HL Deb 19 October 1988 vol 500 cc1139-46

4.5 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on broadcasting and terrorism which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. The Statement is as follows:

"For some time broadcast coverage of events in Northern Ireland has included the occasional appearance of representatives of paramilitary organisations and their political wings, who have used these opportunities as an attempt to justify their criminal activities. Such appearances have caused widespread offence to viewers and listeners throughout the United Kingdom, particularly in the aftermath of a terrorist outrage.

"The terrorists themselves draw support and sustenance from having access to radio and television, and from addressing their views more directly to the population at large than is possible through the press. The Government have decided that the time has now come to deny this easy platform to those who use it to propagate terrorism. Accordingly, I have today issued to the chairmen of the BBC and the IBA a notice, under the Licence and Agreement and under the Broadcasting Act respectively, requiring them to refrain from broadcasting direct statements by representatives of organisations proscribed in Northern Ireland and Great Britain and by representatives of Sinn Fein, Republican Sinn Fein and the Ulster Defence Association.

"The notices will also prohibit the broadcasting of statements by any person which support or invite support for these organisations. The restrictions will not apply to the broadcast of proceedings in Parliament, and in order not to impair the obligation on the broadcasters to provide an impartial coverage of elections the notices will have a more limited effect during election periods. Copies of the notices have today been deposited in the Library, and further copies are available from the Vote Office so that honourable Members will be able to study their detailed effect.

"These restrictions follow closely the lines of similar provisions which have been operating in the Republic of Ireland for some years past. Representatives of these organisations are prevented from appearing on Irish television, but because we have had no equivalent restrictions in the United Kingdom they can nevertheless be seen on BBC and ITV services in Northern Ireland, where their appearances cause the gravest offence, and in Great Britain. The Government's decision today means that both in the United Kingdom and in the Irish Republic such appearances will be prevented.

"Broadcasters have a dangerous and unenviable task in reporting events in Northern Ireland. This step is no criticism of them. What concerns us is the use made of broadcasting facilities by supporters of terrorism. This is not a restriction on reporting. It is a restriction on direct appearances by those who use or support violence.

I believe that this step will be understood and welcomed by most people throughout the United Kingdom. It is a serious and important matter on which the House will wish to express its view. For that reason, we shall be putting in hand discussions through the usual channels so that a full debate on the matter can take place at an early date".

My Lords, that concludes the text of the Statement.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for repeating this important Statement which has been made in another place, let us start from one common platform—that is, a complete hatred and detestation of everything that has been done and is being planned by the terrorist organisations to which the noble Earl referred. However, I wish to point out to the House the rather considerable inconsistency and possible lack of wisdom in the step that has been taken.

As regards the inconsistency, the noble Earl repeated in the last part of the Statement these words that were used by the Home Secretary in another place: It is a serious and important matter on which the House will wish to express its view. For that reason, we shall be putting in hand discussions through the usual channels so that a full debate on the matter can take place at an early date". Earlier in the Statement the noble Earl repeated that a decision had already been taken and that a notice had today been issued. As from today the broadcasting authorities will be prevented from doing what is set out in this Statement; namely, reporting directly any member of a terrorist organisation, or indeed of Sinn Fein which is a permitted and legal organisation at the moment.

The inconsistency is plain. It is a serious matter, a very grave matter, which should be debated by Parliament. I ask the noble Earl to say on behalf of the Government what is the point of initiating a debate on this serious matter in order to obtain the decision of Parliament when the decision has already been taken?

I query—and maybe the noble Earl will be able to answer that query—whether the Government are saying that, if there is sufficient expression in Parliament that this was not a wise step to have taken, the notice will be withdrawn? This Government are not well known for reversing decisions. Once a decision is taken at the top of this Government one finds that it is not varied even if wiser counsels should prevail. That leads me to a great amount of apprehension that the debate—which I assume will take place in both Houses, and obviously the noble Earl will clarify that point —will be a rather useless exercise.

I questioned the wisdom of this step. Everyone on all sides of this House wishes to wage war on the evil of terrorism. However, will not this step be mistaken abroad, especially in places such as the United States which have been favourable to the IRA, for a fear on the part of our Government that any views should be expressed? Have we such a poor view of the members of the public who watch television and listen to broadcasts that we believe that they would accept propaganda in favour of killing innocent women, children and soldiers? I should have thought that the appearance of members of such organizations—especially with a responsible interviewer—would deflect many from upholding their cause. Some viewers may be uncertain in their own minds before they see the face of terrorism and hear the kind of questions which will undoubtedly be put about what the organisations have done and what they intend to do.

I cannot help feeling that there is an odd differentiation between the media of broadcasting by radio and television and the media of the press. The press will be allowed to print a photograph of Adams on the front page of a newspaper above a statement that he makes. That self-same statement and the appearance of the person making the statement will not be permitted on television. I repeat—inconsistent and possibly unwise. Naturally, my friends and I would wish to hear the noble Earl justify the inconsistency, prove the wisdom and satisfy your Lordships that you have not been taken by surprise with a decision which is now unalterable.

4.15 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I join the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, in thanking the noble Earl for repeating the Statement. I am sure that the noble Earl will recall that those of us on this Bench, and the House generally, have given the Government and previous governments consistent support in their fight against terrorism in Northern Ireland.

Perhaps I may ask the Minister whether he is aware that many of us have the gravest doubts about the wisdom of this step. The Government have decided to prohibit the broadcasting organisations from transmitting interviews. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has just pointed out, presumably no similar step has been taken in relation to the press. Why? If the object is to deny Provisional Sinn Fein and the Ulster Protestant extremists the oxygen of publicity why is the distinction made between television and the press? There is no explanation in the Statement made by the Home Secretary. No doubt the noble Earl will be eager to answer that particular question.

I now turn to an even more perplexing part of the Statement. The noble Earl said that the ban will: have a more limited effect during election periods". What does that mean? Is the Representation of the People Act to be amended or is it not? Because unless the Representation of the People Act is amended Sinn Fein candidates and any other candidates in Northern Ireland have to receive equality of treatment by the broadcasting organisations. Let us have a clear answer today. Will they receive equality of treatment or will there be amending legislation so far as concerns the Representation of the People Act?

I remind the noble Earl that local elections will be held in Northern Ireland next April and European Assembly elections are also to be held in Northern Ireland. I therefore believe that unless the noble Earl can give a clear and unequivocal statement as to what precisely those words "more limited effect" mean we shall be even more perplexed about the general purpose of the Statement.

Many of us recognise the indignation caused to many people in Great Britain and in Northern Ireland by seeing people defending acts of murder against the security forces and many innocent men, women and children. But because there is such justifiable anxiety it does not mean that it is right to use these sledgehammer tactics against the broadcasting organisations. Can the noble Earl tell me when there was last a directive of such a character under the BBC licence or the Independent Broadcasting Authority Act? I believe that the number of precedents for such action are remarkably few.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, perhaps I may reply to the noble Lords who have spoken. The Statement is an important one. I should have hoped that the noble Lords, Lord Mishcon and Lord Harris of Greenwich. might have given it a greater welcome. However, I think that they have reflected the natural concern which people feel when any form of restriction is placed on the media.

Both noble Lords have referred to inconsistency and lack of wisdom. I hope that there is no inconsistency, and I shall try to explain why. I hope that they will see, on reflection, that there is no lack of wisdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked why a decision has been taken like this and Parliamant then asked to approve it? My right honourable friend has taken this decision, quite correctly, with powers given to him by Parliament under the Broadcasting Act of 1981. That is a decision which he was quite right to take. That decision having been taken, it is up to Parliament to consider it and if it wishes to approve it and give its views. I think that when we have an opportunity to debate the matter that will be the time for noble Lords to express their views more fully. That is the reason why my right honourable friend has said that there will be a debate in another place.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked whether a debate will take place in this House. That is a matter for the usual channels and I am quite sure that if there is such concern a debate will be likely to be forthcoming. However it is essentially a matter for the usual channels.

The noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, asked whether that action will lose us friends abroad. Many friendly governments in other parts of the world have first-hand experience of the fight against terrorism. I believe that they will understand the reasons for the steps we are taking today.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked why do we not ban reporting of such statements in the press. There are two reasons why this was done for radio and TV. First, it is the immediacy of radio and especially of television that does the harm in these cases. They broadcast directly into people's homes the images and words of those who support violence Second-hand reports in the press do not have the same impact. The second reason is that those who apologise for terrorism gain a spurious respectability when treated in broadcasts as though they were constitutional politicians. There is a distinct difference between the media of television and radio and the media of the press.

I emphasise again that it is perfectly acceptable for television and radio to portray something that has happened; it is merely the direct appearances of the individuals who support terrorism that has to be avoided.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, referred to election periods. It is necessary to have an exemption for election periods because of our broadcasting and electoral laws which require that candidates for election should be treated in an even-handed way. Under our broadcasting arrangements broadcasters have a duty to maintain impartiality in matters of political controversy. We believe that it would be difficult for them to carry out that duty if the exemption is not made.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, asked whether these powers had ever been used before. I understand that they have been used five times since broadcasting began in the 1920s.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, I believe that in a democratic society it is defensible to stifle all outlets of those terrorist groups who are bent on undermining the authority of the state and intent upon smashing our democratic institutions. If we are to cut off the oxygen supply of propaganda—and I welcome this move as regards television and radio—we should cover also the written medium.

Perhaps the Minister is not aware that in Northern Ireland the use of radio and television gives a degree of respectability to terrorist groups, particularly the Provisional IRA. It boosts their morale, aids their recruiting drives and helps to keep them in business. This measure is one step forward on the road to defeating terrorism and its propaganda. I believe however that one could go further. Will the Minister consult the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary with a view to proposing that, within the terms of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the governments of the Republic of Eire and the United Kingdom should be prepared to operate a D-notice system which also covers newspapers?

The present measure is in fact only a half-measure. It will bring a lot of adverse publicity for Her Majesty's Government and a lot of good publicity for the Provisional IRA. Now that we are going down this road, we should go the whole hog and stop all propaganda on television, radio and the newspapers. We should not just squeeze the tube of the oxygen supply; we should sever it completely.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the experience of the noble Lord, Lord Mason, in matters of Northern Ireland is very profound. I am grateful to him for his support. I appreciate his experience and I shall ensure that his remarks are drawn to the attention of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. However, I should like to offer one caution. The road he suggests is one of considerable curtailment of speech and discourse. By this measure we do not intend any form of censorship; it does not restrict reporting but only the direct appearance of individuals. The noble Lord wants to go much further, and I think that that would need a considerable amount of thought.

Lord Fitt

My Lords, in the emotional aftermath of every terrible attrocity that takes place in Northern Ireland—and I need only remind the House of a few of them which took place less than a year ago: Enniskillen, the brutal murder of two corporals in Belfast in my former constituency, the killing of eight soldiers in the bus explosion and numerous other murders which have been committed—there is a great upsurge of feeling in this country. The vast majority of people in general as well as Members of both Houses of Parliament call on the Government to take some action to prevent such outrages. Yet when the Government proposed to take some action all sorts of voices are raised in protest. They say, "Don't do this because it may dilute our law; it will give the terrorists a propaganda victory; it will make them martyrs". In other words, if they listened to those voices, the Government would do nothing.

I am in support of this legislation. I have not lived all my life in some very secure part of the United Kingdom—in England, Scotland or Wales. I have lived in the heart of Belfast and on many occasions I have been subjected to the terrorism of the IRA and other organisations. I ask the Government to be quite clear as to whom this legislation may be directed. It must be directed against the UVF, the INLA and the UDA (about which we have read so much during this terrible week-end). Indeed, one of those killed in that incident, a member of the UDA who was buried today, was responsible, if we are to believe press reports, for the murder of one of my closest friends, Senator Paddy Wilson.

The Minister has said that this measure will not prevent election broadcasts from this House. Might that also apply to election broadcasts from the Belfast city council? At the moment broadcasts take place from local authority assemblies in Northern Ireland. They can be as well equipped as any other broadcasts to dispense propaganda.

It is all very well for people to talk about a diminution or dilution of British standards. British standards do not apply in Northern Ireland. The IRA, the UDA and all the other paramilitary organisations make damn sure that they do not apply. As for worry about Irish America and the effect that this measure may have there, Irish America is very violently anti-British. Its opinions will not he changed by this legislation. For what it is worth I think that the Government are quite right to introduce this legislation at this time.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, governments must govern. Parliament can debate their decisions. We have been promised a debate. What more is there to say this evening?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, makes a very helpful point. This is a Statement not of what the Government intend to do; but of what they are doing under their present powers. It is then the objective for this measure to be considered if the House thinks fit. With the greatest respect, I suggest that we must be careful not to turn this discussion into too much of a debate.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, for his remarks and for his support. He has lived in the thick of the troubles and I suppose knows the problems of Northern Ireland as well as anyone. He asked: what are the organisations to which this measure will apply? It refers to the IRA, the women's section of the IRA, the youth wing of the IRA, the Red Hand Commando, Saor Eire, the Ulster Freedom Fighters, the Ulster Volunteer Force, the Irish National Liberation Army, Sinn Fein, the Republican Sinn Fein, and the Ulster Defence Association.

With regard to the noble Lord's point about Belfast City Council, I shall have to find out about that matter and if I may I shall write to him.

Lord Annan

My Lords, can the noble Earl tell the House what are the regulations and laws on this matter in the Republic of Eire?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can tell you that the same principle has been applied in Eire as is being applied here: they have done this for the past 10 years. I think their restrictions over elections are different from what we propose.

Lord Burton

My Lords, in view of the close connections between the IRA and the ANC, ought not the ANC to be added to the fist of organisations?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, it has not been so far and I shall try to find out whether it should be.

4.30 p.m.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, while we on the SDP Benches are not prepared to give a fulsome welcome to the Statement made by the Minister we give it a rather low-key approval. It seems to us that the measures proposed are the same as are being produced in Ireland itself. Therefore I do not think that we shall commit any damage to ourselves internationally and it may just bring some comfort to the victims of terrorism if they do not have to see and hear the IRA's statements on TV and radio.

Therefore we give our general support to the Government for the measures they have proposed, though I must say we have doubts as to whether they are going to make a great impact on the degree of IRA violence. We feel that consideration must be given to much stronger measures against the IRA organisation and all the other subordinate ones that have been mentioned in the House this afternoon.

We would welcome the arrangement of a debate on the subject through the usual channels in your Lordships' House. Perhaps as a result of that debate there might be other ideas that could be taken up for strengthening the fight against terrorism, which is the prime object of this Statement.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, for that welcome, which, as she herself said, was only a lukewarm welcome. If we have a debate, when the time comes she will be able to expand upon her views. I can understand the reasons, even if I would have preferred a less lukewarm welcome.

The Government have not taken this decision lightly. It was taken after very serious consideration; and the basic reason is that we considered it to be offensive to people to find those who prosecute terrorism appearing on television and radio, forwarding their cause, which has been a source of the greatest distress to all those in this country.