The British government’s effort to censor broadcast media coverage of the Northern Irish conflict from 1988 to 1994 raised serious political and social issues, according to Boston College historian and Irish Studies faculty member Robert Savage, but also had its moments of absurdity.

Forbidden to broadcast direct statements by representatives of political parties that supported violence, the BBC employed actors to provide voiceovers for video footage of excluded political figures, such as those from Sinn Féin; the actors spoke the words in real time along with the person whose voice was being dubbed. But the British government still found fault with the tactic, said Savage, a professor of the practice in the History Department.

Robert Savage

Robert Savage

“High-ranking officials were concerned that the actors were doing too good a job, and that viewers might therefore think they were hearing the actual voices of Sinn Féin representatives,” explained Savage, author of the recently published book Northern Ireland, the BBC and Censorship in Thatcher’s Britain. “The actors had to be instructed not to synch their voices too closely with the persons on film, so that the overdubbing was obvious. In other words, these British officials wanted people to know that the audio was faked.”

The censorship law, and the degree of micro-management it engendered, was the culmination of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s long-simmering mistrust of a media—in particular the BBC and Independent Broadcasting Authority, or IBA, networks—she saw as opposed, if not downright hostile, to her interests and policies including those related to “the Troubles,” Savage notes in the book.

 Northern Ireland, the BBC and Censorship in Thatcher’s Britain is the fourth in a series of books Savage has published on Irish broadcasting, and picks up from its predecessor, The BBC’s Irish Troubles: Television, Conflict, and Northern Ireland—which was released in 2015, shortly before the BBC made available material from its archives covering the Thatcher years, including internal communications and correspondence with governmental officials and other news organizations.

The new book examines the escalating tension between the  broadcast media and the Thatcher government over various flashpoints in the Northern Irish conflict, including the 1981 hunger strike by IRA prisoners;  a deadly IRA bombing attempt that Thatcher narrowly escaped; the killing of three Provisional IRA members in Gibraltar, followed by a loyalist’s attack on the funeral for the three in West Belfast; the killing of two off-duty British soldiers who drove into an IRA funeral procession; and a planned, but never aired, September 1988 TV interview with the Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams just before the ban was issued by Home Secretary Douglas Hurd.  

“When Britain instituted the broadcast ban, countries with authoritarian regimes, like Cuba, remarked on the irony of this beacon of democracy clamping down on the press.”
Robert Savage, author of 'Northern Ireland, the BBC and Censorship in Thatcher’s Britain'

One of Britain’s many at-best questionable decisions in its governance of Northern Ireland, according to Savage, the broadcasting ban—which also applied to some pro-British loyalist organizations—failed to ease the conflict and also damaged the United Kingdom’s reputation as a leading global democracy.

“The British government was obsessed with its image worldwide, and the last thing they wanted was to be seen as making a heavy-handed effort to suppress free speech,” he said. “Thatcher herself said that ‘no viable democracy can institute censorship,’ but she bullied the BBC constantly, making threatening public statements and packing the BBC Board of Governors with her allies to influence its operation. When Britain instituted the broadcast ban, countries with authoritarian regimes, like Cuba, remarked on the irony of this beacon of democracy clamping down on the press.”

As Savage points out, for decades, the BBC’s Northern Ireland regional station had a close relationship with the unionist, loyalist/Protestant establishment, and hardly included the Irish nationalist/Catholic perspective. But when the nationalist/Catholic community began to demand civil rights in the late 1960s, and the sectarian conflict began, the BBC and other British media made far more of an effort to cover this previously underreported viewpoint.

“By the 1970s, the BBC realized they had paid no attention to issues of discrimination in housing, voting, and employment that had fueled Catholic resentment, and by doing so had failed as a public service broadcaster,” said Savage. “They tried to right this wrong, and began asking difficult questions about government policies that contributed to the violence, which convinced the government that there was a left-wing bias in the BBC and other media. This discord escalated when Thatcher became prime minister [in 1979]: Criticism of the army or police, she believed, provided the ‘oxygen of publicity’ for the IRA. This was unacceptable, in her eyes, because it undermined the rule of law.”

Press coverage of organizations or individuals espousing violence, such as terrorist groups or mass shooters, has long been a source of controversy. But the British ban was problematic, according to Savage, because it applied to a popular political party, Sinn Féin.

“Sinn Féin was described as the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, but it was also an established political party whose members were democratically elected,” he said. “Meanwhile, the BBC was interviewing combatants in other countries’ conflicts that their governments denounced as being waged by terrorists or subversives, such as the African National Congress in South Africa. There was a significant disconnect.”

The start of what would be the decisive Northern Irish peace process in 1994 led the government to finally rescind the ban.

“The imposition of censorship was an unsuccessful attempt to control the narrative of the conflict for domestic and international audiences. Obviously, there weren’t multiple platforms or sources for news like today. A two-minute segment on the national news could be very influential: The Foreign Office remarked that media coverage of Bloody Sunday in 1972 had ‘undermined all our work; now we’re seen as oppressors.’ The stakes were high.”

As a project for his Film, Media, and Modern Ireland class this semester, Savage and his undergraduate students have assembled an exhibit of republican and loyalist posters from a Burns Library collection that is currently on display in the History Department.

Sean Smith | University Communications | February 2023