January 14, 2014

Ed Moloney - Censorship extended the Troubles by up to a decade

The Irish journalist Ed Moloney wrote in the Nieman Reports of Hardvard University here. He started with a brief historical sweep:
"Censorship has a long if not very honorable place in Irish history. The British imposed press controls during the 1919-21 war of independence, as did the pro-Treaty side in the subsequent Irish civil war. Newspapers were forbidden, for instance, to use words like “guerilla” to describe opponents of the new Irish government. Censorship lived on after the early Troubles. In the south of Ireland it took a less political and more religious form. The state censor was allowed to ban books and films on moral grounds, i.e. when they offended Catholic doctrine or values. 
In Northern Ireland censorship remained entirely political. In the 1920’s the pro-British Unionist government passed the Special Powers Act, a draconian piece of legislation which gave the police the authority to ban any dubious expression of political thinking and to imprison those responsible.
He explained the roots of modern censorship:
"Modern censorship in Ireland has its roots in the Northern conflict which erupted in 1970 and was to last for a quarter of a century. It was the government in Dublin that acted first. Alarmed by the rising violence and the widespread public acquiescence in the IRA’s activities and acting on the advice of Conor Cruise O’Brien, among others, it amended the Broadcasting Act in 1976 to control Irish radio and television coverage of the Troubles. Section 31, as it became known, made it an offense for any station to broadcast the spoken words of members of proscribed organizations, prime amongst them being, of course, the IRA and Sinn Fein. 
The British were slower to act in such an open fashion. The early years of the conflict saw informal attempts to control coverage of the violence. In the BBC, for instance, every single program about Northern Ireland had to be vetted by top management before being aired. It wasn’t until 1988 that Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced regulations similar to those in the Irish Republic and censorship became formal." 
On the breaking of the censorship habit in Ireland and Britain, he said:
"There was very little resistance from the media to all this. Section 31 went unchallenged by Irish journalists. It wasn’t until 1988 that angry British journalists decided that Margaret Thatcher’s censorship law must be contested. Their resolution shamed their Irish colleagues into following suit. While the censorship laws did not legally apply to newspapers, they did in practice. The way that this worked could become a model for other conflict situations."
On self-censorship:
"Censorship of the electronic media helped create an atmosphere in which it became career-threateningly dangerous for any and all reporters to delve into certain areas. As a result, self-imposed censorship thrived. 
Self censorship applied mostly to coverage of the IRA and Sinn Fein, but its impact was also observed with coverage of other subjects which members of the press should have been probing in depth such as allegations of serious miscarriages of justice. The Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, and other innocent Irish people convicted of the most terrible bombings in Britain were eventually freed after commendable television investigations. Most of the evidence that set them free was available during their trials but 15 years were to pass before the media plucked up the courage to examine it. 
When I started my life as a journalist working for Dublin newspapers the conventional view was that if you wanted to write about the Birmingham Six or Guildford Four that was tantamount to saying you were a fellow traveler of the IRA. It was the same if you wanted to write about the IRA. The reasoning was very simple and went like this: You had to be a fellow traveler because how else could you write about such people unless you talked to them like they were human beings and not the mindless monsters they undoubtedly were. And if you did that, then you must secretly sympathize with them. It was media McCarthyism Irish-style." 
Ed Moloney explained how limited state censorship helped spawn all-embracing self-censorship:
"Not surprisingly, many journalists decided that in the interests of their careers and families it would be wiser to steer clear of such subjects. And so out of a limited form of state censorship there grew an all-embracing self censorship." 
Ed Moloney explained that the architects of the censorship laws did so under the premise that such laws would prevent people joining or supporting terrorist groups:
"Supporters of censorship claim that it helped curb support for violent groups like the IRA." 
Ed Moloney dissented:
"Perhaps they are right, although I suspect that censorship, like Prohibition, only made the forbidden more alluring."
Ed Moloney then asked: "What impact did press censorship have on the search for a peaceful settlement of the Irish Troubles?" He said:
"My view is that censorship probably extended the life of the Troubles by as much as a third and that people died unnecessarily because of it. I say this because what censorship did was prevent the media from explaining events fully. One result was that public and government understanding was less than it should have been. When, for instance, Sinn Fein, the IRA’s political wing, was successful in fighting elections in the early 1980’s, the full importance of this development was completely misunderstood. Uninformed and even misinformed about thinking inside Sinn Fein, the alarmed reaction of public and government alike was to intensify censorship by boycotting and isolating people like Gerry Adams. 
The British and Irish governments now know, of course, that Sinn Fein was at that point starting out on a journey whose inevitable destination was the present peace process. They didn’t know it then because the media weren’t permitted to find out and tell them. The media weren’t able to tell them because most reporters never talked to Sinn Fein. They didn’t talk to Sinn Fein because they were terrified of the personal consequences."
Moloney concluded with a reflective, what-could-have-been note:
"Sinn Fein’s journey lasted nearly two decades. But how much quicker would it have been if people had been more fully informed about what was going on inside its ranks? How many more people would now be alive if nearly 20 years ago governments had realized they had a chance to show Sinn Fein that politics was preferable to violence?"
"Some might think that it is long overdue and, in particular, that reporters and editors should start to ponder whether acquiescence in the censorship of the Troubles only made the violence last longer."
Read the article in full, here. My blog post on thought crimes with Christopher Hitchens, here. On Fintan O'Toole and Ireland's censorship board, click here. On self-censorship as the worst form of censorship, see here. On the student culture of censorship here. On censorship being at it's worst when no-one admits it exists, via Nick Cohen in The Spectator, here. On the need for the First Amendment in Britain, see here.
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