Wigmore September 1985 - RTE, censorship, Department of Justice

THOSE WHO seek an insight into the acceptance of Section 31 out in RTE might have a look at the March 18 issue of Fortnight. There, one of RTE's most respected and responsible prooducers, Peter Feeney, published a letter which defined the limits of what is "politically acceptable" in RTE.

"Solutions, theories, ideologies heard on radio stay within what is politically acceptable. The determination of what is accepttable comes from a consensus that emerges from opinionmakers (politicians, journalists, commenntators, spokespeople for pressure groups, churchmen, etc). The Provisional IRA operate outside that consensus."

That was the first we heard of this "consensus". Who set up the structure for this, who determines which of the conflicting solutions and theories are "consensual"? We know the Provos are outside it, but who is inside it? Is the UDA part of it? What about the British army, surely they must be part of it? What about the people of, say, Ballyymurphy who are not in the IRA, are they part of it? Not to mention the people of Dublin's inner city? How do they take part in arriving at this connsensus?

There is, of course, no consensus.

And the problem is not whether the Provos are on TV or not. The problem is the "deconsensualising" of whole areas of political debate and investiigation.

Peter Feeney is, of course, dead right in his conclusion if not in his analysis. What is reported on Radio and TV is what is "politically accepttable" to those who control it.

Example: in 1983 some RTE journalists did preliminary work on a major case involving a miscarriage of. justice, one which is now frequently quoted in criminal law. The debate on the Criminal Justice Bill began. The story was squashed because it might look as though the programmeemakers were undermining the gardai, and therefore being subversive.

Example: during the count in the Fermanagh-South Tyrone by-election following the death of Bobby Sands RTE journalists were openly saying - and only half in jest - that they were rooting for the unionist, Ken Maginnis. Not because they particuularly supported his politics but beecause if he won they could do their job and interview him. When Owen Carron won the microphones were packed up.

When there is a development within the "consensus" it.is reported and exxplained. When the development is outside the "consensus" it is reported, left unanalysed (except by those within the "consensus"), unexplained. The voice of Owen Carron is neither here nor there, the stilled voices of the 30,000 who voted for him are ruled out of the imaginary "consennsus" because they are not "politically acceptable" to those in power.

There is nothing wrong with all this if you accept that kind of society. What is wrong is when you purport to subscribe to a social democratic form of society. Then you have to start inventing crude devices like the "connsensus" as defined by the vested innterests in power. The "consensus" in 1943, as defined by Frank Aiken, was that James' Dillon's speeches should not be reported by the media. It's amazing the kind of people who can become "subversive" when their opponents control the "emergence". of a "consensus".

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IN THE COURSE of researching the article on censorship it occurred to us to test the extent to which informaation is kept from the public. In theory we employ all those politicians and civil servants and when we want to know what's happening we have a right to the information, within obbvious limits.

We asked routine questions. Only one related to policy. We asked noothing which members of the public were not clearly entitled to know. In two cases we asked similar questions in other jurisdictions, for comparison sake.

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GIVEN THE MANNER in which the Irish Business story on ACC was banned we felt entitled to ask the state what exactly is the legal authority under which a judge can hold proceedings in camera. This is a matter of immediate public inferest.

We rang the Department of Justice.

We were told they don't give legal addvice. We asked was there no one in the Department who would or could innform the public of the legal authority under which secret court proceedings were being held. We were told to hire a solicitor, who might be able to answer the question.

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WE THEN RANG the Attorney Geneeral's office and asked the same quesstion. We were told that the Attorney General's staff advises the Attorney General on how to advise the governnment on legal matters. They do not advise the public.

An official, being helpful, used an analogy. "If you hire a barrister he will give you advice on your case. But he wouldn't, of course, advise your opponen ts."

So, according to the Attorney General's office, the public is the government's opponent.

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WE RANG THE Department of Justice to ask wlo was the last person to be hanged in the State. "Sorry," they said. "We don't give out that information."

We rang the Home Office in Britain with the same question. They said, "Certainly, sir (honest), hold the line."

They came back after about a minute and said that the last two people hanged were Gwynn Evans in Liverrpool and Peter Allen in Manchester, for the same murder, in 1964. The last woman hanged (we hadn't asked) was Ruth Ellis in 1955.

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WE THEN RANG the Garda Press Office. How many members of the force have been charged with criminal offences in the last year. "I don't think we have that statistic." They don't. Or if they had they wouldn't tell us.

We rang the RUC and asked the same question. "That statistic would be in the Chief Constable's report." They immediately put a copy in the post. Eight members ofthe force were charged with twelve criminal offences last year, as a result of 3,045 commplaints from the public.

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WE FELT AN urge to know what the Taoiseach that we elected had to say about unionist attempts to ban Sinn Fein Councillors from attending counncil meetings in Northern Ireland. We thought it was something which might have crossed his mind. We decided to ask the Government Information Serrvice.

"I don't think he has anything to say on that," said someone in GIS. "The Taoiseach himself doesn't meet with Sinn Fein Councillors. Northern Ireland is outside the jurisdiction, anyway." So has he no view on it at all? "Try ringing Peter Prendergast." We did.

"The Taoiseach's on holidays at the moment," he said. "Try ringing Dick

O'Brien in Foreign Affairs - it's really Peter Barry's area."

We tried Foreign Affairs. "I've never seen any comment on it - I don't know if they would say anything. We'll check and get back to you."

Later that day they had checked and got back to us. "The Department has never made a comment and is not .going.to.make a comment."

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A WARM welcome back to the Irish Press. As regular readers, however, we are a bit disconcerted by the lunge down-market which the front page has taken. The Irish Press always had a good front page, but nowadays there's something askew. "Ouch, Minister", said the first one back, setting the tone for things to come. The tabloid style sits odd on the broadsheet page. For one, the top line of the headline shouldn't run over to the right of the page, being squashed up into the mastthead by the regular right-side photo. Push the photo up and hold the headdline in a rectangle on the left, folks.

Other gems have included "New York Joyride", "Don't Go Mad", "Steel On The Brink" and "Jamie IS a He-Man" (Ouch, Tim Pat). Our favourite was "Washout For Home Holidays", as the frontpage lead on the day of the largest single plane disaster in aviation history.

The rest of the paper hasn't gone so far down-market, except the Maureen Cairn duff page, which would be right at home between Micheline and Fr Trendy in the Sunday World. It's early days yet and it is interesting watching a paper retrain its guns on another part of the market. But please spare us "Gotcha", "Phew, What A Scorcher" and "No News Today".