– in the House of Commons at 3:45 pm on 19th October 1988.
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement about access to the broadcast media by certain organisations in Northern Ireland.
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, particular-ly just after a terrorist outrage.
The terrorists themselves draw support and sustenance from access to radio and television—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 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 1987 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 hon. Members will be able to study their detailed effect.
These restrictions follow very closely the lines of similar provisions which have been operating in the Republic of Ireland for some years. 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.
Like the overwhelming majority of citizens in this country, the Labour party is dedicated to the defeat of terrorism, and we share the natural revulsion at the exhibition on television of support for terrorists and terrorist organisations. But the important task is not so much demonstrating disapproval as defeating the IRA and the UDA, and it is against that criterion, together with the consequences for freedom of speech and the practicality of the proposals, that the Home Secretary's statement must be judged.
Will the Home Secretary confirm that nothing that he now proposes reduces the opportunities for the opinions of terrorist organisations to be reported on television or in newspapers? All that he has done today is to prevent personal appearances. Why does the Home Secretary believe that the net effect of such a specific prohibition will be to damage terrorism and help in the defeat of terrorists? Has he considered the damaging way in which his proposal will be used at home and abroad, especially in the United States, to portray the Government as the enemy of free expression? Has he weighed that publicity coup for the IRA against the advantage of keeping its representatives off television? Does he not have enough faith in the British people to accept that such personal appearances only increase the revulsion and contempt felt by most British viewers for terrorism and terrorists?
Can the Home Secretary tell us how the law will define such general concepts as "representatives of and "supporting"? Will he assure us that there will be a more objective test of those terms than simply the Government nominating individuals who must not be interviewed on television or radio? That would be an absolutely unacceptable power for any Government to possess.
What consequences does the Home Secretary foresee from his necessary exemptions of both the House and the period of parliamentary elections? Is there not something absurd in allowing the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams), were he to attend the House, to voice his views on "Yesterday in Parliament", while at the same time preventing him being interviewed on that speech as he left the building? What consequences does the right hon. Gentleman foresee for the impending parliamentary by-elections, other than the near certainty, for which the Government must take responsibility, of Sinn Fein candidates being nominated in all of them?
Does not an examination of the detailed results of the proposal demonstrate that it is trivial, worthless and almost certainly counter-productive in the real fight against terrorism? Today's statement is intended to create the illusion, rather than the reality, of activity. It will make the Government look simultaneously repressive and ridiculous.
I am surprised—not wholly surprised—that the right hon. Gentleman takes that line, because I am afraid that it stands four square with the attitude that he has taken personally for some time now to the measures that we and the House have thought to be necessary in the fight against terrorism. The notice that I have given to the two chairmen today is, I believe, clear and precise. It specifies organisations, and I believe that it is as clear and precise as such a notice can reasonably be. Of course, it distinguishes between speech in the House and speech outside. If I had not done that, I should have been immersed in considerable argument about privilege, which I wish to avoid as that would have obscured the main issue.
The Broadcasting Act and the Representation of the People Acts lay certain obligations of impartiality on the broadcasting organisations during elections, and it was right that that should be respected when we drafted the notice. I have always regarded the obligation of impartiality as an important part of holding free elections, and, in turn, the holding of free elections in Northern Ireland as a crucial part of our stance there. I did not want to do anything that undermined that.
The right hon. Gentleman is right on his general point. This step will provoke an immediate flurry of protest from Sinn Fein and the supporters of terrorism, but it will deny them a weapon of which I believe they have made substantial use. I answer the right hon. Gentleman's main question in this way. I believe that the use that those people have made of direct access to radio and television has aroused the deepest outrage in Northern Ireland, as I said in my statement. People cannot understand how we are to be taken seriously in fighting terrorism if, after reading a statement by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for example, the next thing that they see on the news is a supporter of terrorism using direct access to underline or deepen the impression that he wishes to create.
The airwaves are full of points of view with which we all disagree from time to time. In a free society it is our job to argue and, we hope, to out-argue in those discussions. However, we are not talking about that. We are talking about whether there should be a platform for those whose weapon is not argument but destruction and death.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that only a few short weeks ago a television company was proposing to give two hours of air time so that the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Adams) could express his views? That would have caused the greatest disquiet and disgust among most decent people. Is it not because the media have collectively declined the opportunity that has been there to put their house in order in this matter that the Government have had to act? Having acted, will my right hon. Friend and his right hon. Friends continue to try to ensure that the same sorts of measures that have to be taken in the fight against terrorism are taken, as far as possible, on both sides of the border?
I understand what my hon. Friend says. To be fair, as I said in my statement, the broadcasters have had a whole series of individually difficult decisions to take, and I am glad that they have recently taken some which illustrate the point that I have been making. From their point of view, it is more clear and straightforward for them to operate under a notice of this sort, for which I take responsibility and which the House will debate, than to have to operate at their discretion, sometimes in difficult circumstances.
Have not the Government's own standing advisory committee on human rights and Lord Colville advised against such bans? The Government seem to have taken the worst of all possible measures. They have given the IRA a propaganda coup. They have left it open to it to put its view through the newspapers; they have left Sinn Fein still a legal organisation which is denied the right of access to a free press; and they have established a dangerous precedent by using the Broadcasting Act in this manner.
If the Government are intent on taking serious action, why do they not strengthen the sanctions of the court against elected representatives who give comfort to terrorism, instead of taking this action, which is ill-conceived, ill-judged and almost certainly counter-productive?
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the point about Lord Colville, who has made a recommendation about section 11 of the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984. That is quite separate from the point that we are discussing. What we propose is within the bounds of the European convention on human rights, which is no doubt why it has been practised in the Republic of Ireland for some time without problems of this kind.
Although I take note of what the hon. Gentleman, who is the leader of his party, has said, unless the newspapers are wrong, I rejoice in the support of his colleague, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton).
I thought that one of my right hon. Fnends might ask that. A number of possibilities respecting Northern Ireland have been looked at from time to time. Since the last round of terrorist outrages—I am thinking particularly of Enniskillen—we have been looking again, as Governments should, at options—even at options which have not been adopted in the past. This is one of a series of decisions. As the House will recognise, some remain to be taken and announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, but as part of this reconsideration of all options we came to the conclusion that the time was right to take this step.
Does the Home Secretary accept that my right hon. and hon. Friends and I welcome what he has done today? We believe that there is considerable merit in his belated action. The legislation is aimed at protecting, not the intelligent viewer, but young people who can be influenced by the likes of Gerry Adams and Danny Morrison on television.
Does the right hon. Gentleman accept, too, that it will not be particularly helpful if, during election time, members of constitutional parties must desist from making use of the media so as to prevent members of Provisional Sinn Fein from doing so? Has he consulted his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, who is bringing forward legislation dealing with the repudiation of violence by those wishing to stand for council and other elections in Northern Ireland? That legislation is to fill the gap in the Home Secretary's measures so that in the final analysis something equivalent to the primary legislation in the Republic of Ireland—the amendment to section 31—will be provided. In that way, the purveyors of violence will never be able to appear on television.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for what I have announced. I followed the rest of his argument. He knows that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland published some ideas in a consultation paper on the subject that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—the possibility of asking candidates to renounce the use of force. My right hon. Friend is still considering the response to those ideas and, obviously, as he moves to a conclusion on that he will take into account the implications of and the connection, which certainly exists, between that measure and the measures that I have announced.
Will the Home Secretary take it from me that the people of Northern Ireland will see that it was not he who banned Sinn Fein, but that it was Sinn Fein who excluded itself by its behaviour? Will he recognise that it would be illogical for him to take the decision that he has announced today alongside the fact that Ministers in the Northern Ireland Office refused to meet members of Sinn Fein? The Home Secretary is now refusing to allow Sinn Fein to appear on television and radio. Would it therefore be consistent to permit Sinn Fein to sit in our council chambers and expect Unionist politicians to sit with them?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his general support. He will know that the further point that he raises has been argued and discussed many times and falls absolutely within the scope of the consultation exercise that I mentioned.
The Secretary of State has drawn attention to the thoughts and emotions of people who have been bereaved by the actions of paramilitary groupings as those bereaved people watch paramilitary spokesmen on television. Although that is an understandable sentiment, it is not a basis for legal or political decisions. Will the Secretary of State accept that the real damage will be done, not to the UDA or the Provisional IRA, but to the highest standards of judicial and legal practice in this country? Does he accept that he is doing exactly what the gangsters in the Provisional IRA and the UDA want him to do? Those organisations will be laughing all the way to the European election and the district council elections because they now have the street issue that they did not previously have. Would the Secretary of State care to speculate about how many of the hard-line activists in west Belfast, South Armagh and Derry will lay down their guns because they cannot watch Gerry Adams on television?
I have never heard the hon. Gentleman inveigh with that eloquence against the provisions in the Republic of Ireland. I listened to the hon. Gentleman on the radio this morning and thought that he gave a very idealised version of what actually happens. His constituents and those of other Northern Ireland Members do not hear Sinn Fein supporters being grilled by challenging professional journalists. What they hear, and what I used to hear, are supporters of Sinn Fein having the skill to stay just within the law and using the right of direct access to the media to glory in violence and death. We propose to stop that. Of course, the measure in itself is not decisive, because no single measure can be decisive. It is part of the strengthening pattern of action against terrorism and it has an important part to play.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the overwhelming majority of men and women of common sense in this country will fully understand and agree with the measures that he has proposed? Secondly, does he agree that the measures are not dissimilar to those that have operated for many years in the Republic of Ireland, save that they are considerably more liberal and that broadcasters, whether on television, radio or elsewhere in the media, will not be affected by the proposals when they are reporting events?
My hon. Friend is on the crucial point. This is not censorship, because it does not deal with or prohibit the reporting of events. It deals with and prohibits direct access and its extra impact on terrorism and its supporters. Broadly, we are putting broadcasters on the same basis as representatives of the written press.
Bearing in mind the looseness of the term—I say that as politely as I can—"and supporters of', will the Home Secretary assure the House that before any organisation or its members are proscribed under the terms of this notice the House will be given details? If that is not done we will lay ourselves wide open to an ever-growing catch-all pool of persons or groups banned from commenting on radio or television.
It would be very reasonable for the House to be kept informed of any variation in the two notices that I have issued.
Does my right hon. Friend accept that the vast majority of people will undoubtedly agree with the step that he has taken? What other changes implemented by the Irish Republic in its handling of Sinn Fein might he consider? Will he consider advising those in the European Union of Broadcasting Nations about what he and his colleagues from the Irish Republic have done?
We did not work out this proposal with the Irish Government, but we informed them yesterday of what we proposed. There is an increasing amount of consultation and discussion across this whole range of issues and, as my hon. Friend says, those discussions are not just between the Irish Government and Her Majesty's Government, but go right across Europe.
Will the Secretary of State answer the question put to him by the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon)? Have the paramilitaries not achieved one of their major purposes by maneouvring the Government into chipping away at the institutions of a free society? What precedents are there for proscribing the content of a broadcast, not on security grounds, but because the Government find unacceptable the opinions that are likely to be expressed?
I do not agree with that classic statement of the Opposition case. We are not in the ordinary business of the tossing to and fro of arguments and controversy. We are dealing with two things that are different from the traditional arguments. They are the direct impact of access to the media, and the people who use that access, not to out-argue me or the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but to spread the aura of fear that surrounds their acitivities. [Interruption.]Conceivably we should have known before, but we think that it is now right to take this step.
Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although these measures are welcome, they do not go far enough? When may we expect a statement from our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about further measures to be taken against the IRA, including the banning of Sinn Fein?
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has been careful to say that my hon. Friend's last point is kept under review. My hon. Friend should not feel that this is an isolated measure. As I have said, some steps have already been announced. For example, we have announced the proposals that we intend to include in forthcoming legislation to get at the funds of the IRA. Other measures, of which I hope my hon. Friend will approve, will be announced in due course.
Is the Secretary of State aware that his statement will be seen as a massive extension of state control over the broadcasting authorities, and that it is precisely comparable to the ban on the Zircon film and the attempt to ban the Spycatcher book? Any attack on the rights of elected representatives has always historically been seen as an attack upon those who elect them, the people who have chosen to use the ballot to express their views. The powers that the right hon. Gentleman has used are so general that they could be extended to anybody. There is no limit to those powers. I once exercised them when I was Postmaster General. Is he also aware that, as Lord Scarman said on television, it is questionable whether broadcasters will be so timid as to obey the law? There is no moral obligation to obey an unjust law that attacks civil liberties and democracy.
The legal standing of the power is as clear now as it was when the right hon. Gentleman exercised a parallel power.
The right hon. Gentleman has just told us that he did. There have been occasions, whether in his time or since, when this power has been used, and its legal status is not in question. What it does is to bring into the open, and state as clearly and precisely as we can, an obligation with which the broadcasters have been wrestling, case by case and programme by programme, with some difficulty for many years. We know, and I believe, that although the broadcasters will share some of the disquiet that has been expressed by the Opposition—they would not be human if they did not—as they reflect on it they will see that this gives them a clearer and better way to proceed than they have ever had.
Tomorrow I shall attend the funeral of a constituent who was blown bloodily asunder by an IRA car bomb. His wife, who was bespattered with the blood and flesh of her husband, had a miraculous escape, but both she and her two children are distraught to the point of extreme agony. Does the Home Secretary know that the IRA put out a statement immediately after that outrage in an attempt to justify its obscene crime—a statement that was a tissue of lies, but was broadcast by the media? Is there not, in addition to the right of free speech, the greater, fundamental right to life, which is being denied to a vast number in Northern Ireland by the IRA, which is the enemy of democracy, and will make use of democracy in order to defeat it?
What the hon. Gentleman has said is necessary, because we find it easy to forget, this side of the water, the kind of emotions which are not manufactured but which are genuine, particularly in the aftermath of such outrages. I would draw a distinction, which I believe is crucial, between the right and duty of the media to report what happens, including the views of all kincls of people, and the right, which I do not accept, of people who support the kind of outrages which the hon. Gentleman mentioned to march into l:he studio and parade their support for terrorism. It is that which we are addressing.
Does the Home Secretary not realise that the IRA, and probably the paramilitaries of the other side as well, will recognise this measure as being born of panic? What is new, or what is worse than it was some years ago when he or his predecessors did not introduce such a measure? Why is it being introduced now? They will construe it as their victory. Is the measure a capitulation to the ultra Right-wing of the right hon. Gentleman's party, as embodied in the Tory party conference—the floggers and hangers—which is demanding that he do something like this, which, it seems to me, is against his own essential nature?
The conference was last week, so I do not think that it is entirely relevant to this. I have already answered the hon. Gentleman's question in answering my right hon. Friend the Member for Brighton, Pavilion (Mr. Amery). In a whole range of Northern Ireland policy issues there are several things lying around—issues and decisions that are possible and options that are conceivable. It is foolish for a Secretary of State or a Government to say never in these matters. There are several issues—the hon. Gentleman knows them as well as I do. It is foolish to say never, and it is sensible, as things change, to look again at the different options, to look at them afresh to see whether they make sense in the circumstances of 1988, although they did not make sense in the circumstances of 1986. That is what we have done, issue by issue, and option by option, and this decision is one of the results.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that anybody must welcome the actions of the Government to diminish the threat of terrorism, not only in this country, but anywhere in the world? Will he also accept that hon. Members, on both sides of the House, will welcome his commitment to have a debate on this question because of the real problems raised about the intervention into free speech, which is probably conceived as a short cut to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook), who advocated the total banning of those whom my right hon. Friend now wishes to ban from the television sets? I hope that he will be able to develop that argument when we debate this question.
That is an important point. When we come to a debate it will clearly be necessary, in a way which is not possible in a statement, to link the various strands to show how this fits into the pattern which several hon. Members have raised.
Is it the case that people will be banned even when it is not known what they will say if they are given the chance of an interview? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that, unlike the situation in the Irish Republic, hardly a week goes by in this country without some local government by-election? What is to stop the propagandists of the IRA coming over here week by week to seek election in local government by-elections, using the excuse that they are prevented from talking in Northern Ireland? Has the Home Secretary considered the media circus that will go around if that comes about?
That is an extraordinary unlikely supposition. People would soon tire of that game and find it extraordinarily unnewsworthy. The wording of the notice, in reply to the hon. Gentleman's first and serious point, is that we are talking about—to a large extent this is drawn from the Irish wording—words spoken by a person who appears or is heard on the programme on which the matter is broadcast where the person speaking the words represents, or purports to represent, one of the organisations specified.
Will my right hon. Friend accept that the logic and explanation that he has used to advance his argument today will be appreciated and understood by the British people, as the arguments of the Labour Opposition will be misunderstood and deeply resented by the British people? Will he accept that the British people look to the editors of newspapers voluntarily to understand that they do not want newspapers to be used as a platform for the IRA and its apologists?
The press certainly has a responsibility, just as the broadcasters have. We are not discriminating against the broadcasters. We are bringing them to the same level as the writing press by allowing them to report and by not encroaching on their ability to report, but denying some people the extra dimension of radio and television, by denying direct access to these media.
Before taking this decision, did the Home Secretary receive any briefing from the intelligence services on the likely impact of this decision on the flow of funding from Canada and North America for the IRA? If he did not, why not? How was it that the IRA managed to sustain itself, decade after decade, from the 1922 bombing campaign through into the 1930s and 1950s, without access to television? Is this not simply a diversion in response to the increased level of violence in Northern Ireland during the summer? Has the Home Secretary not thrown this bauble into the House of Commons, where it will be debated at great length, and with which the media will be obsessed because it affects them, rather than deal with the real problem, which is to find the answer to the violence, either by defeating terrorism, or by negotiating a peace settlement?
We considered this decision over a considerable period and I assure the hon. Gentleman that we took into account every consideration that could be relevant. The decision was not taken quickly or in a panic, as some people have suggested. Of course it is not the answer, as no single measure could be the answer, to the problems of terrorism or of Northern Ireland. What it does is to remove from the men of violence—we have been even-handed in this, as the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) urged upon us—an extra weapon which the existence of direct access to the media has provided for them.
No doubt the Home Secretary has heard the "do nothing against the mouthpiece of terrorism lest we offend" brigade. Will he take it from me that the vast majority of people in Northern Ireland, and within the United Kingdom, accept this as a step in the right direction and hope that it will be followed by many other steps to bring an end to the catalogue of violence that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered? Will he also accept that the people of Northern Ireland find it greatly offensive that the spokespersons for terrorism can parade themselves in front of the television screens and gloat over brutal acts of terrorism? It is about time that it stopped, and we welcome this proposal.
Is the Home Secretary aware that the real welcome in Northern Ireland will be, not for the detail of what he has said today, but for what he subsequently confirmed, namely, that his statement heralds the beginning of an inevitable process designed to squeeze Sinn Fein out of the political system in Northern Ireland?
The hon. Gentleman is paraphrasing boldly. I did not say anything that could reasonably bear that interpretation. I simply said that, as he knows very well, my right hon. Friend is considering a range of possibilities and has published a consultation document. No doubt the hon. Gentleman's party has responded copiously to the invitation, and my right hon. Friend will reach and announce his conclusions in due course.
Does not the evidence of history, such as our troubles in Malaya, and the experience of our European partners, such as West Germany with Bader Meinhof, demonstrate that the one thing that terrorists do not like, and will not accept, is being denied access to the media? What exactly are the sanctions available to my right hon. Friend for those who choose to flout the new regulations?
I asked the Home Secretary about the definition of the individuals whose direct broadcasts will be prohibited under these regulations, and other hon. Members pressed him on that point. He said that it was individuals—he was quoting from the notice—who represent or purport to represent the listed organisations. What is the situation if people express equally unacceptable opinions, views on killing and murder, which would be unacceptable to everyone in the House and deeply offensive to the people of the United Kingdom, but can demonstrate that they are not attached formally, or in any way that can be demonstrated, to one of the proscribed organisations? Will they be allowed to broadcast?
They would be caught by paragraph (b). The right hon. Gentleman has perhaps misunderstood the significance of the word "or". Let me re-read paragraphs (a) and (b) for the sake of clarity. They state:
the person speaking the words represents or purports to represent an organisation specified in paragraph 2 below, or"—
this is the point about which the right hon. Gentleman
the words support or solicit or invite support for such an organisation".
Order. There is a long list of right hon. and hon. Members who wish to participate in the next debate. We have had a good run on this statement and I have listened to what the Home Secretary has said. There is to be a debate later and I am sure that these matters can be raised then. I will ensure that those hon. Members who have not been called to put a question have some precedence when we come to that debate.