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Clarification on RTE's system of self-censorship

category national | miscellaneous | news report author Dé Luain Aibreán 21, 2003 21:04author by Niall Meehan Report this post to the editors

The courts found in 1992 and 1993 that RTE operated a system of self-censorship. The following articles outline how it worked and how RTE became legally and ethically exposed on the issue.

How RTE censored its censorship
Sunday Business Post 20 April 2003

By Niall Meehan

(1992 article follows immediately after)

Ten years ago, I conducted a two-week study in DCU's School of Communications on how often RTE told its audience that it was censored under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act.

By coincidence, news of the existence of the Hume-Adams document, a key starting point for the peace process, broke the day the study commenced. Had RTE told us it could not interview Gerry Adams, my mini-thesis that RTE was censoring the existence of censorship would have been up the spout.

However, the first day's news set the tone. Newsreader Bryan Dobson reported that John Hume was unavailable for interview because he was in the US. What of Adams? Was the audience told that although the other end of this political double act was physically available, RTE could not interview him either? No they were not. Adams remained a non-person in a story named after him for two whole weeks. It was typical of the RTE response to censorship, one that frequently left outsiders gazing on in disbelief.
That year, 1993, was a bad one for RTE. In its eagerness to uphold the law, RTE broke it. On March 31, the broadcaster was found by the Supreme Court to have been operating an illegal system of self-censorship.

Under cover of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, RTE had systematically extended the scope of the censorship order. It had prevented a Sinn Féin member (now Sinn Féin councillor) Larry O'Toole from speaking about a trade union dispute in which he was the spokesperson.
After the High Court declared the practice illegal RTE appealed to be re-censored and told the Supreme Court it would not allow a Sinn Féin actor to advertise a bar of soap. The US Newspaper Guild declared: "We are astonished that RTE, instead of welcoming this liberal interpretation of an abhorrent censorship statute, is asking the Irish Supreme Court for a greater restriction of its free-speech rights."

Blanket ban

RTE said that its blanket ban was an exercise of its discretionary powers. Yet, when faced with precisely the same dilemma, the BBC said that a Sinn Féin member could not be held to be representing his or her party during every waking moment. Under British censorship rules, Gerry Adams was broadcast speaking on behalf of constituents.
Since the 1970s RTE had been ordered to stop Sinn Féin and IRA representatives or spokespersons from being broadcast. Section 31 permitted governments to issue an annual censorship order. Loyalists were also banned, but by common admission of ministers, Section 31 was aimed at Sinn Féin.

The order issued by Fianna Fail minister Gerry Collins in 1971 led to the sacking of the RTE Authority and the jailing of journalist Kevin O'Kelly over his refusal to name IRA chief of staff Sean Mac Stiofain as the voice on a taped interview. After Conor Cruise O'Brien became Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in 1973, he accused RTE of allowing a "spiritual occupation" by the IRA. A new management regime was put in place. Those who would not toe the line were sent to agriculture, children's and religious broadcasting.

By 1976 the National Union of Journalists said that the government line on "security" issues was not questioned by RTE. There were major stories of local, national and arguably world significance that RTE was afraid to touch. Allegations of British involvement in the 1974 Dublin Monaghan bombings were left unexamined. Miscarriages of justice affecting the Birmingham Six and others were largely ignored.

RTE sent its security correspondent to the Sinn Féin Árd Fheis to report his impressions over pictures of the gesticulations of Sinn Féin delegates. During this brief yearly ritual RTE said that "ministerial restrictions" affected coverage. A system of self-censorship was securely in place at the conclusion of O'Brien's tenure as minister in 1977. Subsequent governments left that system in place.
This is confirmed in a recent biography of President Mary McAleese (by Ray Mac Manais, Clo lar-Chonnachta). McAleese was an RTE reporter dur ing the IRA hunger strikes. Her biography recounts how the unfortunate Forbes McFaul was roundly denounced as "a fucking Provo", after he broadcast an objective account of the growth in nationalist support for the hunger strikers.

RTE's day-to-day practice altered the spectrum of accepted opinion on the North. The absence of a republican voice allowed the promotion of the idea that the SDLP represented a form of nationalist extremism, and that unionists were in the misunderstood middle of the political continuum. John Hume was relentlessly attacked.

In RTE, imaginary Provos were seen everywhere. Teacher Eileen Flynn was infamously and publicly sacked from her job in Wexford because she was pregnant and unmarried. Hesitant and uncertain, she reluctantly agreed to be interviewed by RTE, until management in-structed that she be asked (on the basis that her partner was) if she was an SF member. RTE banned an advertisement for a book of short stories by GerryAdams and refused to allow him to be interviewed as the author of a work of fiction.

Ray Burke steps in

In 1988 an exhausted RTE reporter, Jenny McGeever, recorded and later broadcast Martin McGuinness, as the bodies of three unarmed IRA members shot by the SAS in Gibraltar travelled over the border. Ray Burke was minister at the time. For reasons now becoming apparent, he carried ministerial responsibility for broadcasting around on his back as he traipsed from department to department. Burke rang RTE to express his seething rage and to assert that "the foundations of the state" were shaking. McGeever was hauled before her boss and accused of being "a member of the Repeal Section 31 Campaign" (even this was suspect). She was sacked in the bid to shore up the foundations of our brown envelope society.

Many accounts of those days in RTE ascribe its failings to a take-over of RTE current affairs by the Workers Party, whose hysterical anti-provoism for med the backbone of RTE's system of self-censorship.

However, this is to miss the point. There was a peculiarly RTE alliance between the systems of media control originally devised by the two Joes (McCarthy and Stalin) at work. The conservative leaderships of the Irish political establishment were happy to see the republican viewpoint excluded, even if that meant the eventual if short-lived emergence of the Workers Party. The attempt by the Workers Party to control media coverage of the North was largely successful because it was in tune with a conservative fear of the consequences of permitting exposure of nationalist experience in the North. That conservative attitude continued to affect coverage long after the demise of Section 31 in January 1994 and of Workers Party influence. It was also not confined to RTE.

Epilogue: after Larry O'Toole won his appeal, he became the first Sinn Féin member to be knowingly interviewed by RTE in 20 years about how it felt to have won his case. Ironically, he also became the last one banned some eight months later, when RTE refused to allow him to be interviewed on the same subject for an item in an RTE-Channel 4 co-production.

As he had become a Sinn Féin candidate in an election some five months off, RTE said he was now a Sinn Féin representative in his every utterance.

Minister Michael D Higgins put an end to this farce, when he abolished the Section 31 Order. What RTE did then is another story.

Niall Meehan, Head of Journalism & Media Faculty Griffith College Dublin.

Section 31 Ban Confusion in RTE a Result of Management Failure
by Niall Meehan, Lecturer, School of Communications, Dublin City University.
(Unedited version, published Sunday Business Post, 16th Aug., 1992)

Dr Conor Cruise O'Brien has charged that RTE management deliberately extended the scope of section 31 in order to discredit it in the eyes of the general public. Dr O'Brien and his verbal sparring partner, Wesley Boyd, RTE's former Head of News and now director of broadcasting developments, have publicly differed on who is to blame for the broadcasting practice which led to RTE's defeat in the High Court on the issue of an illegal extension of RTE's censorship responsibilities.

Mr Boyd makes the apparently telling point (Irish Times, August 5th) that Dr O' Brien approved RTE's internal Section 31 guidelines, thus giving the impression that Dr O'Brien approved the RTE ban on Sinn Fein members which Justice O'Hanlon recently found to be "bad in law, a misconstruction of the law and null and void". However, as Michael Foley points out in the same edition of the Times, RTE's guidelines do not mention any ban on members of Sinn Fein. If anything the guidelines simply ignore the issue. The absence of any attempt to deal with the distinction between members and spokespersons for Sinn Fein lies at the heart of the confusion in RTE on how to implement the Section 31 Ministerial Order.

In fact it is probably a misnomer to refer to RTE's internal document as "guidelines" at all, in the sense of being an explanatory guide to day to day broadcasting practice. In essence the document concerned simply repeats the Ministerial Order, gives some minimal instruction on the use of mute film, the reporting of statements from censored organisations and tells RTE personnel to refer-up all proposed contact with, or treatment of, censored organisations to the "Divisional Head concerned", who must then consult and get the agreement of RTE's Director General before anything is broadcast.

In other words no autonomy is left to individual reporters, researchers and producers. Such a rigid and bureaucratic document might be more relevant in a civil service environment than the hurly-burly atmosphere of a vibrant news gathering organisation. The irony is that this approach, designed ostensibly to protect RTE's legal position, generated such an atmosphere of caution and fear that it has pushed RTE into the very serious legal difficulties it sought explicitly to avoid.

The RTE Guidelines are in direct contrast to the BBC's "Advice to Editors" (dated 26th October, 1988) on the British censorship restrictions. The British censorship order is certainly more liberal in some respects, allowing reports of interviews - which permits an actor's voice-over on Gerry Adams interviews, and ending censorship at election time. However, on the central point of members vs spokespersons it is almost identical to Section 31. The BBC document is written with journalists in mind. It is genuinely explanatory.

A direct distinction between members and spokespersons is made. It is stated that Sinn Fein members "cannot be held to represent their organisation in all their daily activities. Some will be regarded as private". Furthermore, "The Chairman of Strabane council, who is Sinn Fein, can appear in programmes to represent the council. He can speak about council business, decisions made, problems faced, so long as he does not proclaim Sinn Fein. It is accepted that such people are not always representing their organisation even when speaking about their public duties."

As the successful applicant in the recent High Court case, Larry O'Toole, pointed out to Joe Mulholland in October 1990, and in a letter to the Irish Times (October 18th, 1990), there is no reason why RTE could not adopt a similar approach to Section 31. His letter informed Joe Mulholland that the BBC had done an interview without voice-over with Sinn Fein President, then West Belfast MP, Gerry Adams on employment discrimination affecting his west-Belfast constituents.

In can be said in RTE's defence that when the guidelines were produced on the 21st of January, 1978, by then Director General, Oliver Moloney, it was only six years since an entire RTE Authority had been sacked for not operating Section 31 to the government's satisfaction. Furthermore, during the tenure of office of Dr. Conor Cruise O'Brien as Minister for Posts and Telegraphs in the 1973-77 Coalition government, RTE were accused of harbouring a "spiritual occupation" if not an "actual physical occupation" by the IRA (Speech, reported in Irish Times, March 10th, 1979).

In 1974 Dr. O'Brien hosted a dinner for leading political reporters where he offered a toast to "Our democratic institutions, and the restrictions on the freedom of the press which may become necessary to preserve them". He referred to his distinguished guests as "provo stooges". (in The Media and Northern Ireland; Rolston (ed), 1991) Mary Holland referred in 1978 to Dr O'Brien's influence as creating an atmosphere where "self-censorship has been raised to the level of an art. Caution lay like a thick cloud over everything". (ibid.)

Subsequent ministers did nothing to dispel this atmosphere. In 1988 the Minister for Communications, Ray Burke, was reportedly "very angry" when Morning Ireland's Jenny McGeever inadvertently included some words from Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness concerning the progress of the funeral cortege of the Gibraltar Three to Belfast. Ms McGeever was subsequently sacked by RTE.

While it can be said that Dr O'Brien is not directly responsible for RTE's years of self-censorship, his legacy was directly influential in producing a mind-set in RTE management which failed, or was to afraid to see, the obvious distinction between a person speaking into a microphone on behalf of Sinn Fein and a person, like Sinn Fein member Larry O'Toole, who was a trade unionist speaking on behalf of his fellow workers in defence of their jobs. To borrow Dr O'Brien's colourful phrase, he may not have been in "actual physical occupation" of RTE during the past 15 years, though he can be said to have been in a "spiritual occupation" of RTE's management division.

It must also be said, as was put to Dr O'Brien by David Hanley on Morning Ireland (5th August, 1992), that Dr. O'Brien did not speak out over the past number of years during the numerous well-publicised conflicts over RTE's blanket ban on all Sinn Fein members. The issue was first raised by me on July 16th, 1987 (letters, Irish Times, Irish Press). It was raised again in November, 1987, by a DCU colleague, Marcus Free, who complained about RTE's Liveline banning a caller, who identified himself as a Sinn Fein member, from speaking about making wine from mushrooms. There were numerous prominent articles on the mushroom incident in the Sunday Tribune during 1987, 1988 and 1989 - including a letter from me.

On March 23rd, 1988 Gay Byrne hosted Lydia Comiskey from Meath on his radio programme. She spoke as a housewife and mother about the effects of her husband's emigration on her family. It later transpired that Ms Comiskey was Joint National Treasurer of Sinn Fein. RTE publicly and prominently referred to this as a "breach" of Section 31. The Irish Times reported (25th March, 1988) Ms Comiskey as complaining to RTE that she did not breach Section 31 has she had not represented Sinn Fein and had not even mentioned the party as it was irrelevant to her long interview with Gay Byrne.

The Irish Times Saturday Column of March 26th, 1988 lead with a statement from the then Controller of Programmes, Radio One, Brian MacAonghusa, who also pointed out that Ms Comiskey did not represent Sinn Fein during her broadcast. This statement, according to the Saturday Column, was later "killed" on orders from RTE management. I myself returned publicly to the issue of RTE's ban on Sinn Fein members in relation to Lydia Comiskey.(letters, Irish Times, April 19th, 1988) Dr O'Brien did not publicly intervene to defend Mr MacAonghusa's position, to support Lydia Comiskey, or to support Mr Free in his complaint to the Broadcasting Complaints Commission on the mushroom incident. Other well publicised events concerning the member-spokesperson issue have regularly cropped up without benefiting from Dr O'Brien's expert observations on the subject.

It is surely curious that Dr O'Brien, who is the architect of the current wording on Section 31 and who charges that RTE have been undermining the law for years has not brought this to public attention before now. It is true that Dr O'Brien made a statement to the Irish News on October 6th, 1990 where he generally supported Larry O'Toole's position and said that RTE were trying to "discredit Section 31 by making it look more unreasonable than it is".

However, this was only after he was directly contacted by the Irish News Dublin Correspondent, Mary O'Carolan. This inactivity on Dr O'Brien's part contrasts with his direct unbidden intervention (letters, Sunday Tribune, December 20th, 1987) in support of Eoghan Harris who, as a producer in RTE, launched a vociferous public defence of Section 31 which even extended to an attack on traditional journalistic standards of objectivity and impartiality. Perhaps Dr O'Brien has been less troubled by RTE's overly restrictive use of Section 31 against his greatest political opponents than he is by attacks on the very principles of political censorship, which he himself enshrined in law in 1976.

I would have to agree with Dr O'Brien's statement that on the Larry O'Toole Issue RTE "Are hoist by their own petard" (RTE Radio One, This Week, August 2nd, 1992). However, I would go further and suggest that Dr O'Brien played a prominent part in erecting the device to which it is attached.

author by Limerick1919publication date Máirt Aib 22, 2003 13:57author email limerick1919 at hotmail dot comauthor address author phone Report this post to the editors

Did she ever work with irish media again?

author by John O'Learypublication date Céad Aib 23, 2003 11:50author address author phone Report this post to the editors

Jenny McGeever became a solicitor after she settled her case for unfair dismissal with RTE. RTE were forced to pay compensation for the way they treated her.

It was not a very proud moment for the NUJ in RTE, who announced that they would resist any attempt to victimise "full-time" staff. Since McGeever was on contract, she was fair game for victimisation and was hung out to dry. The NUJ nationally condemned RTE members for their (in)action.

It is just another sign of the times that were in it, times that could return - or maybe they never went away (you know).

So, to answer the question above, Jenny Mcgeever probably went a bit sour on journalism - and can we blame her?