The Troubles: A Broadcasting First
The civil rights march in Derry on 5 October 1968 is considered by many to be the start of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. The march was organsied by the Derry Housing Action Committee (DHAC) with the support of the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association (NICRA). A counter parade was organised by the Apprentice Boys, a Protestant organisation, on the same day. Two days prior on 3 October 1968, the Stormont government banned all parades and marches.
An RTÉ camera can be seen in the foreground. This camera is being operated by cameraman Gay O’Brien and sound recorder Eamon Hayes, both RTÉ staff, who captured some of the first images of the civil rights movement to be broadcast around Ireland, the United Kingdom and the world. Footage of the march and the subsequent baton charge by RUC Officers can be seen here: https://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/1031-civil-rights-movement-1968-9/1034-derry-5-october-1968/319387-derry-civil-rights-demonstration/.
This event would mark the beginning of nearly three decades of broadcasted civil and political violence, and would eventually result in the enforcement of Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 by the Irish government.
Over the next three years tensions between RTÉ and the Irish government would rise. The government was unhappy with the broadcasting of interviews conducted by RTÉ with members of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), the Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Sinn Féin.
On 1 October 1971, Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Gerry Collins directed RTÉ in writing, ‘to refrain from broadcasting any matter of the following class, i.e. any matter that could be calculated to promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes or advocates the attaining of any particular objective by violent means’.
Collin’s use of Section 31 was a direct response to the 28 September 1971 7 Days programme which featured pre-recorded interviews with the Chiefs of Staff of the Provisionals and Official IRA, Seán Mac Stíofáin and Cathal Goulding. The interviews were played at the beginning of a programme dedicated to the discussion of the ongoing talks between Jack Lynch (Taoiseach), Edward Heath (Prime Minister of the United Kingdom) and Brian Faulkner (Prime Minister of Northern Ireland) at Chequers about the on-going violence in Northern Ireland.
The Irish Independent claimed that, ‘the Taoiseach had been at some pains at Chequers to explain all that his government was doing to curtail illegal activities’, with the 7 Days programme representing a ‘considerable embarrassment to him’. (The Irish Independent, 2 October 1971)
The order issued by Collins represented a warning shot for the RTÉ Authority; the next infraction will not be tolerated.
1972 – 1976
The Ultimate Sanction
The article’s stark headline speaks for itself, with the print visually representing the dramatic nature of the announcement. Just over a year after receiving Minister Collins’ order to refrain from broadcasting prohibited material, the entire RTÉ Authority was ‘sacked’ and the senior executives of the RTÉ staff, such as Director-General T. P. Hardiman, faced potential disciplinary action and removal from their positions within RTÉ. This was the ultimate demonstration of the power and control the government had over RTÉ and the full extent of what Section 31 was capable of achieving. According to Collins this was an ‘exercise in democracy’ in an effort to protect the ‘community’ of Ireland from potentially dangerous political viewpoints. (The Irish Times, 25 November 1972).
The following year would see the formation of a new Fine Gael/Labour coalition government and the appointing of a new Minister for Posts and Telegraphs, Conor Cruise O’Brien. Cruise O’Brien would go on to be interviewed by 7 Days presenter Brian Farrell on 11 May 1973 stating his position on the role of Section 31 in Irish broadcasting legislation. If you are interested to hear some of this interview, you can follow the link to hear an extract: https://www.rte.ie/archives/2018/0504/960240-rte-and-section-31/.
A New Look Section 31
31.—(1) The Minister may direct the Authority in writing to refrain from broadcasting any particular matter or matter of any particular class, and the Authority shall comply with the direction.‘Section 31.1’, Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960.
31.—(1) Where the Minister is of the opinion that the broadcasting of a particular matter or any matter of a particular class would be likely to promote, or incite to, crime or would tend to undermine the authority of the State, he may by order direct the Authority to refrain from broadcasting the matter or any matter of the particular class, and the Authority shall comply with the order.‘Section 31.1’, Broadcasting Authority (Amendment) Act, 1976.
In 1976 the Irish government passed an amendment bill to the Broadcasting Authority Act which fundamentally changed how Section 31 could be implemented and its extent. Cruise O’Brien’s mission to reform the Broadcasting Authority act was based on the Fianna Fáil initiated Broadcasting Review Committee review from 1974.
Cruise O’Brien introduced his bill by outlining the limitations of broadcasting freedom and the power of language, whilst stressing the need to protect the wider public, RTÉ and the entire democratic state from the cult of violence. See Seanad Éireann Debates, 12 March 1975 for Cruise O’Brien’s full speech.
The new structure of Section 31 deviated from the original by being more specific and it also included a new set of time limitations for any ministerial order issued by the Minister for Posts and Telegraphs. Although the new Act retained the government’s ability to censor broadcast material through the banning of organisations or material relating to the goals and objectives of illegal organisations, it also featuring more conservative controls which could limit the abuse of the legislation by an elected government.
Under the revised Section 31, no fewer than seventeen Orders were issued by successive ministers under successive administrations between 1977 and 1994. In total seven organisations and political parties were censored under Section 31 directives:
- The IRA or Oglaigh na hÉireann and Provisional Sinn Féin in 1977.
- The Ulster Defence Organisation (UDA) in 1978.
- The Irish National Liberation Army (INLA) and Sinn Féin in 1983.
- Republican Sinn Féin in 1987.
- The Irish Peoples’ Liberation Organisation (IPLO) in 1990.
- Additionally any organisation or party proscribed under Northern Irish legislation and political party broadcasts on behalf of Sinn Féin, Republican Sinn Féin, or Provisional Sinn Féin were also banned under Section 31.
The first ministerial order was issued by Cruise O’Brien on 20 January 1977 stating that: ‘Radio Telefís Éireann is hereby directed to refrain from broadcasting any matter which is an interview, or report of an interview, with a spokesman or with spokesmen…’ for the IRA, Provisional Sinn Féin, or any organisation which was banned by Northern Irish legislation (Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 (Section 31) Order, 1977).
In order to help RTÉ staff understand how to comply with the ministerial order, the RTÉ executive would publish annually updated guidelines to ensure that staff would remain on the correct side of government censorship laws.
Desmond Fisher (RTÉ journalist and historian) records how the original RTÉ guidelines enforced a strict referencing-upwards system where staff were required to seek instructions ‘at the appropriate level’ if unsure about their ‘particular responsibilities’. (Desmond Fisher, Broadcasting in Ireland (London, 1978), p. 67.)
These guidelines were to ‘assist’ RTÉ staff and that they were ‘not intended to put obstacles in the way of RTÉ staff professionally concerned with news and current affairs programmes maintaining normal professional contacts’ (RTÉ, Broadcasting Guidelines for RTÉ Personnel (Dublin, 1989, pp. 59-61). However, the guidelines also stated that where ‘individuals (who) [were] deemed to have disregarded the guidelines or to have been careless in observing them’ were subject to serious disciplinary action, such as the termination of their contract at RTÉ. (RTÉ, Broadcasting Guidelines for RTÉ Personnel (Dublin, 1989, p. 61).
Despite these guidelines, Section 31 restrictions made reporting about the Troubles very difficult. These issues were only made worse by divisions within RTÉ, breaches of the ministerial orders and the all-encompassing nature of the Section 31 broadcasting limitations.
Exemptions, Protests and Breaches
Serious issues with the implementation of Section 31 began to emerge by the early 1980s. The blanket censorship of everything to do with organisations with like Sinn Féin, the IRA, or anyone mentioned within the Section 31 orders prevented RTÉ from broadcasting significant amounts of material or from fully reporting on events both related to, and not related to the Troubles.
An example of this was the Robert Kee documentary series Ireland: A Television History (1980) which had to receive special permission from the government to be broadcast in full by RTÉ. The accompanying clip is a Youtube upload of the series and you can watch the entire documentary there by following the playlist.
Additionally, Section 31 also impacted upon news and current affairs pieces relating to Concerned Parents Against Addiction and Gay Health Action due to the presence of Sinn Féin members within those groups. See the following link as an example of a programme breaching Section 31 despite the content of the programme having nothing to do with the Troubles, Sinn Féin or any other prohibited organisation: https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21272299-section-31-rt-breach/
Whilst some exceptions were made regarding the degree to which RTÉ had to follow Section 31 orders, there were several instances where the Irish government were not as lenient.
The Irish government made several political decisions during the 1980s which prevented RTÉ from broadcasting certain material by enforcing Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. Minister for Posts and Telegraphs Patrick Cooney issued a second Section 31 ministerial order on 9 February 1982 preventing RTÉ from broadcasting a two minute party political broadcasts by Provisional Sinn Féin on radio and television in the run-up to the February 1982 General Election (see the resulting news report by RTÉ here). This would not be the last occurrence of the Irish government enforcing censorship laws on RTÉ.
Several appeals would be made to the Irish government to end the ban, particularly in relation to the coverage of election news and issues related to the ongoing Troubles. (See the following two links: https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21236689-section-31-general-election/ https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21238704-section-31-renewed/ for reports on protests following the renewal of Section 31 on 19 January 1987). This resulted in RTÉ being prohibited from interviewing successful election candidates both sides of the Border throughout the Troubles.
1988 marked the full extent of the impact of Section within RTÉ with the removal of a journalist from RTÉ’s staff over a technical error. Jenny McGeever was suspended, and eventually released from her contract with the broadcaster, following the inclusion of a sound clip from Martin McGuinness (which was forbidden under Section 31) in a report for RTÉ’s Morning Ireland radio programme on 15 March 1988. In the context of the Troubles, the clip of McGuinness was not of a political nature as it was simply him giving instructions to funeral goers but, under Section 31, McGuinness himself was censored, meaning any interview, sound recording or political broadcast was illegal. The disciplinary response to McGeever’s breach and the lack of response by the NUJ highlight the complex nature of Section 31 and its role within RTÉ broadcasting culture. (For more information, you can follow the link: https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21272270-dismissal-over-section-31/)
Disagreements within RTÉ over the use of Section 31 and how to police it can be seen in the contrasting work of Betty Purcell and Eoghan Harris. As the quote below shows Purrcell was a critic of Section 31 and the workplace atmosphere that was derived from following it with stringent guidelines and protocols. Harris meanwhile represents the alternative position, backing the use of Section 31 in broadcasting. His position as a member of the ‘Stickies’ (a person who was a member of the Workers’ Party working in RTÉ who remained sympathetic to the ideals of ‘Official’ Sinn Féin and wanted to limit the the broadcasting influence of the PIRA and those who supported other republican factions) from can be seen in his article ‘Television and Terrorism’, published on 15 November 1987 at https://www.leftarchive.ie/document/470/.
‘The McGeever case shows the extent of compliance with Section 31. People were shocked that any broadcaster might break the ban. The extent of their horror underlines another aspect of the directive . People err on the cautious side where there is doubt. Whole neighbourhoods of people were silenced because they are too close to a possibility of breaking the ban. The question is not, ‘Who is in Sinn Féin?’ but, ‘Who is definitely not in Sinn Féin?’Betty Purcell (former RTÉ journalist), ‘The Silence in Irish Broadcasting’ in War and Words: The Northern Ireland Media Reader, ed. Bill Rolston and David Miller (Belfast, 1996), pp. 261-262.
The Final Years and the Peace Process
In 1989 a court case was taken against the Irish government and Section 31 by eighteen journalists and producers in RTÉ, arguing that Section 31 restrictions were in breach of Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights. This was not the first court case to be taken against Section 31 (that was in 1982 when the Irish Supreme Court upheld the use of Section 31to ban on Sinn Féin from broadcasting material on RTÉ or on through any other Irish media broadcaster in The State (Lynch) v Cooney), but it was the first to bring to light documentation within RTÉ which cast an unflattering light over Section 31 directives and their operation within the broadcasters daily production of news and current affairs programming. The action, Purcell v Ireland, failed in 1991 after the European Commission of Human Rights upheld the use of Section 31.
The case was motivated by a corresponding British high court case, and subsequent House of Lords appeal, against the BBC Broadcasting Ban taken by British NUJ members in 1989. It was also inspired by on a 1987 report by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) which was highly critical of Section 31 (see the link for an interview with Hans Larsen, President of the IFJ: https://www.rte.ie/archives/collections/news/21253809-ifj-criticise-section-31/).
These cases and reports rejecting Section 31 and the censorship of Irish media broadcasting highlighted increasing levels of public support for the lifting of the broadcasting ban. 1993 saw trade unionist Larry O’Toole successfully challenge the use of Section 31 in an Irish Supreme Court appeal brought by RTÉ after he was banned from being interviewed by the broadcaster about the trade union dispute and strike at the Gateaux bakery in Finglas in 1990 (see Irish Times, 18 May 1998).
The last person to be censored by Section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960 was O’Toole, who was banned from appearing in a joint RTÉ/Channel Four programme on the Northern Ireland conflict, chaired by Channel Four’s John Snow. RTÉ would not permit O’Toole appearing on the show as he had been chosen as a Sinn Féin candidate in European elections to be held five months later (see Niall Meehan’s Sunday Business Post article on 20 April 2003, available to view at: https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/othelem/media/meehan/meehan03.htm.
On midnight 19 January 1994, the ministerial order under Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act, 1960 was allowed lapse by Minister for Arts, Culture and the Gaeltacht, Michael D. Higgins, ending the censorship of Irish broadcasting material related to Sinn Féin, the IRA and other such organizations. The ban was lifted six months prior to the announcement of the IRA Ceasefire on 31 August 1994 (see RTÉ’s report here: https://www.rte.ie/archives/exhibitions/681-history-of-rte/707-rte-1990s/289696-ira-announce-ceasefire/). This allowed for an easing of tensions between RTÉ, the Irish government and previously banned organisations and political parties, and helped to facilitate the beginning of the lengthy Peace process in Northern Ireland.
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Curtis, Liz. Ireland, the Propaganda War: The British Media and the ‘Battle for Hearts and Minds’. Belfast, 1998.
Fisher, Desmond. Broadcasting in Ireland. London, 1978.
Fisher, Desmond. ‘Getting Tough with RTÉ’. In Political Censorship and the Democratic State: The Irish Broadcasting Ban, edited by Mary P. Corcoran and Mark O’Brien, pp. 61-72. Dublin, 2005.
Harris, Eoghan. Television and Terrorism. Dublin, 1987.
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Kenny, Colum. ‘Censorship, not Self-Censorship’. In Political Censorship and the Democratic State: The Irish Broadcasting Ban, edited by Mary P. Corcoran and Mark O’Brien, pp. 73-85. Dublin, 2005.
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If you are interested in learning and exploring more media and sources related to the Troubles and Section 31, please follow the links below:
- BBC Ten Chapters of the Northern Ireland Troubles https://canvas-story.bbcrewind.co.uk/troubled-times/
- CAIN Archive https://cain.ulster.ac.uk/index.html
- Irish Election Literature https://irishelectionliterature.com/
- Irish Newspaper Archive https://www.irishnewsarchive.com/
- RTÉ Archive https://www.rte.ie/archives/category/archives/
- RTÉ Stills Library https://stillslibrary.rte.ie/
- Shooting the Darkness, RTÉ Documentary on photographers and their photos during the Troubles https://www.rte.ie/player/movie/shooting-the-darkness/90668584276
- The Irish Times Archive https://www.irishtimes.com/archive
- The Left Archive https://www.leftarchive.ie/