An Irishman's Diary

 

Connoisseurs of the tangled relationship between broadcasters and politicians had a field day last autumn when Marian Finucane's interview with Joe Jacob about Ireland's emergency plan in case of nuclear attack left the hapless junior Minister, and his Government, floundering in political fallout, writes John Horgan.

Such matters were organised differently in the past - and, from the government's point of view, rather more efficiently. Today, it's the politician who gets into trouble; then, it was the broadcaster. And 40 years ago it was a government minister who edited - or tried to edit - the offending programme, and, when he failed to get it changed, succeeded in getting it banned.

There's a fascinating case history of this in a recent release from the Department of Arts, Culture, Gaeltacht and the Islands, now available for study in the National Archives. The date of the file itself speaks volumes: it was in October 1960, just before the passage of the Broadcasting Act and the establishment of RTÉ in its modern form.

Serried ranks

In one corner was the freelance broadcaster Prionsias Mac Aonghusa; in the other were the serried ranks of the Department of Defence, the Civil Defence organisation, and the Minister for Defence himself, the redoubtable Kevin Boland, who died only recently. The radio programme concerned was one which had been prepared by Mr Mac Aonghusa, on civil defence. It included, among other things, statements by both the Minister and by President de Valera.

The Department of Defence memorandum on the affair basically argued that Proinsias Mac Aonghusa reneged on a promise he had made to allow the Department and its officials to hear the programme before he submitted it to Radio Éireann. As they eventually did hear it before the planned broadcast, this probably wasn't the major objection. What they were really upset about was the editing, and in particular the introduction, which began with the sound of the explosion of a nuclear bomb. This idea, as it happened, had been suggested by no less a person than R.A.S. Crawford of the Civil Defence organisation, whose graphic description of what would happen if a nuclear bomb fell on O'Connell Bridge followed these dramatic sound effects.

Even before they heard the edited programme, however, Department officials had been ringing alarm bells. When one of Mr Mac Aonghusa's technical assistants had visited the Department to record Kevin Boland's statement, he had brought with him, at the Department's request, tapes of the interviews Mr Mac Aonghusa had done earlier with Mr Crawford and with the Director of Civil Defence, Mr S.Ó Faith.

Turned editor

When he heard these tapes, Mr Boland turned into programme editor, and "stressed that it was essential that the part of Mr O Faith's recording which referred to the fact that it is possible that bombs may not be dropped on our country at all be included prominently in the programme".

The memorandum continued: "He \ also stated that it was essential to include the reference by Mr Ó Faith to the fact that even if bombs are dropped on this country, present-day means of delivery are not yet of sufficient accuracy to ensure that, even in the case of deliberate attack, a bomb would in fact be dropped on the centre of the city: it might fall on any part of the city or suburbs or indeed on any part of the country and in such case the loss of life and destruction would probably be reduced considerably." By now, thoroughly alert, Department officials were wheeling out their big guns.

When they phoned Mr Nac Aonghusa to ask if they could hear the completed programme, he told them, according to the memorandum, that Radio Eireann had needed it with a hurry and that it was now with the station, where no doubt they could listen to it if necessary.

On October 22nd, civil servants from the Department, along with Crawford and Ó Faith, went along to hear the tape, which was scheduled for transmission two days later. What they heard alarmed them mightily. Not only had the parts of the interviews which Boland had deemed essential been excluded or minimised, but the broadcaster's linking passages gave rise to further offence.

His introduction, the civil servants observed, had "without quoting any specific authority, overstressed the point of view (admittedly held fairly widespreadly), that no effective Civil Defence action is possible in a future nuclear war". Worse again, "his second interpolation could be interpreted to mean that the governments of the United States, Russia and Britain are perpetrating a colossal hoax on their own people in organising Civil Defence. From the point of view of international relationships alone this comment could be regarded as offensive."

"Certain discussions"

Now was the time for the coup de grâce. The following day, arrangements were made for Boland himself to hear the tape. The Departmental memo recounts the denouement in efficient, anodyne prose.

"Mr Mac Aonghusa came into the studio before the feature was broadcast, having been asked to be present by Radio Eireann officials. He left before the broadcast started at the request of the Acting Director, Radio Eireann, who indicated that certain official discussions might have to take place afterwards.

"Having heard the broadcast An tAire stated that he could not agree to its being broadcast in its present form. It made the matter all the worse in An tAire's opinion that An tUachtarán and he himself had been included in such a programme and that it would be concluded by listeners that An tUachtarán and himself agreed with the views and interpolations of Mr Mac Aonghusa.

"The Acting Director, Radio Eireann, then directed that the feature would not be broadcast on 23 Deireadh Fomhair, 1960 as had been arranged." Ah, those were the days! Anyone interested in all the fun and games can find them in file 2001/78/28.