10 AUGUST 1985, Page 5



hat was the strike by BBC and ITN Journalist on Wednesday about? It seems to have been a protest against the Govern- ment for its intervention in the case of the film 'On the Edge of the Union'. Accord- ing, for instance, to a notably crude letter In the Times, from Mr Keith Graves, the BBC's Middle East correspondent, this was 'Mrs Thatcher's banning'. Even Mr Stuart Young, the chairman of the BBC governors, who were the people who actually banned the programme, says that the major issue is one of censorship', although he simultaneously says that the governors did not decide to ban the prog- ramme because of government pressure. There is no doubt, of course, that the Government threw its weight around. It fell into a journalistic trap set by the Sunday Times and found itself having to apply Mrs Thatcher's general strictures about publicity for terrorists to a particular case in a great hurry. It was certainly disingenuous of Mr Leon Brittan, the Home Secretary, to suggest that, in writing to the BBC to complain about the prog- ramme, he was merely expressing a view the view of the man who controls the licence fee is rather more important than that of the average television licence hol- der. But when all this is admitted, there is, in fact, nothing very unusual about the role of the Government in this case. Politicians have often tried to prevent or alter prog- rammes and the BBC has quite often given way to them. In the 1964 election, for example, Harold Wilson complained that the showing of Steptoe and Son on polling day would keep Labour supporters from voting. Sir Hugh Greene, the then Director-General of the BBC, agreed to take the programme off. This action may Well have been responsible for the Labour victory, since Wilson's majority was so tiny. Not long afterwards, the BBC Rus- sian Service was about to broadcast Svetla- na Stalin's Letters to a Friend. Mr Gromy- ko said that he would not meet George Brown if the broadcast went ahead. Sir Hugh gave in to government pressure and delayed the broadcast until Mr Brown had had his talks. These are examples where reasons of state or of party were allowed to override journalistic independence. They look, in retrospect, slightly discreditable. But they would scarcely justify a claim that the BBC was a political poodle. So with this case. The Government's intervention is in some ways undesirable, but it is also understandable. The 'major issue' is not of government censorship, but of the conduct of the BBC. It would have been perfectly possible, after all, for the BBC to have resisted Mr Brittan. The reason that it did not do so was not that the governors were craven instruments of the Government, but that they were on extraordinarily weak ground. When they saw the film, they saw the point, a point which, despite all the suffer- ing from terrorism, the BBC has refused to face throughout the 15 years of the Trou- bles. The point is that it is wrong for a national broadcasting network to give a platform to those committed to violence within that nation and to the overthrow and murder of that nation's legitimate government. This is so because a national broadcasting network has a responsibility to national peace and order, and also, in the case of the BBC, because ours is a nation which provides numerous free chan- nels for the expression of views — suppor- ters of violence do not have the excuse that the form of government forbids them to work peacefully for their aims. One can easily illustrate the truth of this principle by comparison — no fascist would be allowed on television to advocate the killing of blacks or Jews; no Peter Sutcliffe or Dennis Nilsen would be permitted to appear to justify his murders; why should the privilege be extended to the murderers of Lord Mountbatten and of hundreds of soldiers and civilians, to the would-be murderers of the entire Government? Whether or not television appearances benefit the IRA is not the most important question. It is morally disgusting to accord IRA terrorists the respect implied by a television interview. If BBC journalists cannot see this, they must either be secret- ly sympathetic to terrorism or — which is far more probable — cut off from moral reflection by too much zeal for 'courage', notoriety and even promotion. The case of the Real Lives programme has brought out the whole of the BBC's confused and lazy thinking on these ques- tions, which is why the Corporation is now so unhappy and divided. If the BBC had taken these matters seriously, it would have been inconceivable that its proce- dures would have been neglected as they were in this case. It is clear that what to most viewers seems to be an important moral point is to many BBC programme makers an irritating piece of bureaucracy, neglected whenever they believe that it is safe to do so. What is needed now is not some revamping or tightening of proce- dures, but the introduction of rules, such as those applied in the Irish Republic, which deny a platform to Provisional Sinn Fein altogether. It will not be easy to frame such rules — Sinn Fein and some journalists will do their best to circumvent them, and make them look ridiculous. It will be said, for instance, that 'elected representa- tives' should have a special status, although it is difficult to see why this should be so when those representatives deny the au- thority of the bodies to which they have been elected. But unless the BBC sets to work, it will not deserve the respect which, it so often reiterates, it still commands across the world. The striking journalists seem to imply that it is better to accomo- date the views of terrorists than those of a legitimate government. If that is the BBC's idea of its unique national responsibility, it does not deserve to survive.