Newton Emerson: Move to ban ‘Sun’ in North hypocritical

The attempted suppression of a paper by political parties is clearly an act of oppression

 Coverage in the “Sun” of the  Hillsborough  disaster: Independent councillor Paul Gallagher has asked local newsagents to stop selling the paper

Coverage in the “Sun” of the Hillsborough disaster: Independent councillor Paul Gallagher has asked local newsagents to stop selling the paper

 

Derry City and Strabane District Council has asked newsagents to stop selling the Sun to show “solidarity” with the families of the 1989 Hillsborough Stadium disaster, which was gratuitously misreported by the Tory tabloid. The council also backed a Liverpool-based campaign for all shops to boycott the newspaper.

The request was proposed by Independent councillor Paul Gallagher, who has previously stood for the Irish Republican Socialist Party (IRSP), the political wing of the INLA. His motion received unanimous backing from Sinn Féin, the largest party on the council, and the SDLP. All the unionists abstained, apart from one who voted against.

I need not insult the intelligence of Irish Times readers with a defence of the free press. Instead, I will insult you with Sinn Féin’s defence.

In an article last year, An Phoblacht recalled discussions held by Fine Gael and Labour on curtailing the republican newspaper’s circulation during the 1980s, when its reporting of hundreds of deaths was as grotesque as anything in the Sun. These discussions constituted “a history of censorship and oppression”, An Phoblacht thundered. So does Sinn Féin support press freedom or not?

Derry and Strabane council has emotionally equated itself with Liverpool 27 years ago and 350 miles away. However, a more contemporary comparison with its actions is a 2005 attempt by loyalists to stop newsagents stocking the Sunday World after a UDA “brigadier” took exception to coverage of his luxury holidays. This led to intimidation of small shopkeepers and staff at major retailers, including one incident of masked men entering a shop and setting newspapers on fire.

It is likely that retailers in parts of Derry and Strabane will feel unnerved by the council’s motion, given the nature of Northern Ireland and a continuing context of hostility towards the media; a Sunday Life reporter was publicly threatened by dissident republicans last weekend. The council appears to have given this no consideration. Where is its “solidarity” with its own residents?

Fundamental principle

Beyond illustrating hypocrisy, there should be no need to make these points. The argument itself is settled: politicians have no business arbitrarily restricting newspapers. This fundamental principle was already centuries old when it was put into UK law, via the 1998 Human Rights Act, as part of the Belfast Agreement. The act enshrines the European Convention on Human Rights, article 10 of which establishes the freedom “to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority”.

Derry City and Strabane District Council insists its motion is a “request”, not a ban. This distinction is irrelevant, because its actions still amount to interference.

The Act and convention permit exemptions to article 10 – television licensing, for example – but they must be lawful and necessary. The council has cited no law or necessity, nor is its motion covered by any exemption. On Monday on BBC Radio Ulster, I asked if the council had sought legal advice on the Human Rights Act but received no answer. The question simply does not seem to have occurred to anyone involved, which is by far the most insidious aspect of this story.

How can political parties, including in Sinn Féin’s case a party of government, seek to suppress a newspaper and not think of themselves as oppressors?

Power relationships

All sides in Northern Ireland have a record of self-righteously denying rights to others but this goes farther and takes in abstaining unionists as well as nationalists and republicans. Derry and Strabane councillors appear to believe they are being progressive.

Such a mindset can only come from abandoning the idea of rights as universal and replacing it with a hierarchy of entitlement, ranked by how power relationships are perceived.

Paul Gallagher described his motion as giving a voice to “the powerless”, citing Hillsborough families (although he could cite none who lived in Derry and Strabane.) In modern parlance, everyone must apparently “check their privilege” before asserting that any rights have been breached.

This concept would be problematic enough if we could all agree a hierarchy and judge power relationships objectively. There might be a consensus that the Sun has more clout than a regional council, but things must feel very different to the council’s rate-paying shopkeepers, fearful of losing legitimate income . . . or worse.

At the time of writing, there has been no comment on the Derry and Strabane motion from any of the official bodies tasked with protecting human rights under the Belfast Agreement. I am also unaware of any reaction from the North’s vast and normally vocal third-sector rights industry, whose umbrella body covers 161 organisations, at least seven of which are based in Derry.

The question of a public authority interfering with a newspaper does not seem to have occurred to them either.

So are rights still assumed to be universal in Northern Ireland or is entitlement just a political popularity contest?

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