Meehan, Níall. (1993) '(Self) Censoring the Talks: How Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act affected RTE’s coverage of the John Hume - Gerry Adams talks'
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Text: Níall Meehan ... Page Compiled: Martin Melaugh
The following paper has been contributed by the author Níall Meehan. The views expressed in this pamphlet do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
School of Communications
This study is about establishing facts in relation to the existence or otherwise of self-censorship on RTE news programming. In other words it is about establishing whether RTE censors itself in relation to covering Sinn Fein and the North of Ireland story. By and large we have attempted to avoid generalisation.
Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act is a subject that excites a large amount of comment. This comment often deals not with Section 31's specific intent but about its influence. Section 31 has been implicated in the construction of a 'mentality'. RTE Journalists and producers accuse it of creating a 'chilling' effect on RTE's northern coverage that inhibits investigative reporting.
This study is about assessing one aspect of the Section 31 'mentality'. The censoring by RTE of knowledge of its use of censorship is assessed. RTE have been accused of failing to tell the audience that programmes are censored when they are censored. The work that follows establishes whether the accusation is fact or fiction.
The time period chosen turned out, by pure good fortune, to have been particularly suitable for the purpose we set ourselves. It may perhaps be that, either before or after the monitoring period, scattered sightings of 'health warnings' or Sinn Fein statements have been noted. The purpose of this study is to establish whether or not there is a policy in RTE of generally using or not using some means to inform the audience of the presence of censorship.
Niall Meehan, October 19th, 1993
Radio Telefis Eireann (RTE) is politically censored through the imposition of a Ministerial Order under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. RTE is not allowed to broadcast an interview (or a report of an interview) or a statement by anyone speaking on behalf of a number of organisations - the most prominent of which is Sinn Fein. The RTE Authority has no option but to obey these orders unless it wishes to be dismissed, as happened in 1972. RTE managers must give practical implementation to the Ministerial Order. RTE reporters must carry out instructions to censor Sinn Fein spokespersons or they will either be dismissed, as happened to Jenny McGeever in 1988, or will perhaps indirectly end up in jail, as happened to Kevin O'Kelly in 1972.
In obeying this censorship law RTE admit that there are obvious "tensions and indeed contradictions" between the imposition of political censorship by the state and the need for "fairness to all interests" in news and current affairs treatment of Sinn Fein. (Challenge and Change, RTE Authority, 1989:p18) In other words RTE admit that there cannot be fairness and impartiality in relation to treatment of Sinn Fein. The Broadcasting Act makes this unfairness explicit. It states that the requirement for fairness, impartiality and objectivity in Section 18 of the Broadcasting Act is overridden by the content of the Ministerial censorship Order in Section 31 of the same Act.
By law, therefore, and according to set limits treatment of Sinn Fein does not have to be fair, impartial or objective.
RTE has been accused of going far beyond what is required by purely legal censorship requirements. The suggestion of self-censorship has generally taken three forms. They are:
1. RTE does not inform its audience when Section 31 affects particular broadcasts, even though it is not illegal to do so. It is alleged that the reason lies in RTE management's desire to give the impression that coverage is generally fair, accurate and comprehensive. Drawing attention to censorship would draw attention to the inherent flaw in Northern coverage. This is despite the fact (as noted above) that the RTE Authority has admitted that there is indeed a "contradiction" between Section 31 and normal standards of fairness (Challenge and Change op. cit.). Also, as already mentioned, the broadcasting Act states that Section 31 Orders override the general legal imperative for fairness, impartiality and objectivity.
2. RTE has extended the Order imposed by the Minister to cover Sinn Fein members when the Order merely mentions those representing or speaking on behalf of the party.
3. The imposition of censorship has tended to bias RTE reporting away from the concerns of the Nationalist community and towards those of the Unionist/Loyalist community and the British government. In essence RTE's field of vision tends to exclude the concerns of the significant proportion of the nationalist community who vote for Sinn Fein. Reporting tends to revolve around the concerns of the status quo or establishment. This is part of the "chilling" effect which the Let in the Light submission to the Minister, Michael D. Higgins, on Section 31 says inhibits RTE's ability to give a rounded picture of events. It is argued that RTE's failure to follow up the wrongful conviction of the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four and the Maguire Seven throughout the 1970's and 1980's is a consequence of the "climate of Fear" which the NUJ said affected RTE's coverage. As Mary Holland puts it, Section 31 "has seriously affected coverage of the conflict in Northern Ireland and an informed understanding of its problems in this state" (Irish Times, Oct 14, 1993).
Of the three criticisms it is our intention to examine the specific validity of Criticism 1, which concerns a failure to inform audiences abut the use of Section 31. We examine the accusation of non-use of a "warning" in relation to censored broadcasts. We believe that the audience has a right to know when to suspend their assumption of comprehensive coverage. If the audience knows a broadcast is censored it has the option of attempting to seek out the censored information from another source. The audience, at a minimum, has a right to know that a particular broadcast does not fully conform with rules of fairness, impartiality and objectivity which apply to all other broadcasts.
In relation to the other two criticisms of RTE's coverage we say the following:
The allegation that RTE has extended Section 31 to members of Sinn Fein has been proved in the High Court/Supreme Court case O'Toole vs RTE. Larry O'Toole, a Sinn Fein member and trade union member of the executive of the Bakers Union was banned by RTE from speaking on behalf of his fellow workers in a strike in the Gateaux factory in Dublin in 1990. The High Court found that RTE had extended Section 31. In March 1993 the Supreme Court, in dismissing RTE's appeal against the High Court decision, found that RTE was going far beyond the Ministerial censorship Order.
It is not our purpose to examine the broader accusations of self-censorship. A wider study than the one designed here would be required. It is certainly true to say, however, that very many RTE journalists and the NUJ have made the allegation themselves. A useful summary is contained in the Let in the Light submission mentioned above and in Betty Purcell's The Silence in Irish Broadcasting, in The Media and Northern Ireland (Bill Rolston ed., Macmillan, 1991)
This study is about a particular aspect of RTE's response to the challenge of censorship. RTE, in the form of the RTE Authority, the Head of News and the vast majority of RTE journalists, editors, producers and researchers, have proclaimed themselves to be opposed to Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. This study concerns itself with what strategy, if any, RTE has adopted to make its audience aware that news and current affairs coverage of the north of Ireland is seriously flawed.
Even though RTE programmes are censored by law, that same law does not prohibit RTE from informing its audience that accepted professional and ethical standards of journalism are breached. It is ethical to inform the audience that censorship is imposed, it is unethical to fail to do so. The need for this 'right to know' about censorship has been recognised by RTE journalists who term it a censorship "health warning".
In other words this study is partly about whether RTE's audience has a right to know there is no right to the full truth about the most important story on this island. What is the health of the "health warning" - is it alive and vigorously kicking or has it silently expired on the news room floor?
STATEMENT INSTEAD OF INTERVIEW
According to RTE's "Guidelines" to its staff on Section 31 statements from censored organisations can be covered. Therefore, there is nothing in law to prevent RTE from covering or even eliciting statements from Sinn Fein in relation to important news stories which concern Sinn Fein. The study assesses the extent to which RTE uses statements from Sinn Fein when a news story concerns Sinn Fein or its representatives.
RTE - THE OFFICIAL POSITION
In 1987 the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) fact finding team on Section 31 asked the then Head of News and then Director General of RTE, Wesley Boyd and Vincent Finn:
Q Do you give a "health warning", saying every time "because of Section 31 we cannot...."?
To which the reply was:
A We do this when appropriate... but its impractical to mention this every time, and there may be other reasons why we restrict coverage, time, news value etc.
Two questions arise.
1. When is it not "appropriate" to tell the audience that a broadcast is censored?
The National Union of Journalists newsroom representative, Charlie Bird, told the IFJ team on their departure that use of the "health warning" was NUJ policy. Without a commitment from management to implement such a basic ethical requirement in its "guidelines" to staff on Section 31, however, it is hard to see what use such a policy has.
The RTE management representatives, Boyd and Finn, also told the IFJ team that RTE covers Sinn Fein interviews "in the same way a newspaper does it... What we can't let them do is say it themselves". In other words the utterances of Sinn Fein or its representatives can be carried as statements read by journalists. This study examines the extent to which Sinn fein is given the option of having its statements covered instead of interviews.
THE HUME-ADAMS TALKS - OPERATIONALISING THE STUDY
The reason the survey team chose to assess coverage of the Hume Adams talks is three fold:
1. It is a major news story in its own right which all of the active participants in the North of Ireland conflict refer to extensively.
In other words there was a good chance that within the monitoring period this story would feature on RTE news broadcasts. Because the story broke in a major way during the final week of the monitoring period the absence or presence of a policy of using 'health warnings' or Sinn Fein statements could be clearly established.
2. It excites strong positive or negative feelings on the part of Irish politicians.
The use of accusation and counter accusation and the right of response could be fairly easily weighed and examined within the survey.
3. Thirdly, and most importantly, a central participant in the story, the President of Sinn Fein Gerry Adams, was censored. In the 'normal' (ie in the absence of political censorship) course of events Gerry Adams could expect to be interviewed or have statements carried on RTE.
The survey assess to what extent RTE exercised its "health warning" policy to inform its audience that interviews with Gerry Adams were censored. It also assesses the extent to which his statements, or those of his party, were covered in lieu of censored interviews.
As such coverage of the Hume-Adams talks fits the criteria for measuring use of political censorship in its broadcast coverage of Sinn Fein.
Table 3 Cumulative RADIO & TV combined
1. USE OF "HEALTH WARNING"
The most revealing finding is that, during the monitoring period, there was not a single warning to its audience by RTE that Gerry Adams was censored. This finding is all the more striking when we consider that Adams, alongside John Hume, is the subject of the story, which uses his name to describe its content. It was the major northern story, with more coverage devoted to it than any other single item. In the last week of the monitoring period it was the major story that lead the news north and south.
While RTE interviewed John Hume once after Monday September 27th (and once beforehand) and carried two of his statements, RTE only carried a single Gerry Adams statement and did not ever inform the audience that he was censored. Hume would ordinarily have expected to be interviewed more than once but on this occasion had left for the US for a pre-planned visit when the Hume/Adams proposals story broke. Adams, the other party to the talks, was therefore available for interview in Ireland while Hume was away. As Mary Holland put it in the Irish Times (October 14th):
"Mr Hume's departure for the United States meant that the only person who could enlighten us about the statement and comment authoritatively on its contents could not be interviewed by the national broadcasting service"
RTE could not interview Adams who was available but did not inform its audience of this fact. On the other hand RTE did inform its audience that Hume was unavailable in the US. This is a finding in support of the charge that RTE utilises a double standard in relation to coverage of Sinn Fein that goes beyond the limits of legal censorship.
2. USE OF STATEMENTS IN LIEU OF INTERVIEWS
There is no evidence that RTE made any attempt to redress its inability to interview Gerry Adams through the use of statements from Gerry Adams/Sinn Fein. If RTE exercised a policy of treating Sinn Fein "the way a newspaper does it", As Vincent Finn and Wesley Boyd put it, we would expect to find more Sinn Fein/Gerry Adams statements than the 3 recorded in the monitoring period. 2 of the statements were the same one carried on radio and tv (29th Sept) in the context of the general reaction to the Hume/Adams initiative. This was the only Sinn Fein statement carried in the week Sept 27th - October 1st when there were 19 separate references to Hume Adams process on radio News at One and tv 6.1 news.
Sinn Fein/Gerry Adams had less statements broadcast than parties who are not censored.
The Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht is currently reviewing the operation of the Section 31 Orders. He has said he will not simply renew the Orders "like an automaton" (RTE Questions and Answers, October 11th, 1993). He has also said that he is interested in allowing Section 18 of the broadcasting Act to determine RTE's coverage of the North. Section 18 says that RTE news and current affairs must be fair, impartial and objective. However, it also says that RTE may not broadcast anything which might "incite to crime or tend to undermine the authority of the state". It is under these self-same criteria that the Minister may issue a specific Order under Section 31 prohibiting RTE from interviewing Sinn Fein representatives.
On the basis of current evidence the abolition of the Order might lead RTE to consider that the current Section 31 Order is still effectively in force and that Sinn Fein would still suffer from extensive political censorship. There is strong historical evidence that such is the case. In 1977 a small group split from Sinn Fein and reconstituted themselves as Republican Sinn Fein. Even though they were not covered by the Ministerial Order for a considerable period RTE refused to interview RSF's spokespersons on the basis that:
"When the party was founded and not yet included in the Order, we decided, after taking legal advice, not to interview its members because we considered they came under Section 18. It seemed logical to us that people who left Sinn Fein because they didn't think it was militant enough would be more likely to incite to violence." (quoted in IFJ Report: Censoring the Troubles, op. cit.)
Furthermore, RTE's reaction to its loss of the Larry O'Toole action was to ban the advertisement of a book of short stories by Gerry Adams. The "Guidelines" issued by RTE some six months after the conclusion of the O'Toole case justify the banning of Sinn Fein members on the grounds of their "status" in the party. The Ministerial Order makes no reference to a party member's "status", just as it made no reference to RTE's previous criterion, "membership". RTE is showing an eagerness to again extend the parameters of censorship. Michael Foley, Media Correspondent of the Irish Times, pointedly asked, "Could the [new] guidelines simply be a blanket ban by another name". (Irish Times, October 2nd, 1993)
Governments have intervened with RTE in the past to censor and inhibit its coverage, while demoralising and bullying its staff. We urge the current Minister to now inform RTE that the extensive apparatus of self-censorship and secrecy about the use of censorship must be ended. In the absence of any such instruction to ensure fair play and freedom of speech those concerned about censorship will have to continually monitor RTE's coverage of the North.
Week by week breakdown of all topics covered plus commentary
News at One Mon 13th Sept - Fri 17th Sept
Topics covered: Opsahl death, English firebombs, GAA arson, IRA bomb hotel, 2 x DUP talks with Major, British Army recruiting Sargeant shot, Adams statement on talks/peace, interview with John Bruton with ref to Hume/Adams, Mary Robinson NZ statement on Adams handshake, Hume talks with Major with Hume/Adams ref..
News at One Mon 20th Sept - Thurs 23rd Sept (Note: 24th Sept. not monitored)
Topics covered: Hendron on Hume/Adams talks, Mallon statement on UFF attacks on SDLP
News at One Mon 27th Sept - Fri 1st Oct
Topics Covered: Reaction to Hume/Adams: interview with Mayhew, Mayhew statement, interview with John Taylor, Hume statement, Card Daly statement on Hume/Adams, Adams statement. McCreevy on Hume/Adams, Paisley on Hume/Adams.
Cumulative total News at One: Mon 13th Sept - Fri Oct 1st - 14 programmes
(Note 24th Sept not monitored)
The Hume/Adams talks dominated the broadcast agenda on each of the weeks in question, in particular in the week after the announcement of the forwarding of a joint Hume/Adams proposal to the Dublin government. Yet not once did RTE inform the listening audience that political censorship prevented them from interviewing Gerry Adams, one of the architects of the talks. RTE also appear to have made no attempt to contact Sinn Fein to ask for a statement of reaction as a substitute for an interview - the only SF statements carried, on the 18th and 29th of Sept, during this entire period were not requested by RTE. Legally RTE is able to carry SF statements. The evidence suggests a lack of willingness to do so. In the week when the Hume/Adams proposals broke only one SF statement was carried in the form of a plea from Gerry Adams to unionists not to dismiss the report (29/9).
6.1 TV News Mon 13th Sept - Fri 17th Sept
Topics covered: Reynolds on Paisley, IRA bomb hotel; DUP talks proposals (Peter Robinson, Mayhew interview); RHC kill fellow loyalist; Hume in Downing Street (Hume interview on Adams talks); Pres Robinson in NZ defends Adams handshake in Belfast.
6.1 tv News Mon 20th Sept - Thurs 23rd Sept
Topics covered: UFF attacks on SDLP (Mallon interview); talks prospects (incl Hume/Adams talks).
6.1 tv News Mon 27th Oct - Fri 1st Oct
Topics covered: Hume Adams talks reaction:
Cumulative total 6.1 TV News Mon Sept 13th - Fri Oct 1st - 14 programmes
(Note 24th Sept not monitored)
The Hume/Adams talks dominated broadcasting relating to the North. In terms of length of time devoted to this topic it was by far the biggest story. Not once did RTE inform viewers that Section 31 prevented them from interviewing Gerry Adams who was one of the main architects of the talks. This is a remarkable finding which will be followed up in the conclusion. Opponents of the talks had the majority of reaction statements and interviews. Only one Sinn Fein statement was carried in the entire period. In the absence of interviews, which are censored, we would expect RTE to carry a higher number of statements. The fact that only one was carried shows that RTE does not do what it is allowed to do, namely carry Sinn Fein statements instead of interviews.
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