The backlash against Thatcher’s broadcast ban on Sinn Féin

The imposition of formal state censorship provoked protest at home and abroad

John Tusa was not a happy man. As managing director of the BBC World Service, in October 1988 he toured east Africa promoting the work of Britain’s prized broadcasting service that boasted an international audience of over 120 million.

Tusa aimed to highlight the success of the World Service in providing unbiased news and information to a continent troubled by authoritarian governments controlling their nation’s media. Just as his visit began the British government announced what he and his colleagues had long dreaded, the introduction of formal censorship of the broadcast media.

Although the order banned any organization that supported violence, the Thatcher government’s primary target was Sinn Féin, the voice of Irish republicans and, many would argue, the IRA. The broadcasting ban was strongly influenced by the Irish State’s long-established policy of prohibiting Sinn Féin from both radio and television.

As the director made his way through east Africa he abruptly found himself in radically changed circumstances. At a reception in Kampala, Tusa encountered the Ugandan deputy minister for information and broadcasting, Maumbe Mukwana, who accused the World Service of blatant hypocrisy. The minister complained that the BBC had banned Irish subversives from the airwaves while continuing to permit Ugandan rebels’ access to the World Service.

Tusa was now defensive, arguing that the BBC was independent of government control and committed to providing news and views “objectively, accurately and truthfully without fear or favour”. But the Ugandan minister was not impressed. For the Ugandan government the issue was simple: if the British would not allow Irish subversives access to the airwaves they should stop giving what it considered Ugandan subversives airtime on the World Service. Mukwana tasked the visitor with taking this message back to his superiors in London.

Tusa’s tour continued with a visit to Zimbabwe, where he hosted a reception to mark the opening of a new relay station in the Seychelles, a station that would enable the World Service to increase its audience throughout east Africa. However, once again, Tusa was forced into an awkward position when challenged about censorship at home. When pressed on the issue by his African hosts in Harare, he denied the BBC was an instrument of British propaganda but was forced to admit that the broadcasting ban was counter-productive. The chagrined director admitted the policy would actually help the government’s opponents, admitting “You very seldom gain anything by preventing freedom of speech”.

As censorship worked its way into the culture of British political life, the BBC found itself exposed to withering international criticism and accused of being complicit in suppressing free speech. Britain’s cold war enemies took particular delight in lambasting the Thatcher government’s policy while accusing the BBC of being the mouthpiece of vile British propaganda.

Cuba’s Radio Havana reported that a repressive regime of censorship designed to silence Irish rebels exposed the futility of British policy. “It suffices to say that since the 12th century when Anglo-Normans took over the richest areas of the region, the struggle of the people on Northern Ireland for their freedom never ceased.” Castro’s broadcasting media rejected the accusation that the IRA were criminals or terrorists, insisting the conflict “is a struggle for national liberation and the unification of Ireland”.

Although the Thatcher government ignored the criticism of its Cold War enemies, reaction to the ban behind a disintegrating Iron Curtain caused consternation for Britain’s iconic public service broadcaster. Such concern was especially true for the World Service, which had a considerable audience in the Soviet Bloc relying on the BBC for news and information long considered accurate and free of government control.

Radio Moscow’s English language station now delighted in denouncing what it defined as the arrogance and double standards of the Thatcher government. The celebrated commentator Boris Belitsky highlighted the damage done to the reputation and prestige of Britain and its vaunted broadcasting service on the world stage. He noted the irony of the current news by contrasting Margaret Thatcher’s imposition of censorship with the enlightened penal reforms being introduced by Mikhail Gorbachev in the fall of 1988.

Withering criticism also came from the United Kingdom’s dismayed friends throughout western Europe, North America and the Commonwealth. Le Monde described the Thatcher government as “transforming the glory of the BBC into a servile state puppet”. In the United States the New York Times published a series of editorials and articles collectively informing its readers “the credibility of the BBC had suffered heavy damage. No longer do many of its listeners around the world treat it with their habitual high regard for being the voice of quiet reason, fair reporting, detached enquiry and the pursuit of the truth”. It further argued the Thatcher’s government enabled Sinn Féin to “mischievously pose as defenders of liberty” in denouncing censorship. This prestigious US daily concluded “Britain’s good name as mother of parliaments and seedbed of political freedom is an asset more precious than the crown jewels. How bizarre for it to be tarnished by a Conservative Government.”

Newly energized Irish-American activists, supported by members of the US Congress, began a concerted campaign to require National Public Radio to use “health warnings” when broadcasting the popular BBC News Hour, featured on over 300 stations across the United States. These warnings were to advise listeners that BBC broadcasts were themselves subject to government censorship.

In South Africa, however, the Johannesburg newspaper Citizen, the voice of the National Party that had developed, promoted and institutionalized apartheid, responded to British censorship sympathetically. South Africa already had restrictions on the print and broadcast media but was now considering tighter controls on radio and television. The Citizen maintained that because the IRA had stepped up its campaign of bombing, the Thatcher government would understandably need to react with strong counter-measures.

The voice of the white minority government equated Sinn Féin with the African National Congress; the newspaper therefore compared the BBC in its banning of Sinn Féin with the South African Broadcasting Corporation, another semi-state body that would “not give the ANC and its fronts any chance whatsoever to put across propaganda” in “the battle against terrorism and internal strife”. The newspaper further maintained that “Britain will find it difficult to condemn South African media restrictions after its own ban on TV and radio interviews with the IRA and other organizations”.

Back home, the imposition of formal state censorship provoked protest from opponents of the Thatcher government and advocates of free speech, but no groundswell of opposition. Only after six long years, during which a halting peace process gained momentum, did attitudes begin to change. The realization grew that banning an important political party with dozens of elected politicians across Northern Ireland had become an obstacle to progress towards peace. Exposed to widespread international ridicule and denounced for trampling on the freedom of the press, Britain’s government reluctantly relented. Formal censorship ended after the IRA ceasefire in 1994, when John Major’s government recognized the policy was an impediment to ending 30 years of unrelenting violence.

The ease with which censorship became part of the political and broadcasting culture of the United Kingdom and Ireland is a lesson in the fragility of democracy. Today independent but often times vulnerable, public service broadcasters operate in a contested and deeply fractured media landscape. Although news is gathered and disseminated through a complex network of social media channels, many citizens continue to rely on television and radio for vital news and information. This underscores why a free and independent broadcast media remains an indispensable component of any truly democratic society.
Robert Savage directs the Boston College Irish Studies Program and is a professor in the university's History Department. His new book, The BBC, Northern Ireland and Censorship in Thatcher's Britain has just been published by Oxford University Press