Peter Taylor talks to Oxford PEN

Posted: October 31, 2013 in 2013-14, Events

On 22 October we welcomed the award-winning investigative journalist Peter Taylor to St Anne’s College for our first speaker event of the new academic year. Taylor, who is best know for his reporting on Northern Ireland and Islamist extremism, came to discuss the broadcasting ban.

Our event took place almost exactly 25 years after the introduction of the original broadcasting ban in October 1988. The enduringly controversial legislation, implemented by the Thatcher government, famously meant that the voices of members paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and those believed to support them could not be heard in news broadcasts: “the voice of an actor” became the familiar substitute. In May 2013, after the murder of Drummer Lee Rigby, the Home Secretary Theresa May seemed to suggest that similar restrictions might be considered in the coverage of Islamist extremism. With both the anniversary and these more recent remarks in mind, it seemed important to revisit the ethical, political, and practical implications of the broadcasting ban, and none could be better placed than Taylor to guide us in doing so.

Taylor was careful to outline the various factors which prompted the government to take this step in 1988: in order to understand the broadcasting ban it had to be put back into its complex original contexts. While its introduction marked “a dark day for freedom of speech” and denied journalists their “raw material”, and while the ban can be regarded in some senses as a “child of Thatcher”, Taylor also explored the question the government can be seen to have been facing at the time – that is how we deal with voices in the media which the majority of the audience would regard as unacceptable. Clearly, the Home Secretary’s comments earlier this year indicate that this question remains a pertinent one.

Media censorship in Northern Ireland was already a serious concern, Taylor pointed out, in the 197os, when the government banned altogether programmes he had made from being aired. He went on to explain the frustrations of the 1988 measure for the journalist tasked with bringing people the news from Northern Ireland. It had its absurd effects, too, and to illustrate the latter he played an extract from his documentary¬†Inside the Maze (1991). For this film, Taylor interviewed a number of paramilitary prisoners and serious BBC deliberations followed as to which sections of the film would need to be dubbed with voice-overs in order to comply with the restrictions. It was decided that when a prisoner was speaking in his official capacity as a member of a paramilitary organisation his voice would have to be concealed, but when he spoke personally of his own opinions and perspectives his voice could remain audible. So it was that the IRA’s spokesman on food had to be dubbed, because in the section of the film in which he discusses the quality of food with prison guards (he memorably points out that the sausage rolls have been getting smaller) he speaks in his official IRA capacity.

The discussion which followed was chaired by Marc Mulholland, Fellow in History at St Catherine’s College, and it opened out beyond Northern Ireland to consider the question of broadcasting restrictions and challenges faced by journalists reporting on terrorism and extremism today. The media landscape has, of course, changed unrecognisably: now information can be disseminated rapidly via social networks the nature of the debate about how to control the circulation of that information has had to change, too. By coincidence, our event took place on the same day as Facebook announced that it would allow videos of beheadings to be posted and shared on its site again. The 1988 ban, Taylor said, was retrogressive, ineffective, and it “diminished us as a society”. The questions which surround it haven’t gone away, but the circumstances under which they are now confronted have changed as our relationship with information and the media has changed, too.

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