything but its judgment on these matters.
§ Mr. Cash
Does my hon. Friend agree that this saga goes way back—back even to the late 1960s? Does he agree also that the basis on which the letter was written probably has a great deal to do with the principles that were enunciated by Mr. Richard Francis, who had responsibility for current affairs before he left the BBC recently? Does my hon. Friend agree that the essential point that lies at the root of what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has done, and what is right, is that we must ensure that the basis on which these matters are dealt with now is not the same as the basis on which the BBC has been running these things for the past 20 years?
§ Sir Michael McNair-Wilson
I agree with my hon. Friend.
I wrote also to Lord Thomson of Monifieth, chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, about the programme "Death on the Rock" which inspired so much controversy about the killings in Gibraltar. I asked him why the programme had been broadcast before the inquest. In his reply on 25 May 1988, he wrote:The issues as we see them relate to free speech and free enquiry which underpin individual liberty and the rule of law in a democracy. The right of broadcasters and the press to examine events of major public concern is well established and should be preserved.He continued:The Thames programme uncovered new evidence and potential witnesses who might otherwise have been unavailable to the inquest. This must surely be a contribution to the cause of justice and the rule of law.We now know that "Death on the Rock", which cast doubt on the activities of the security forces and the SAS, raised questions about whether there was a "shoot to kill" policy and generally inflamed passions, was shot full of 1092 inaccuracies, so much so that the IBA has set up an inquiry into how the programme was made and how those statements were put out.
I am glad that an inquiry has been set up. The letters from Mr. Hussey, the controller of the BBC in Northern Ireland and Lord Thomson highlight the blunders which the BBC and IBA have made just this year. After all the violence in Northern Ireland, which has lasted for 20 years, it is time that they considered the way in which they cover events in the Province, whether they are informing the democracy about the true problems of Northern Ireland and the causes of dissension between its people, or whether, as has been suggested, they focus too much on the acts of violence, which catch the headlines, but deep down have not tried hard to persuade or to educate our population about the difficulties through which Ulster has gone.
One reason for that, I suggest, is that their concentration on every incident of violence seems to exclude anything else. But there is one other factor. Until my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary gave directions to the BBC and the IBA, and despite the small support enjoyed by Sinn Fein, with probably even less enjoyed by the IRA, people such as the hon. Member for Belfast, West were given the same coverage as those who represent law-abiding parliamentary parties in Northern Ireland. That was a monstrous over-representation, and I welcome these directions, which should redress the imbalance.
§ 8.5 pm
§ Mr. Michael Foot (Blaenau Gwent)
Like the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson), I speak on this subject not only as a Member of Parliament but as a journalist for a number of years. One aspect about which the House should be deeply concerned is how journalists are to be able to conduct their business, not only in Northern Ireland but in the rest of the United Kingdom, under the kind of edict which the Home Secretary issued a week or two ago.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) put the case in classic terms. Of course that is the right way for Opposition Members and other hon. Members to protect this country's liberties. My right hon. Friend's case was conclusive and those who examine it in the future will see how conclusive it was. The House should have been persuaded by it.
I will give some credit to the Home Secretary. Perhaps, some months ago, he would have been persuaded by my right hon. Friend's case. We all know the pressures which the Home Secretary must endure, both in the House and at Conservative party conferences. In some respects he stands up to them, and in others he does not. This question has come persistently from his right hon. Friends: why did he leave this decision for so long? I should like to pay the Home Secretary, and perhaps the Home Office, the compliment of thinking that they left this decision for so long because they knew that it was impossible to introduce such an edict without infringing the liberties of broadcasters and journalists.
§ Mr. Barry Porter (Wirral, South)
The right hon. Gentleman has asserted that it will be difficult, if not impossible, for journalists to ply their trade. If that is so, how do Radio Telefis Eireann, The Irish Times and The Cork Examiner carry out their functions under a more restrictive edict?
§ Mr. Foot
It is wonderful to see the whole Conservative party, without exception, Front and Back Benchers, taking shelter behind the laws of the Government of the Republic. I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's point. That is a diversion. It is extraordinary for anyone who has been a Member as long as I have to hear the whole Conservative party saying, "Please, we must follow the example of the Republic of Ireland. That is the way that we should approach our affairs."
I give credit to the Home Secretary. He was slow in reaching this decision, for good reasons. He wanted to be careful. He said, "I must be careful that there are no infringements." If that was the right hon. Gentleman's reason—it is the most creditable reason why he should have acted with such restraint over such a period—surely when he decided to go ahead he should have carefully considered the way in which he introduced the measure. He might even have looked at what is done in the Irish Republic. That Parliament introduced a law which changed the position. The Home Secretary's proposals are so far-reaching in interfering with the rights of free speech and free publication that he should have considered them more carefully. His advisers should have said, "This is such an important matter that we must go to the House of Commons with a change in the law."
The Home Secretary has taken a different course. In his statement a fortnight or so ago, he said that he would introduce some changes in the law to deal with IRA funds. That would be a very good measure. However, if that matter has to be dealt with by a change in the law of the land, I should have thought that these restrictions should have been dealt with in the same way. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook proved, the border territory is large, amorphous and indeterminate under the general edict from the Home Office, which we have instead of a change in the law. Until the matter is taken to the courts, nobody will know how the Home Secretary's edict is to operate.
The motion does not add anything to the power and majesty of the law and does not affect the law of the land. If hon. Members representing Northern Irish constituencies have any doubts about that, they should consult the former hon. Member for South Down. His views on such matters could not be challenged. As he said, one cannot and should not attempt to change the law by ministerial edict. If one tries, one will find that it does not work and that will happen in this case. Either the journalists will be so intimidated by the Home Secretary's edit that they will refrain from carrying out their proper responsibility to report what is happening or the matter will go to the courts and the courts will have to decide what it is permissible to report in Northern Ireland under these restrictions—which have been rushed in.
The matter will have to be settled in the courts. The Home Secretary should have considered introducing a law in which the issues were properly considered. If he had done that, he would have followed—at least in that respect—the example of the Government of the Irish Republic.
§ Mr. Foot
They affect the way in which events in Northern Ireland are put across to the general public. That 1094 is reporting. If that is not considered to be reporting, the Home Secretary is basing his case on the most ridiculous quibble that I have heard—even from this Government. Broadcasting is part of the reporting process and that is why the Government—or at least the Prime Minister—believe that they must interfere with the way in which it is done.
The Home Secretary should have given the House the chance to examine the proposal in detail. We should, of course, have opposed it, because it restricts freedom. However, at least the borders would have been defined in a way that the courts could interpret.
§ Mr. Foot
It is no good the Home Secretary shaking his head. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook has explained, there is already complete confusion in the BBC and IBA, as well as elsewhere, about what can and cannot be reported. If they ask how to resolve the confusion, the absurd answer is that they must apply to the Government.
§ Mr. Cash
The right hon. Gentleman has referred to his desire to see a change in the law. He surely accepts that, within the terms of the BBC's charter and the Broadcasting Act 1981 under which the directions are given, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is acting within the law. There is no question about that. I do not understand what the right hon. Gentleman is talking about.
§ Mr. Foot
If the hon. Member is unable to understand already, no surgical operation on my part will assist in making him understand in future.
Speeches from Labour and Conservative Members—and the reticence of the Home Secretary—have underlined the fact that they understand that the directions are a major departure from previous practice, whatever right to introduce them the Home Secretary may have. To introduce such measures by edict is a shocking way to proceed.
§ Mr. Foot
I shall not give way.
The Home Secretary should have gone about the matter differently. I prophesy that the Government will have to introduce a law that deals with the matter because of the appalling confusion that has been created. Proper reporting of events in Northern Ireland has been gravely injured by what the Government have done. As the confusion continues in the coming months, the Home Secretary will have to consider carefully why it has arisen.
§ Mr. Foot
No. I have already given way twice.
The Home Secretary should have realised that the proper way of dealing with the problem was through the House. The Home Secretary should have used the House of Commons to deal with this major change in the way in which events in this country can be reported. Other speeches, in particular that of the hon. Member for Newbury, show how dangerous the Home Secretary's action is.
§ Mr. Marlow
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The right hon. Gentleman promised that he would answer the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash). That was about 10 minutes ago. We are still waiting. Can you do anything to help us, Mr. Deputy Speaker?
§ Mr. Foot
It is strange that hon. Members who do not understand free speech in the House should pretend to understand it elsewhere.
The Government have introduced grave confusion into the way in which matters are reported. Far from making a contribution to solving the problem, the Home Secretary has created confusion. Those who believe in the right to free speech and in the power of free debate to solve problems will consider the measure an insult to the people of the United Kingdom, as well as the people of Northern Ireland, because it means that they cannot judge for themselves about the programmes that they see. If argument continues and the possibility of putting a case remains, we have the strongest benefit and safeguard for the country.
The Home Secretary is a little more reticent than some of his colleagues in these affairs. The right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), among others, sought to intimidate broadcasters by one means or another. It is to the credit of the BBC and others that they generally stood up to that intimidation, and I hope that they will stand up to this measure too.
We all know how deep and difficult the problems of Northern Ireland are. The solution to those problems will come only as a reward for the process of debate and not as a reward for enforced diktats from the Home Office, which may not believe in its own edicts.
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
A number of hon. Members wish to speak on the matter and some will be disappointed if we do not have short speeches. I appeal to hon. Members for brief speeches.
§ Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)
I have listened carefully to the arguments weighed by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in his opening address to the House. It was extraordinary that his compelling arguments for issuing the directives to the IBA and to the governors of the BBC were not weighed against the importance of free speech to our society. We in the House must hold dear our ability to express freely our views about matters that concern every one of our citizens. Without that ability, we do not have democracy. Bentham uttered the adage that, without publicity, no good can endure, and, with publicity, no evil can survive. Publicity is an essential ingredient in our ability to judge these important matters.
The Government's measure is inconsistent even with the arguments that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary advanced. Sinn Fein is a lawful and legitimate party, no matter what one may think of it. How can we restrict the access to free speech that a lawful and legitimate party has in the United Kingdom? I could understand it if the Government were saying that Sinn 1096 Fein was an unlawful, prohibited terrorist organisation, but they do not say that. They continue to allow Sinn Fein to present its views to the electorate during elections. They go so far as to say that, in the narrow window of the electoral process, supporters of Sinn Fein may be interviewed. If they speak in the House, their remarks may be reported direct on the air waves. If we regard this place as a crucible for the ideas of a free, open, confident democracy, how can we designate the remarks of a lawful political party and say that a spokesman for that party may not broadcast directly? That is my right hon. Friend's instruction to the directors of the BBC and the IBA. There is an enormous flaw in the argument.
Let us weigh the importance of free speech in a democracy. If evil cannot endure where there is publicity, the instruction will not be denying freedom to Sinn Fein as much as it denies freedom to our fellow citizens on the mainland of Britain. Surely in a democracy the presentation of arguments is the very first basis on which we judge the integrity or intentions of those who spout their beliefs.
My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary knows that I am a fervent Unionist. I believe passionately in the Union. I greatly regret the fact that many of the actions of the Government whom I support have contributed to undermining the integrity of that Union. I say that positively for one reason. I appeal to my right hon. and hon. Friends and to the Opposition that we do not put up political candidates to enjoin fellow members of the United Kingdom into the political comity that we all enjoy when arguing for the interests of our electorate. Education, welfare, health and infrastructure are all essential ingredients of the political dialogue for those who live in England or Scotland. In Northern Ireland, the one issue is the continuance of the Union. Confidence should enable us to assert that we can stand and make our case.
In weighing great issues, free speech is vital to us. I agreed with the observation of the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) about the assertion by my hon. Friend the Minister of State on Sunday that the reference point should be the Home Office. That smacks of all the Ministers of the Interior of other societies and other generations which have felt that the advice of such Ministers on such matters was essential for the management of their community. We are a confident and strong democracy and we can face and outface evil with argument. We can win that way; not with measures such as this.
§ Mr. Beaumont-Dark
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You gave the impression that the debate was time barred. As I understand it, the voice of the House must be heard until any hour. You gave the impression that any hon. Member who spoke for more than two minutes would be out of order. Is that the rule of the House, or is it your interpretation?
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker
I think that the hon. Gentleman is putting an interpretation on my remarks. I do not think that hon. Members should have to stay here until the small hours of the morning to deliver speeches that they have been nursing all evening. I think that it would be for the convenience of the House and the appreciation of other hon. Members if speeches could be made at a reasonable hour.
§ Mr. Peter Archer (Warley, West)
Whatever the rules of order may say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I shall endeavour to respond to your injunction.
The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) merits the admiration of the House because he has gone to the heart of the matter. I hope that he will forgive me if I defer taking up his argument until a little later in my speech.
I fear that the Government have once again made themselves ridiculous. I find no pleasure in recording that fact, partly because I respect the Home Secretary and I suspect that he may be defending a measure which is not his own proposal. Secondly, I do not believe that any hon. Member would like to see the paramilitaries succeed in their objectives or to hear of anything that would encourage support for them. Yet that is the effect of what the Government are doing. They have allowed themselves to be manoeuvred into what the paramilitaries and their supporters can represent as repression. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) said, the directive is bound to be reported in America and wherever the paramilitaries go for financial and other support, and the terrorists will be portrayed as freedom fighters resisting censorship and repression. The Government have left themselves with the worst of all worlds. They have incurred the opprobrium for which the paramilitaries have been hoping and praying and they have done so without achieving anything practical.
I am still not quite clear what the Home Secretary was trying to say. At first, he seemed to be saying that we needed to do something and that we were now doing something effective. Then he seemed to say that we did not have to worry because the measure would make no difference anyway. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook said, we have all witnessed the absurdity of an interview being carried up to the point at which it cannot lawfully be continued, and then a shot of the interviewee is accompanied by the announcer saying "This is what he or she is saying."
§ Mr. Barry Porter
Is not the problem that the Government have at last realised that it is proper to use a basically illiberal method to fight someone who is trying to destroy liberal democracy? Because they do not like to use that illiberal method they try to liberalise it. In doing so, I fear they have got the worst of both worlds.
§ Mr. Archer
I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman and I start from the same point, but I am sure that we have reached the same conclusion: that the Government have been ineffectual in what they are trying to do, so all the fuss is pointless.
I am not even sure that the Government have not failed to find the correct form of words to achieve what they seek to achieve. They have placed an embargo on the supporters of Sinn Fein. Suppose that someone says, "I do not support Sinn Fein. I totally disagree with Sinn Fein because it is too moderate and compassionate." That would not come within the terms of the embargo.
The measure is a classic example of an unimaginative and leaden-footed Government being manoeuvred into looking silly. It is what I call the Austerlitz strategy. At Austerlitz, Napoleon was confronted with superior numbers. He asked himself, "What would I most like my opponents to do if they were totally to take leave of their 1098 senses?" Having answered that question, he set about getting the enemy to do it. That is what the paramilitaries have achieved. I do not propose to delay the House further with that theme.
I intervene to restate the simple case for toleration. That thesis is not that anyone is entitled to put a point of view, but that the public are entitled to hear any point of view which anyone seeks to propound and to hear it from its own advocates. The public are entitled to hear a view from those who advocate it and make up their own minds on the validity of that view.
§ Mr. Marlow
The right hon. and learned Gentleman has just said that he feels that anybody is entitled to propagate his point of view and that the public are entitled to hear it. Does the right hon. and learned Gentleman believe that if somebody wants to propagate racial hatred, racial disharmony or racialism, he should be entitled to propagate that view? Does he feel that it is right to propagate the point of view of terrorism, murder, mayhem, mutilation and killing?
§ Mr. Archer
As the hon. Gentleman asks, I shall make my position clear. I have always thought that people are entitled to express views like that. If they do so in such a way as to undo the work of patient reconciliation in a community, that is a different matter. But I would not stop even the hon. Gentleman propounding his views. I want the public to judge their validity. I am not afraid of them; I would like them to be exposed to the light of day.
Of course, for security reasons, or for some of the other reasons given by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sparkbrook, the Government may have to prevent some information from being broadcast. That is not in question today. No one has suggested that security is a consideration in this embargo. The only justification that could be advanced is that the public may hear opinions which are unacceptable to the Government, to the public and to this House, and that those opinions are distasteful, wicked and offensive. I can well understand that. But that is the very test of a tolerant society. The test of tolerance does not come when we contemplate opinions that we share or when we hear points of view with which we agree. George Bernard Shaw pointed out that tolerance and freedom have no meaning except in relation to opinions that we consider damnable, pernicious and disgusting. We do not tolerate the opinions of our friends and of those who agree with us. Toleration arises only when we hear an opinion that we consider so wicked that we are tempted to say that the public should not be permitted to hear it. If we do not tolerate opinions such as that, the paramilitaries have achieved their objective of destroying free society.
I can understand Conservative Members saying that there must be a line somewhere—that some opinions are too deplorable to tolerate. That was the argument used by the Spanish Inquisition, by the Gestapo and by the KGB; it has been the argument used by repressors and torturers throughout the ages. It is based on a fundamental fallacy. Surely the more obviously wrong an opinion is, the more certainly truth will triumph in open debate.
I am aware of the distinctions which the Home Secretary mentioned between what is going on in South Africa and what is happening here. There is nothing to be gained from overstating the case. But I am sure that people in South Africa will say that they will not be lectured by the British, because we are doing the same as they are. It 1099 would be a great tragedy if, in the international community, the voices of British people speaking out for human rights met that reaction.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
I wonder what General Jaruzelski will say to the Prime Minister in Poland if the same point is raised with her.
§ Mr. Archer
Indeed. We may be able to draw distinctions between our country and others and say that they have not got it right, but this will mute the voice of those of us who are trying to speak out for human rights abroad.
This country has a long tradition of toleration for all opinions, right and wrong, good and wicked, because we believe that opinions should compete in a free market and that in the testing environment of daylight truth will flourish and falsehood will be exposed for what it is. That tradition takes longer to build than to destroy—but no gun can destroy it, no terrorist can destroy it: only the Government can destroy it. That is what this debate is about.
§ Mr. Andrew Hunter (Basingstoke)
I readily confess that I am worried about this motion and about the notice that the Home Secretary has issued to the chairmen of the BBC and IBA, so I welcome this opportunity to debate the subject again and to reconsider some of the points raised on 19 October.
At that time, the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) declared the Labour party's unequivocal opposition to terrorism. I am prepared to accept that as a sincere statement on behalf of Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen. I noted, however, that on the same day as his declaration the Labour-controlled council in Haringey lent its buildings to an exhibition of photography extolling the virtues of the IRA. So Opposition Members must know that, although I am prepared to accept their assurances, it seems that some of their camp followers do not put that declaration into practice.
The case for the action by the Secretary of State is stronger than has been acknowledged by Opposition Members. It is absolutely right in a free and democratic society that the Home Secretary should have at his disposal the powers that are given to him by clause 13(4) of the licence and agreement of the BBC and section 29(3) of the Broadcasting Act 1981. After all, the right hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benn) used those powers when he was Paymaster General. It is right that they should exist.
One can argue that this action has shown the high priority that the Government give to combating terrorism, and that such a demonstration is right. We can go further and illustrate the weakness of Opposition Members' arguments by examining the Irish experience with section 31 of their Broadcasting Act. If, as I believe they do, the Government of the Irish Republic find that their section 31 is an effective way of minimising the growth of extremism, it is legitimate for us to examine their experience to see what we can learn from it on an experimental basis.
§ Mr. Mallon
This is the second time that the same point has been made in the debate. For 51 weeks of the year I am told in this Chamber that the Republic of Ireland is a haven for terrorism, that it is full of bombs and that it is 1100 the place from which the IRA operates, so I find it hard to understand why, for the convenience of this debate, the Irish Government's section 31 has helped cause all these problems to evaporate. Conservative Members cannot have it both ways.
§ Mr. Hunter
That is not an intervention: it is a speech. It is entirely irrelevant to the point that I am making. A serious attempt has been made in the Republic of Ireland with section 31, and it is worth seeing whether we can learn from it.
Another point that supports the Home Secretary's actions is the reaction from the people against whom the measure is directed. It is clear that they do not like it. From that we may reasonably argue that the measure will be effective and will disrupt those opponents' activities.
Again, we often use the line about terrorism thriving on publicity, calling it the lifeblood or oxygen of terrorism. This provision will limit the access of the opponents of democracy and freedom to the media, and it is worth giving it a try.
On the other hand, Opposition Members may now discover that our attitudes have something in common. I am profoundly worried by two aspects of this policy.
Ultimately, terrorism can be defeated only by the people's rejection of it. It must be seen to be an option that is not worth following. For that to happen, we want to incorporate the potential supporters of terrorist causes into the democratic process. We want to bring them into the full play and process of the democratic system. This measure nips all that in the bud. This is very worrying.
The second thing that worries me is the maxim that publicity is the lifeblood of terrorism. In some circumstances it is, but in others it is not. It is demonstrably provable that television coverage of acts of terrorism encourages other acts of terrorism. Pictures of the hijacking of an airliner or of stone-throwing by rioters in the streets encourage comparable actions. However, I do not think that the intellectual political argument or interview encourages terrorism.
My hon. Friend and near neighbour the hon. Member for Hampshire, East (Mr. Mates) complained on. 19 October, when this matter was discussed, that a television company had suggested giving Gerry Adams two hours of viewing time. That would be incredibly boring, but I can think of nothing better than Gerry Adams being on television and those who try to defend violence being thus exposed. As I say, I fear that we may not be following the right course.
§ Ms. Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar)
In view of the hon. Gentleman's argument, I assume that he will join us in the Lobby. His only argument against this action is his worry about section 31 in the Republic of Ireland. If he talks to media people in the Republic, he will discover that they find the provision difficult to operate and that they have serious doubts about its viability.
§ Mr. Hunter
That is one point of view, but there is evidence to suggest that it is not the exclusive point of view. However, I note what the hon. Lady has said.
There is another dimension to my anxiety about the debate. Too often, in the aftermath of a horrific terrorist outrage, we express our genuine concern and talk about developing a strategy to deal with terrorism. However, the Government, who I greatly support in other respects, are 1101 open to the charge that if they had devoted as much energy to fighting terrorism as they did to defeating Galtieri and Scargill, we would not now be in this position.
At a speech to the police college at Bramshill in 1985 the Home Secretary said that "terrorism knows no frontiers". He spoke about the international dimension of terrorism. He said that if it is to be dealt with effectively there must be a greater degree of international co-operation. He would have us believe that the appearance of Gerry Adams on our television screens is against national interests. If he believes that terrorism knows no frontiers, is it not just as much against national interests that African National Congress executive member Ronnie Kasrils walks the streets of London recruiting terrorists, at least one of whom has come from the ranks of extreme Irish republicans? In his flat in Tufnell Park, Timothy Jenkins is using the expertise that he has obtained from the IRA partially to assemble bombs which are then sent to Lusaka and on to South Africa to maim and kill innocent people. From her flat in Golders Green, Ronnie Kasrils's wife Eleanor orchestrates terrorist activity in South Africa. If terrorism knows no frontiers, surely we must address ourselves to London being used in that way.
§ Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)
I agree more with what the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) said in the earlier part of his speech than with what he said at the end of it. If he has evidence to support what he said, no doubt he will forward it to the proper quarters.
When he announced the measures that we are considering, the Home Secretary had the grace to say that they were extremely serious matters. It has taken 19 years of the Northern Ireland troubles to bring about this curtailment of freedom of expression. Some people have argued that it should have happened before, but other Home Secretaries and other Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland have not thought it appropriate.
Freedom of expression is a fundamental right guaranteed by the European convention on human rights, and the House guards it with special vigilance. When it is abridged, Parliament wants to know the reasons why. Of course, it is not an absolute right and may be qualified by circumstances—including, for example, a perceived threat to national security which would entitle a Government to curtail it. The European convention acknowledges those circumstances. I do not quarrel with or question the Home Secretary's decision on legal grounds. I and my colleagues look for more compelling political justification than the Home Secretary has deployed in this debate or when he announced these measures.
Like others who have had experience of Northern Ireland, the Home Secretary will no doubt suffer from a sense of frustration that there is so little progress there towards normality. Like others before him, he no doubt feels the need not only constantly to review policy but from time to time to announce a new initiative. Unfortunately, these initiatives too often merely exacerbate the tensions and violence and fail to restore security and constitutional normality.
In announcing this new initiative, the Home Secretary rested his case for banning television appearances by 1102 terrorists and their supporters on two propositions. As the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley) has said, both those propositions need careful consideration. First, the Home Secretary claims that such appearances draw support for the terrorists from the public at large since the terrorists can address the public more directly through television than they can through the newspapers. Secondly, he says that these appearances cause grave offence, most grave in Northern Ireland.
There seems to be a certain inconsistency between the Home Secretary's two arguments. He is right to recognise that such broadcasts on television cause grave offence. It takes a strong stomach to observe people in human guise advancing their vile sophistries to justify their evil inhumanity. If the Home Secretary's gorge rises at the sight of a terrorist on television, I do not see why he should assume that the British public react any differently. If the people of Northern Ireland are even more angered by these appearances, terrorists will draw little sustenance from their direct 'access to the public. There is no evidence that 19 years of exposure on television has added a featherweight of support to the terrorist cause.
It should be remembered that, in the politics of Northern Ireland, myth is a very potent force. Myth is most powerfully debunked by seeing and hearing the evil banalities of the supporters of terrorism. The Home Secretary's judgment underrates the perceptiveness of the viewers and their ability to spot a moral cretin when they see one. Television powerfully exposes the character and motives of those upon whom it focuses.
The broadcasting authorities have had a difficult task in deciding, sometimes on the spur of the moment, what to transmit. On the whole, they have discharged their task with caution and responsibility. In this context, I agree with the hon. Member for Basingstoke: if Mr. Gerry Adams were to be subjected to even half an hour of questioning by, say, Mr. Brian Walden or Sir Robin Day, I doubt whether he would have many admirers left. These terrorists are not supermen. They are like rats in the sewers, out of the daylight, which would only expose their vulnerability.
The Home Secretary is right to say that self-justifying appearances give widespread offence, but he is wrong if he believes that such appearances succeed in their objectives. I doubt whether the Home Secretary really believes that, by turning off the sound when the terrorists speak, he will diminish the frightfulness of what is happening in Northern Ireland. However, sometimes it seems that it is Government policy to emphasise the ordinariness of Northern Ireland, in the hope that the image will become the reality. That will not do. The troubles in Northern Ireland are not nice. For 20 years, our fellow citizens there have borne the brunt of these horrors. Their relatives have had their joints smashed, their skins burnt and their brains blown out. These deeds are offensive and their perpetrators are offensive, but the British public are neither so squeamish nor so inured to these horrors that they require censorship to protect them from the sight and sound of terrorism.
One of the stranger assertions that the Home Secretary made, in the debate tonight and when he made his announcement, was that by issuing his direction to broadcasters he had simplified their job and that by the terms of the direction he had removed broadcasters' discretion to judge whether to transmit. The reality is that his hurriedly announced measure has given rise to a series 1103 of subsequent attempts by the Home Office to give authoritive interpretation to the terms of his direction. It remains unclear what the legal validity of the clarifications is. I would submit that there is none. However, it is clear beyond doubt that the clarifications have not removed the doubts and difficulties of the broadcasters.
The question whether an individual represents a terrorist organisation and whether his words support such an organisation are not easily decided. Apparently, it is the conjunction of the words and image of the person that is banned. We can see the terrorist, his words can be repeated by someone else—either a reporter or an actor—unless the terrorist is standing for Parliament. The anomalies of the direction and its subsequent interpretation are legion. We shall be able to hear speeches from Sinn Fein candidates during an election, but not, apparently, their comments upon its result. It may be that their very presence will lead to the censoring of all live post-election comment.
One of the most sinister consequences of the direction has been the Home Office statement that there is no exemption from the terms of the notice for historical documentaries or for recordings of persons who are now dead. Thus, for example, an excellent historical programme commissioned by Mr. Jeremy Isaacs for Channel 4, which I understand it was intended to show again, would require excision of all appearances by the late Eamon de Valera, who for television purposes in Britain will become a non-person.
The international consequences of this ill-thought-out direction are beginning to emerge only now. How will the Home Secretary respond to representations from foreign Governments calling on Her Majesty's Government to prevent the World Service and other media from transmitting words by those whom those Governments deem to be terrorists? The moral position of the Government has been eroded by this action. Perhaps the Home Secretary will tell us how he proposes to prevent members of Sinn Fein from broadcasting direct to this country by satellite. Indeed, the effectiveness of this measure is bound to be called into question as technology develops.
This country has not lost the freedoms that the House cherishes by subversion, revolution or war. If we lose our freedoms, it will be by carelessness. In the Government's dealings with the broadcasting authorities, what looks like a pattern of carelessness is emerging. The Home Secretary should withdraw his direction, not to clarify its obscurities but because it is an unnecessary and repugnant curb on our freedom.
§ Mr. Cyril D. Townsend (Bexleyheath)
While I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me to take part in the debate, I freely confess it is a debate to which I would rather not be contributing. I say that not because I think that the standard of the debate has been low. On the contrary, the debate has stirred up differences and given rise to strong feelings on both sides of the House. Together with my hon. Friends the Members for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter), I feel like one of those barnacled whales in a hole in the ice, with the ice closing in and with my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench not about to bring in an ice breaker to get me free.
1104 When this proposal was first announced, and Conservative Members received little warning, my natural reaction was that it was a misguided measure which was the result of a desperate need to be seen to be doing something rather than a proposal that had been through the Whitehall machinery to have every "i" dotted and every "t" crossed. When I glance through the press cuttings of the follow-ups to the announcement by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and learn of the growing number of muddles and disputes that have grown from the original statement, I can only say to myself that I was right to be sceptical in the first place.
Right hon. and hon. Members on both the Government and Opposition Front Benches have a tendency to exaggerate. I do not think that this measure is either as good as my right hon. and hon. Friends have said, or as bad in its damage to the individual liberties of our citizens as right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite suggest. My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) seemed to see it as part of the vendetta against the BBC—the Government's vengeance for being let down by the BBC. Clearly, it is nothing of the sort if one examines it in detail.
I am also aware that this is a popular measure, and that if I walked down the Broadway in Bexleyheath tonight 80 per cent. of my constituents would tell me that it is a marvellous idea, being tough on terrorists. However, hon. Members, particularly Conservative Members, have a duty to probe, to question, almost to have a committee debate to peer behind the curtain to examine what the Government have brought before the House of Commons this evening.
Yes, it is good in parts. I came into the House in 1974 and that year David O'Connell, the so-called chief of staff of the IRA, appeared on BBC television. I remember writing angry letters to the chairman of the BBC because I think that it is wrong for members of the IRA to appear on television. I would also think it wrong if a bank robber appeared on television or if a rapist appeared on television after a particularly sordid rape. There must be some discretion. A line should be drawn.
I welcome the measure because it is even-handed, and it would be deplorable if that were not so. I am a strong supporter of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, so there is a superficial attraction in Britain coming into line with the Irish Republic. But when I probed that further, I got the impression that the Irish Republic did not ask for that particular proposal. The phrase in the papers was that they did not actually object to what had emerged from the Home Office.
The comparisons between North and South are a little false. I am told that Sinn Fein represents about 1.9 per cent. of the total vote in the South, while in the North it represents some 30 per cent. of the nationalist vote. An editorial in The Times on 20 October, talking about southern Ireland, stated:There are frequent and well-publicised rows about borderline cases. It remains unpopular with journalists It probably contributed to the fall of the Fine Gael-Labour coalition which amended the Act in 1976.I suggest that by any stretch of the imagination it has not been plain sailing in the South. Frankly, with due respect to Dublin, it is not a world centre of communications, as we have the privilege of being here in London.
I am only too well aware that broadcasting the views of Sinn Fein spokesmen gives enormous offence to my 1105 constituents. For the relations of those who have been killed or injured in Northern Ireland, of course there is a feeling of outrage. But we must ask ourselves this evening whether it is our duty as Members of Parliament to shield our constituents from that sense of outrage.
I bet that in the United States people were outraged by the broadcasts about Vietnam. They would rather have not seen what was happening in Vietnam. But who in the House could say how wrong it was that the citizens of the United States were outraged by what they saw in Vietnam? People had to face the facts, and certain political consequences flowed from that.
§ Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)
My hon. Friend suggests that the measure which my right hon. Friend has brought to the House will restrict the reporting of events. There is no comparison between the measure brought forward by my right hon. Friend and the remarks that my hon. Friend is making about the Vietnam war.
§ Mr. Townsend
I was saying simply that the impact of the film coverage from Vietnam played a major part in the public discussion about the future of that war. If one considers Sinn Fein—and I totally deplore all that it stands for—one has to recognise that it is a force in the North. It has 59 locally elected councillors, it has a Member of Parliament and it has support from the public in Northern Ireland that we all wish it did not have. That is the reality. Had the Government of the day brought forward such a measure before Sinn Fein had gained that stronghold in Northern Ireland in electoral terms, it is possible that the position would be very different, but to attempt to ban the broadcasting of Sinn Fein now, when it is running a local council in Northern Ireland, seems extraordinarily confused and misguided.
I put it to my hon. Friends who totally disagree with what I am saying that, unlike the IRA, members of Sinn Fein have names and faces. They are prepared to stand up in public places and argue their cause, just like every hon. Member. They are not crouching in the studio in the dark with blankets over their heads. They are standing for election in our country. Therefore, I draw a distinction between a member of a political organisation which I totally deplore and a terrorist organisation such as the IRA, while of course understanding the links that exist between the two.
§ Mr. Harold McCusker (Upper Bann)
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that members of Sinn Fein are subject to the IRA and that Sinn Fein is an extension of the IRA? In the words of a former hon. Member representing West Belfast, they are daylight politicians. Does he not accept that Sinn Fein is an extension of a terrorist movement and as a consequence its members should be treated as terrorists?
§ Mr. Townsend
The hon. Gentleman got up before I had sat down. I said that there were very clear links between the two, and I fully understand what he says.
If the Government were looking for firmer ground to stand on, of course the proscription of the organisation was a possibility. I have to say that if I was consulted as to whether that was a good idea, I think I would say that it was not. I know that this is very unpalatable to some of my hon. Friends, but in certain circumstances Sinn Fein can 1106 act as a safety valve and provides an option which s marginally different from direct support of terrorism; those who have far greater experience of Northern Ireland tell me that is so.
I raised with the Home Secretary the question of elections. I find the Government's position naive in the extreme. I was adopted as the Conservative candidate for Bexleyheath a good year before the election. It is common for a parliamentary candidate to be adopted several years before an election. That candidate or Member of Parliament works flat out to gain publicity, to get on local radio or television and improve his position in his constituency. For the Government to say solemnly that there is only the official three-week election period flies in the face of the evidence that is well known on both sides of the House.
Whatever the Government may gain in Belfast—I am uncertain about that gain—they will lose in Boston. They must face that fact. Like many other hon. Members, I talk to American students from time to time and the question of the IRA comes up. I say, "Look, members of the IRA have no grounds for taking the path of terrorism. They live in a democracy, they take part in elections and Sinn Fein is treated the same as any other political party." I cannot say that now.
I know that some of my hon. Friends think that it is marvellous that we are discriminating in that way. However, I hope that they will recognise that we are cold-bloodedly discriminating against a political party in part of our kingdom. What is to stop another Government being outraged by a speech from a spokesman for the National Front or some of my hon. Friends being outraged by some Left-wing organisation demanding the sacking of the monarchy, the removal of all the judges and the dismissal of all the admirals, generals or air marshals and feeling that the moment had come to ban that extreme group from taking part in a broadcast?
The Government had to draw a line if they were to bring forward a measure of this nature. They have drawn a wobbly line between broadcasters and journalists. In the real world, a broadcaster is frequently a journalist. I am open to correction if I am wrong but, as I understand it, a member of Sinn Fein can write an article in The Daily Telegraph in London tomorrow, he can have a letter in the column of The Times and can be interviewed in The Independent; yet he will not be able to be cross-examined on his local radio station in Ulster about what has been written and no one will be able to ask him about his views or what he is trying to achieve. I cannot go back to Bexleyheath tonight and say that that is a sensible proposal, the sort of proposal I expect from a Conservative Government.
There has already been reference to the precedent that we have created. Some of my hon. Friends may not mind the fact that we are being quoted in South Africa as the way forward. Suppose that, in six months, there is a particularly nasty episode in Transylvania, where the Romanian authorities are bulldozing villages of a thousand years' standing and, when the world's press tries to find out what is happening, the Romanian authorities quote what the Conservative Government have been doing in Northern Ireland. What happens then? What happens if there is further trouble in Latvia, Estonia or Lithuania, and once again we are told, "We are following the example of the United Kingdom"?
1107 The way to proceed is to bring public pressure to bear on the broadcasting authorities. I do not think it is true that the BBC or the IBA instantly opens the studio door to any member of Sinn Fein who comes along. On the contrary, they understand that Sinn Fein is in favour of violence and they try to exercise their discretion. We are all entitled to say that they get it wrong, but the man in Whitehall also gets it wrong from time to time. The way to proceed is to try to influence the authorities—the Government appoint half the officials who control the authorities—rather than in this way.
I have reached the conclusion that this is a measure of censorship. It is an illiberal act from a Home Secretary who, when Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, completely opposed it. I have been an hon. Member since 1974 and when the topic of banning Sinn Fein from television has arisen, as it has regularly, I have been told by Ministers of both parties that it would not work and was not practical. I fear that the Government, in their haste, have come forward with a measure that will damage the Conservative party and our country. Therefore, I shall not be supporting them tonight.
§ Mr. Seamus Mallon (Newry and Armagh)
In this part of the 20th century it is inevitable that any discussion about press censorship will contain many tensions. Circumstances have changed with the development of the electronic media, and tension is an inevitable part of life. That tension should, and must, be creative. It must be to the advantage of those in the media, and to the advantage of those of us who are involved in making laws and politics. For that reason, this is an important debate. That creative tension is not releasing itself into decisions, but paranoias are developing, which is dangerous, not only for these directions, but for the relationship between the Government, the people and the media that serve them.
This measure would not have been introduced but for the notion within the Government that somehow they must be protected from freedom of speech. We have seen that notion with Zircon, "Spycatcher" and on a number of other occasions, but we are now seeing it under a more self-righteous guise—a guise that is creating an umbrella that it does not merit. In many ways, the Government are unfairly taking this opportunity to do a Wapping on the press.
§ Mr. Cash
Will the hon. Gentleman accept that in southern Ireland there are equivalent provisions under section 1 of the Broadcasting Authority Act 1960? How can he square the position that he is adopting in attacking the Government for restraining people from making speeches with saying that it is acceptable in southern Ireland?
§ Mr. Mallon
The hon. Gentleman makes an entirely wrong assumption. I have always opposed section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, for the same reasons as I oppose this measure. I have done so publicly since it was introduced, and will continue to do so as long as it exists in the Republic of Ireland. I want it to be removed as quickly as I want this measure to be removed.
The debate is important because a free and vibrant press is essential to the life that we lead. It is essential in a peaceful, stable country such as this. It is essential in a country that has not been torn apart or invaded for 1108 centuries, and the stability and peace inherent within which is the envy of other nations. How much more important is a free press to the north of Ireland, which is torn apart by strife, where a political process is not operating and where everyone is living against a background of emergency legislation, a high security operation, substantial police powers and a substantial security service involvement, as we saw during the summer in various incidents, not least during those that took place in Gibraltar?
Against that backdrop, it is essential to have the protection of a free press to ensure the rights of the individual when, in effect, the Government are taking away the rights of the individual. We must have the protection of a free press when, in effect, the Government are lowering the legal and political standards that apply to the north of Ireland. For that reason, it is doubly important for us to have a free press. The Government are taking these measures in the misguided notion that somehow or other one can take the integrity of the law and the highest practices and diminish them to defeat terrorism. The law was never created to defeat terrorism, and that will certainly not be achieved by bending the law. It will simply add to the nature of the problem.
The motion gives us some idea of how the Government view the issue. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend) referred to the United States of America. In 1941, as it was about to enter a world war and face enormous world pressure, Franklin Roosevelt said:In the future days which we seek to make secure we look forward to a world founded on four essential human freedoms. The first is freedom of speech—and expression—everywhere in the world.The others were freedom to worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear. He made those remarks in the face of a world war.
This Government, after so many years of experience, are making the most fundamental mistake that they have made for some considerable time. I read the Secretary of State's speech when he presented the measure to the House on 19 October. I looked closely, but I did not see one reason for introducing it, except when he said:
Such appearances have caused widespread offence to viewers and listeners throughout the United Kingdom, particularly just after a terrorist outrage."—[Official Report, 19 October 1988; Vol. 138, c. 885.]I accept that. Any human being witnessing the bottomless pit of suffering in Northern Ireland would sympathise with that and understand it. We especially understand the feelings of the bereaved when they look at a television screen and see an apologist for those who carried out the murder speaking in the most sophisticated terms. It is an admirable sentiment, and one with which I have no doubt everyone would sympathise, but it is not a basis on which to make law and from which to take political decisions. It is a mixture of three things. First, it is a gesture towards people in this country who find it aesthetically unacceptable to look at people on television whom they quite simply do not like. That is one of the luxuries of living in a stable society. The measure is a gesture to that.
Secondly, in many ways it is a sop—and a rather offensive sop—to people in the north of Ireland who have rightly complained about the killing of their constituents and the way in which the murder campaign has continued. It is almost an insulting sop to them. Thirdly. it is a 1109 smokescreen for the Government, who are trying to give the impression that they are doing something. It is, in effect, confusing activity with action.
The measure will not achieve what the Government want. Indeed, it will be dangerously counter-productive. There is only one way in which it can be judged, only one criterion on which we can base our judgment: will it affect the standing, support and political effectiveness of the IRA, Sinn Fein and other organisations? That is the only question. Will the measure help to create peace? Will it help to end the violence? I suggest that it will not.
At a time when the IRA, despite what it would call its murder publicity stunts during the summer, is at a very low political ebb, the Government have given it a straight issue that will help it to garner votes in the European and district council elections. It will help the IRA in its propaganda in the United States. The IRA will turn it into propaganda in Boston, Chicago and New York. It will turn it into dollars. It will translate it into news in Northern Ireland, because it will exploit the confused mess that the Secretary of State has created.
How will it do that? I have here a copy of yesterday's edition of a newspaper from this side of the Channel. That is what the Provisional IRA got yesterday. The Secretary of State says that certain activities will taper off. They will not, because there will be election campaigns in May and June and there will be exploitation at a rate of knots by members of the IRA.
How will they do it? We have already put our finger on one inconsistency. As I said, a district council member may speak on a socio-economic issue as a member of a district council, but he cannot speak on behalf of the organisation to which he belongs. What will he do? He will become a member of a tenants' association, and then he may speak every day of the week. He will become a member of a parent-teachers' association, and he may pontificate on education matters to his heart's content on television and radio. He can present himself as a concerned person with a social conscience who is dealing with the problems of ordinary people in the north of Ireland. Instead, he should be presented as someone who schemes to murder his fellow countrymen. The place for him to defend his murderous actions is on the screen.
The most effective piece of television journalism that I have seen for a long time occurred after the Enniskillen massacre, when the chairman of Fermanagh council was stripped and torn apart by the journalist in such a way that it has changed the face of Fermanagh district council and, perhaps, in the long term will change the political posts in that troubled area.
The measure will not be successful for the additional important reason that it provides an escape hatch for those who do not want to appear on television. Because of the immediacy of the problem in Northern Ireland, it is almost a daily demand. How nice it is to have the Government deciding that, in circumstances in which it is difficult to defend a point of view, one cannot defend it. When the phone rings I should love to say, "Sorry, the Government have decided that I cannot take part in your interview."
Sinn Fein, the IRA and other organisations now have the luxury of an escape hatch which they could not invent for themselves. During their debates about going political, the hard men of such organisations did not want it. For 1110 hat reason? It was because it would break their secrecy cover. Who is giving them back their secrecy cover, taking them out of the public limelight, and giving them anonymity in the community? The Secretary of State is doing so with this measure. I regret that. The measure will not be able to do what it suggests, and it will be counter-productive.
Let us consider the other anomaly. When all those who are involved in the electoral process need the oxygen of publicity most—that is during the run-up to an election—will this measure keep them off the airwaves? Not at all. It will provide the exception. They will be able to take part in programmes during the run-up to an election, when they most need the oxygen of publicity. They will be able to sit in studios, puff their pipes and pontificate like theologians about the political process. People will not be aware of the scars and the dead bodies lying outside.
There is another electoral luxury, and we have seen it many times. They know that, in certain circumstances, they cannot win their arguments, so they opt out of appearing. Under the representation of the people legislation, every other candidate's involvement is wiped out also. They call the tune, not only when they involve themselves, but when they eliminate themselves from embarrassing situations. This measure was misjudged when it was born. It was a silly misjudgment then, and it has developed into a stupid, counter-productive piece of confusion that suits the purposes of the people at whom it is aimed.
This will not take the IRA and Sinn Fein off the stage. To put it differently, this will take them off the stage and put them into the wings, but it will also take the spotlight off the stage and put it into the wings with them. In other words, it will transfer the context in which they get their publicity.
This must be judged from different perspectives. No doubt I shall say things in relation to section 31 of the broadcasting legislation of the Irish Republic which people will not want to hear. It is incredible that for 51 weeks of the year I am told that the Republic of Ireland is a haven for terrorism, where outrages are plotted, bombs are hidden and guns are held, and then all of a sudden, because it suits the argument, I am told that section 31 has been effective. I do not believe that. It has been a smokescreen in the Republic of Ireland, just as it will be in the north. Why? Because BBC Northern Ireland, BBC London, ITV, UTV, Channel 4 and Welsh Television, which I do not get, go to the Republic and broadcast everything from the north of Ireland and here. In other words, it is a smokescreen there as I believe it will be in the north.
There is a much more fundamental point, on which the hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mr. Hunter) touched. Two per cent. of the people in the Republic of Ireland support electorally some of these organisations. These organisations are not part of the political landscape in the Republic of Ireland, but are marginal to it because they have been rejected at the polls by the people and marginalised. In the north of Ireland, 35 per cent. of the Nationalist community support Sinn Fein electorally. That is not a margin or a fringe, but a substantial part of the community. Surely the challenge is not to marginalise those people further into the hands of Sinn Fein and the IRA, but to bring them into the political process and constructive, peaceful politics such as we can and do create.
1111 That is one fatal mistake in the argument for the restriction, and it is a crucial point. We simply cannot close our eyes to the attitude of 35 per cent. of the community. If we do, we shall embark on a process which we cannot end. We shall be on a slippery slope. Where does that slippery slope go? Perhaps we should ask where it started. It started with internment without trial, progressed through repressive legislation, the emergency provisions legislation, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984, the Public Order Acts, the supergrass system, to the shoot-to-kill incidents. All those aberrations, all those bendings of the law and movements from the normal to the abnormal, which the PIRA and Sinn Fein want, are derogations from the highest standards. It is a duty of the House and of everybody in politics to ensure that we retain those high standards as far as possible, because once they start to slip it will take many years to bring them back.
On 19 October the Secretary of State referred to this as part of the strengthening pattern of action against terrorism. I call it part of the rake's progress that began in the 1970s, based on the cardinal error that somehow we can make the law defeat terrorism. We cannot. The law is there to administer justice, not to defeat terrorism. That is a cardinal error. The rake's progress has brought us down the slippery slope.
If one can govern a part of Britain only by suspending laws, creating emergency legislation, introducing measures such as the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Acts, the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984, and the Public Order Acts, by having troops, soldiers, policemen, the UDR and the SAS all over the place, as well by having, as I have in my constituency, armed Army camps for every 400 of the population, is there not a fundamental question to be asked about the British position in Northern Ireland?
Is not the fundamental question to be asked after 20 years of such events: are we on the right track? The Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein have led the Government by the nose down the road along which the Government did not decide to go, but where the Provisional IRA and Sinn Fein led them. The question that must be faced sooner or later is how far we should go down that road and when should we stop. When a Secretary of State, who is known for his liberal views, has to introduce this sort of measure, where will we go if it does not work? And it will not work, just as abandoning the right of silence, tampering with the franchise and the electoral process that we will soon have will not work, in the same way as supergrass systems and all the other things have not worked.
It is time that we considered the fundamental elements of the debate and questioned the continuing British presence in the north of Ireland. If we continue for another 20 to 30 years with what we have, it will be no use to the Nationalist party or those in the Unionist community. It cannot and will not give us peace, economic well-being, self-respect or all the things to which we are entitled. That is the fundamental problem posed by the measure.
I suggest that we have reached the point where, perhaps, this measure has crystallised some of the questions that we should not only ask, but should answer. This measure is the tip of the iceberg. It is of no help to the British people, who had to look at the people and horses blown up in Hyde park. The British people must watch while their own laws are tampered with—laws which they 1112 treasure and wish to protect. Their relationship with their nearest neighbour, Northern Ireland, has soured, not just in the past 20 years, but for far longer, and that is causing international problems for this country. The hon. Member for Bexleyheath told us of his experiences. We know what has been said to the Prime Minister by South Africa and to the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in Russia, and that is doing no good to this country internationally.
I suggest that it is time to ask those fundamental questions because if, after 20 years and the extent of the problem, all that the Government can think of censorship, not only are we back to square one, but we are many miles from a solution.
§ Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)
The hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) refered to normality. He seemed to imply that the press, and especially the broadcasters, have no responsibility for that normality. I have an interest as a journalist and as a member of the television branch of the National Union of Journalists; and, as a producer and a director, I am a member of the Association of Cinematograph, Television and Allied Technicians. I have spent some years as a current affairs producer and as a freelance reporter. While I would not presume to suggest that I know Northern Ireland anything like as well as the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, I have made programmes and filmed in Northern Ireland.
For most of the time that I was with the BBC, there was a clear code of practice. One simply did not give air time to terrorists or convicted criminals. There was no question about it; it just did not happen.
Sir Huw Wheldon, writing in 1967, said:Detailed control over subject matter is exercised on specific production by a director and a producer with both artistic and public responsibilities. This is the least form of control. In case of any doubt the matter is referred to a departmental head or programme controller.When Sir Huw wrote that, he was speaking about drama, but he went on to say:
This holds true of all television programmes.
There was a clear and safe system of upward referral. lf one was in doubt, one asked. I spent two and a half years on a current affairs programme on which the editor was a Marxist, the deputy editor was a Liverpudlian Socialist and the two producers, of whom I was one, were Conservatives. It was our proud boast, and still is, that in those two and a half years our politics did not influence our editorial judgment. I do not recall any of us being faced with any problems over the difficult decisions relating not only to terrorism in Northern Ireland but to terrorism worldwide that we were required to take.
That system of upward referral, self-denial and editorial responsibility began to break down. Unfortunately, the guidelines from the editor-in-chief became blurred. In autumn 1985 we had the "Real Lives" programme, with the IRA activist Martin McGuinness. Alan Protheroe, who at that time was the BBC's assistant director-general, justifying what the BBC had then permitted, said:The public is entitled to know what and why terrorists are doing what they are doing.The justification was extended to giving in-vision air time, which had never been done before, to people connected with crime—and that is what we are talking about.
At a BBC seminar on 2 December 1987, Ron Neill, deputy director and editor of BBC news, said: 1113It is not simply what you show that can make news coverage voyeuristic but how often you repeat what is, in itself, a valid image".What Mr. Neil said ignores the cumulative effect that allows a listening or viewing audience to become gradually inured to violence so that it is possible for the BBC to broadcast items beginning with the words, "Last night another soldier … ", to which nobody pays much attention.
§ Ms. Short
I watched "Real Lives". We saw extremists from both sides explaining their position and why they held those beliefs. People in this country constantly say, "Why do they do it?" They deplore the violence and do not understand its origin. The programme was useful and interesting, particularly the views of the Loyalist extremist, because I had not heard that case put before. It did not attract me to it, but I want to understand why people in Northern Ireland are willing to engage in such violence. I trust that the British people have as big and intelligent a judgment as I do over those matters.
§ Mr. Gale
The case that I seek and will continue to seek to make is that there was a quite clear editorial understanding that one did not give in-vison air time to terrorists or criminals or to those who gave them succour. That is what this programme did, and, perhaps more important than that, it started to erode the guidelines so that nobody knew any more what was all right.
The BBC tried again in 1987. It issued production staff guidelines. The news guidelines said:There is increasing public awareness and concern about violence in the news and increasing sensitivity about the plight of those who suffer—whether in Britain or abroad … Beware of the use of action footage for its own sake … Does the perpetrator appear to be enjoying the violence?We have allowed people to be put on the screen who appeared to enjoy the violence that those whom they support have created. This appears to be a tirade against the BBC. It is not. The IBA is just as guilty.
§ Mr. Gale
The right hon. Gentleman has scarcely listened to the debate. I should be grateful if he paid a little attention to what I have to say. In the autumn edition of "Airwaves", Lord Thomson of Monifieth says:I don't think the amount of problem programmes has changed at all. I think that the political concern about it has changed and become more of a political issue than it was.So that is all right: it is the fault of the politicians, not the broadcasters.
Back in 1983, after the Harrods bomb, Danny Morrison, then deputy chief of Sinn Fein, was allowed to say on TV-am that he believed that the IRA was in tune with Sinn Fein. So the rot had set in at the IBA quite a long time earlier, and it was that weakened, emasculated, feeble IBA that allowed Thames Television to transmit "Death on the Rock" before the inquest had been held. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) is no longer present. I asked earlier whether he was prepared to put his reputation on the record and say that he believed that after the inquiry it would be found that"Death on the Rock" was an honest programme.
§ Mr. Gale
Before the system was eroded by those who tore away the guidelines, the IBA television programme guidelines said:The IBA is required to satisfy itself that, so far as possible, 'nothing is included in the programmes which offends against good taste or decency or is likely to encourage or incite to crime or to lead to disorder or to be offensive to public feeling'. Interviews with criminals are likely to run the risk of infringing this section of the Broadcasting Act, and there needs always to be careful consideration whether or not such an interview is justified in the public interest.
§ Mr. Gale
Referring specifically to Northern Ireland, which certainly has something to do with the debate, the guidelines said:Any plans for a programme item which explores and exposes the views of people who within the British Isles use or advocate violence or other criminal measures for the achievement of political ends must be referred to the IBA before any arrangements for filming or videotaping are made. A producer should therefore not plan to interview members of proscribed organisations, for example members of the Provisional IRA or other para-military organisations, without previous discussion with his/her company's top management. The management, if they think the item may be justified, will then consult the IBA.That consultative process has broken down completely.
§ Mr. John Hume (Foyle)
The hon. Gentleman seems to think that the order will undermine the men of violence in Northern Ireland and those who support them. Can he explain the nonsense that, under the order, a Sinn Fein councillor who unequivocally supports the armed struggle—it is in the election manifesto—can be interviewed about community matters, social security matters, housing or unemployment, but when his paramilitary mates blow up a factory he cannot be asked to explain the contradiction? The Government are giving such people exactly what they want—they can be interviewed about the nice things but not about the atrocities.
§ Mr. Gale
The hon. Gentleman says that such people can be interviewed about nice things, but there is nothing to say that they must be interviewed about anything at all. Until the guidelines broke down, the situation was quite clear. One did not give air time, in-vision or radio appearance, succour or help to criminals of any kind at all. There was no argument about it—one simply did not do it. It did not take a genius to work out what one did or did not do.
§ Mr. Marlow
Further to the intervention of the hon. Member for Foyle (Mr. Hume), was Dr. Goebbels wrong, or is there a value in propaganda? If there is, why should we allow it on our public screens for men of violence in the IRA?
§ Mr. Gale
I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall come to the propaganda element. I have seen quite a lot of it. I have spent too many hours, perhaps too late and too long, in video editing sections looking at the carnage on the screen in front of me. I have seen more of that than most hon. Members.
§ Ms. Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington)
The hon. Gentleman worked in children's television.
§ Mr. Gale
The hon. Lady said that I worked in children's television. I knew that if I went on long enough some mug would raise that. For six months, in a career of 1115 nearly 20 years in broadcasting in one form or another, I was proud and privileged to direct "Blue Peter." I also had a hand in "John Craven's News Round," which is made in close collaboration with the BBC Television newsroom. If the same care and attention were given to the general programming on the BBC and ITV that is given to children's programmes, we would not be discussing many of these problems.
§ Ms. Abbott
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that I have nothing but respect for high quality children's television, such as "John Craven's News Round" and "Blue Peter." Could the hon. Gentleman spare us the histrionics about years spent editing footage of IRA atrocities when, in fact, his background in the media is somewhat different?
§ Mr. Gale
My background in the media was mainly in current affairs. I spent many hours making news and other current affairs programmes and many others reporting, and the children's television was just a part of that. I am sure that we can arrange to have some of this footage shown to the hon. Lady, if she wishes. Perhaps she would like to see the kind of carnage that is created and the kind of actions with which journalists deal day by day. I have respect for journalists.
These programmes offend the public. A MORI poll, carried out between 27 and 31 May 1988, interviewed 2,007 people in more than 150 constituencies—a fairly representative sample. The majority said that they did not wish to see terrorists on the screen in any circumstances. When pressed further, they said that they believed that screen appearances strengthened the status of terrorists.
Some hon. Members may know of Professor Paul Wilkinson, who works at Aberdeen university and who has carried out a study of terrorism which was published this year. He said:If you allow a terrorist a platform he can too easily present his case with lies and obfuscation.He continued:
I believe terrorist murderers and their apologists are the ultimate representatives of the pornography of violence.
I believe that, too, and so apparently does the new deputy director-general of the BBC. In the Fleming memorial lecture on 6 April this year, John Birt said:The ethical foundation of British journalism is not firm. Craft standards are slipping. Moreover, British media operate under a system of law which undervalues our legitimate role. Worse still, the institutions we report on, and particularly the state, are too secretive.I am sure that some Opposition Members agree.All told, British journalism is not in a healthy condition, and is neither capable of serving nor allowed to serve society as it should. Until we in the media put our own house in order we shall not win the argument for a freer flow of information. If we do not put our house in order, more restrictions are likely, and we risk a spiral of decline …impartiality in broadcast journalism is a withering plant in need of some sustaining care and attention. And many broadcasters certainly need to have a keener sense of fairness towards their contributors…The media, if they chose, could put their own house in order. They should work towards a greater sense of integrity, reliability and fairness, all for its own sake. We should have decent media.
§ Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North)
Does my hon. Friend agree that if, over the years, the media had sought to give a balanced account of all views, including 1116 the most extreme, rather than going for sensational matter designed to attract audiences., we might not be debating this measure?
§ Mr. Gale
I agree with my hon. Friend. Had the very fair systems of internal editorial control not been allowed to break down by those who were supposed to have been their guardians, we should not be discussing this measure. The question would be academic. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has had to bring the proposals before the House because those who were charged with that responsibility have failed.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) mentioned those who had canvassed for the televising of the proceedings of the House. I do not wish to go down that blind alley, except to say that members of the Select Committee on Televising of Proceedings of the House went to view the Canadian Parliament. This may be of interest to you, Mr. Speaker, if to nobody else. When asked what the effect had been, the Speaker of the Canadian Parliament said that it rewarded outrageousness. The media are faced with escalating violence—the kind of thing that Ron Neil was talking about—the fact that because today's story is violent, tomorrow's story must be more violent if it is to he used at all. Tomorrow's stories have to be worse than today's if they are to make air time. That has happened in the Canadian Parliament, and it has happened in Northern Ireland.
We, the journalists, have given credibility to IRA funerals. We see masked men firing volleys over coffins—giving some kind of false dignity to the murderers. That dignity is not granted in southern Ireland, which has had such controls for 10 years. Last week I took part in a debate at Trinity college, Dublin, on a completely different subject. I was privileged to have the opportunity to discuss a number of matters with some members of the community who have held, and still hold, offices far more senior than any Labour Member has held. Every person said, "We have had this law in southern Ireland for 10 years"—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is southern Ireland?"] Hon. Members are right. They said, "We have had the law here for 10 years." To answer the point made by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh, those people said, "We cannot understand why those to whom we seek to deny publicity can go to Ulster and appear on television programmes which are then rebroadcast and received on our own screens."
To me, the only surprise is that we did not do years ago what we are doing tonight. As a Member of Parliament, journalist and television director, I believe that the Government are right to lead where the IBA and the BBC have failed to lead. I question whether national measures will ever go far enough. Perhaps we need to reach international agreements that deny air time to terrorists if we are to have any hope of preventing the continual promotion of murder, hijack and all manner of violent crime. I hope that the BBC and independent television companies will take the reins back into their hands, where they used to be, and deny to terrorists who commit crimes of murder the drug that they crave—publicity. I do not think that that is censorship; I think it is common sense.
§ Mr. Norman Buchan (Paisley, South)
I feel very unlucky to have to follow that speech. So far, we have had a serious debate dealing with serious issues in a serious way. The hon. Member for Thanet, North (Mr. Gale) has dragged down that very necessary tone. He has also blown the gaff about what Conservative Members feel about the issue. He turned it from a serious debate about a real problem—the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) conducted it in that way—into an attack on public service broadcasting in general. His experience of broadcasting, about which he told us so much, has taught him nothing about the real merits of public service broadcasting.
The hon. Member for Thanet, North was right to complain about some of the things that have been happening recently in broadcasting and the rest of the media—they are serious and worrying. No man is an island, and nor is any country. If we diminish liberty in Northern Ireland, we diminish it here. Faced with the most secretive Government among Western democracies—and they are becoming increasingly so—our media are being browbeaten.
The problem with Britain is that we have an Official Secrets Act but no freedom of information legislation. Our broadcasting is regulated to try to set standards and allow diversity of opinion; but next week measures will be brought in to deregulate it. From a secretive Government comes increasing pressure by way of an attack on the only safeguard that we have—the media.
I am sorry about this measure. Until now, we had regarded the Home Secretary as one of the few remaining liberals in the Cabinet. In this same week, the right hon. Gentleman will introduce massive deregulation to broadcasting. He will free it up eventually to commercial broadcasting—to the Maxwells, Murdochs and Stevenses who already control our mass media. At the same time, the Home Secretary is bringing in repressive measures. We shall be left with a mixture of pap and trash, and the repression of any attempt by decent broadcasters to penetrate the truth.
Some hon. Members have pointed out that the repression will not stop here, that this sort of measure begets others. That can be seen in the recent history of broadcasting. I saw "Real Lives". It was right to make the programme, which dealt with both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland. It dealt fairly and squarely with the green and the orange, and showed that people who were prepared to pick up guns had a motivation for doing so. It was important for us to know what that motivation was. This is not just a problem of a ruthless, callous or murderous instinct. The problem that has emerged can be traced to motivations and origins that we must understand, because we are responsible for their solution.
What happened next? In order to stop "Real Lives", the Home Secretary had to bring pressure to bear and to write to the governors. The broadcasters resisted the repression and oppression and forced the Government to interfere openly and publicly. That was followed by a year in which the right hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit) launched a series of attacks on the BBC and on public broadcasting. At the end of all that, when the next issue arose the BBC intervened itself. The Government's war of attrition against broadcasting forced it to impose 1118 self-censorship at a lower level. Even that does not stop the repressors intervening; they merely intervene at a lower threshold.
This is what happened with "Zircon". The BBC resisted, but then intervened. "Zircon" was repressed, but that did not stop the Special Branch, controlled by the same Ministry that is supposed to safeguard the freedom of broadcasting—the Home Office—invading the BBC. A few weeks after that there was a series of exploratory programmes on a thing called "Spycatcher". That did not even get to the production stage because it was pulled out.
Censorship breeds self-censorship which is even more dangerous. As Bacon said, it is like the arrow that flies in the night. We never know what has been self-censored because it never sees the light of day. That is what is happening against the background of a total monopoly in the printed press. Three people control the popular press. We do not have a freedom of information Act but we have a secrecy Act which was introduced a few months ago with a great fanfare of trumpets.
§ It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.