Three Monkeys Online

A Curious, Alternative Magazine

Political Censorship and the Democratic State: the Irish Broadcasting Ban – Mary P. Corcoran and Mark O?Brien

This collection of essays on the history and effects of the section 31 ban on broadcasting interviews with spokespeople (usually interpreted to include ordinary members) of proscribed organisations opens with a contribution from the politician most closely associated with political censorship in modern Ireland, the noted intellectual, Conor Cruise O?Brien. The piece used is an edited version of his speech to the Irish parliament in 1975 during the debate on the imposition of censorship in the Republic of Ireland ? a debate that was, as Michael D. Higgins, lifter of the ban, says in his contribution to the volume, ?informed and elegant? (pg140). O?Brien was certainly no backwoodsman and he quotes from Aeschylus, Milton and Dr. Johnson in his defence of censorship. It is quite a piece of work and it is hard to imagine a similar speech being delivered in today?s Dᩬ ? but what?s this? A closer inspection of the footnote giving the source of the speech reveals it was actually delivered to Seanad ɩreann, Ireland?s ?upper? house. It?s a telling fact. The justification for censorship was one for the consumption of the educated elite. O?Brien simply did not trust the rabble to think as he did on political matters and therefore censored the IRA, Sinn F驮 and other organisations. Not that he put it this way, expressing the fear, rather, that the public might be ?confused? by language.

Disdain for the critical faculties of ordinary people ? and awe at the ease with which Sinn Fé©® could allegedly manipulate them if given the chance ? is a recurring theme both in this book and in the history of the ban. Mark O?Brien, Mary Corcoran and Farrel Corcoran all return to it either explicitly or implicitly in their contributions. But if the hoi polloi could not be trusted to hate Gerry Adams, the intellectuals and political elite for the most part could. There was virtually no opposition to censorship from Irish politicians, who obediently rubber-stamped the ministerial order to ban proscribed organisations from the airwaves every year until 1994. (The ban covered organisations that were proscribed in Northern Ireland ? that is to say, by the British state.) Des O?Malley (who feared the brainwashing of the public), Charlie Haughey (who said it was ?unnecessarily restrictive? but did not lift it), Michael McDowell (currently Minister for Justice) and Jim O?Keefe of Fine Gael, all supported the ban as did many others less vocal but no less obedient.

There appears to have been little opposition from Irish journalists operating under the ban. Ed Moloney?s account is particularly damning here. Furthermore, RTÉ (the state broadcaster) interpreted it very sweepingly. It was left to British broadcasters to circumvent and ridicule censorship (a similar ban was introduced in Britain in 1988) by using actors? voices to reproduce the words spoken by members of proscribed organisations. Not until 1988 did the Irish N.U.J.[National Union of Journalists] take a case to Europe and even then they could not persuade ?any Dublin or mainstream electronic journalist to file an individual complaint, as European law required? (Moloney, pg.104).

So where did opposition, if any, to the ban come from? Mary Corcoran refers, in her article, to research showing that in the late 1980s a majority of the general public opposed the ban (53%), with opposition ?concentrated among those under fifty years of age and in the lower social class groupings?. Nearly three quarters of respondents believed Sinn Fé©® should be allowed to express its opinions on RTÉ (pg.132).

This collection of essays is divided into three parts. The first part is probably the strongest, with Alex White?s clear setting out of the law and attempts to overturn it excellently complemented by Mark O?Brien?s appraisal of the atmosphere of the times that led to a ?spiral of silence?. Section 31 originated in a conservative society, where political leaders tolerated Garda brutality and ? in another illustration of their fear of the public will ? juryless trials.

The second part describes the effects of the ban on the workings of RTÉ® Desmond Fisher goes into the early skirmishes involving RTÉ and tells how sensitive decisions were referred upwards. A difference of opinion appears between Colum Kenny and Farrel Corcoran in their essays. Kenny sees accusations of self-censorship in RTÉ as a distraction from the very real presence of overt external censorship while Farrel Corcoran gives self-censorship more prominence, believing there were ?many complex layers? of it (pg.91) in RTÉ and even in the press (which was not covered by the ban). Perhaps the concept of ?self-censorship? itself needs more examination. If a journalist does not cover a certain story because he knows it will slow or even end his or her career is that really ?self? censorship? The late Mary Holland did not censor herself when she wrote for the Observer on Northern Ireland, but it may have had a detrimental effect on her career. Her freelance contract at the paper was ended in 1979. The then editor was one Conor Cruise O?Brien, who had lost his seat in the 1977 election ? hardly a vote of confidence by the general public in censorship.

The strongest essay in the third part, which is devoted to ?the wider implications of censorship on society,? is Mary Corcoran?s ?A Deceived Audience or a Discerning Audience?? In it she presents evidence from studies which suggest the assumption that Irish audiences are gullible and malleable is unfounded (pg.130), and that journalists perceive themselves as being more liberal than their (perceived) audience (pg.129). Helen Shaw, who gives an interesting account of the practical difficulties caused by the ban, makes connections with modern day US (many of the contributors locate their discussion in the context of the BBC?s recent vicissitudes) but her essay is marred by easy assumptions such as: ?censorship [?] created its own limited vision so that the censored world soon became the accepted reality? (pg.115). No evidence of this is adduced.

This is a good introduction to the subject, covering a fair amount of territory, including the years since the lifting of the ban. At times it is repetitive, with Kevin O?Kelly?s story and Jenny McGeever?s each being told twice and two references to the banning of an interview with Larry O?Toole (banned from talking about a strike in a cake factory on the airwaves because he happened also to be a member of Sinn Fé©®). Also, a lot of this material has appeared before, especially in Liz Curtis?s Ireland: the Propaganda War. Moloney and Kenny quote other articles by themselves (perhaps inevitable given that they both are or were journalists) and Farrel Corcoran reprints several pages almost verbatim from his own RTE and the Globalisation of Irish Television without attribution.

The collection is bookended by Michael D Higgins, the minister who lifted the ban in 1994 (and he does use the first person in his interesting description of this and British and Irish political reaction to it). He argues for the maintenance of the public sphere in communications (a theme elsewhere in the book) and against the fragmentation of audiences. He favours regulation of the new media (he seems to have in mind regulation of ownership) and notes how the European Commission is deregulating public service broadcasting while resisting the parliament?s calls for a directive on concentration of ownership (pg.138). Poet though he is, it must be said that O?Brien?s piece is the better written. Which of them did the right thing is a different matter.

Sources / Further Reading

  • Curtis, Liz Ireland: The Propaganda War, London, Pluto Press, 1984
  • Horgan, John Irish Media: A Critical History since 1922, London, Routledge, 2002
  • Horgan, John Broadcasting and Public Life: RTÉ News and Current Affairs, 1926-1997, Dublin. Four Courts Press, 2004
  • Rolston, Bill The Media and Northern Ireland: Covering the Troubles, London, Macmillan, 1991
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