The Committee

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This page consists of an extract from David Miller Don't Mention the War: Northern Ireland, Propaganda and the Media, London: Pluto Press, 1994, p. 51-4 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

'The Committee'

The representation of the forces of law and order was also the focus of the next major confrontation between the media and the state. On 2 October 1991 Channel Four transmitted a programme in it's Dispatches series made by independent company Box productions.[1] Titled 'The Committee', the programme alleged a secret conspiracy between members of the Protestant business community, loyalist paramilitaries and members of the 'security forces'. Citing the Prevention of Terrorism Act the RUC demanded that the company reveal the identity of the main source of the programme and when Box and Channel Four refused, the RUC took them to court. The moves seem to have originated with the RUC and continued with the aid of the Metropolitan police in London. In roughly comparable previous cases such as Carrickmore, the use of the Prevention of Terrorism Act was only considered after the political row had erupted, as part of a strategy of intimidating the broadcasters. In the Andersonstown case, considered above, the broadcasters complied with RUC threats following press and government pressure. In this case though, there was no great political row and no manufactured controversy inthe press of the sort usual on these occasions. Indeed the fact that the RUC were taking Channel Four to court was kept secret for around six months following Channel Four's lawyers interpretation of the new powers contained in the 1989 update of the Prevention of Terrorism Act.

After the programme was broadcast both Sir Hugh Annesley, Chief Constable of the RUC and Peter Brooke, the Northern Ireland Secretary asked Channel Four to hand any evidence they might have to the RUC. The day after, Annesley took the unusual step of issuing a four page press statement 'utterly rejecting' the programme as an 'unjust and unsubstantiated slur' on the RUC.[2] Channel Four responded that it was regrettable that the Chief Constable had dismissed the film without 'investigating it or awaiting the additional evidence which he knows Channel Four is providing'. On October 7 Channel Four provided the RUC, the Special Branch and the NIO with a dossier of information on the alleged 'committee'. However on October 31 The RUC, through the Metropolitan police, applied for production orders under schedule 7, paragraph 3 of the PTA, requiring Channel Four and Box productions to reveal the identity of their sources, particularly source 'A'. Following this, 'further material not included in the original dossier was handed over' (C4 Press Release 29 April 1992). Channel Four and Box, who had not been present at the initial hearing, applied to discharge or vary the orders and then to clarify their ambit. Finally the television companies appeared before the court on January 21 1992 and stated that they could not fully comply with the orders. The RUC then referred the matter to the Attorney General, who, on April 29, obtained leave to commit C4 and box for contempt of court. Let us remember that this entire legal procedure was conducted in secrecy. Only when the Attorney General obtained leave to commit the broadcasters did the story become public. The contempt case opened towards the end of July 1992, with the possibility that Channel Four could be subject to unlimited rolling fines or even sequestration of assets as in the case of the National Union of Mineworkers during the pit strike of 1984/5.

In the face of closing down one of Britain's four television networks, the court opted for a pragmatic judgement. It found in favour of the RUC, but limited the fine to a one off amount of £75,000 plus 'not insubstantial' costs. Recognising that closing Channel Four down would not be likely to change the 'moral' position of its directors or to achieve the disclosure of the information, Lord Justice Woolf stated 'the court in my judgement must accept the reality of the situation' (Woolf and Pill 1992:20). But, evidently viewing his judgement as a precedent, Woolf indicated that part of the reason for his pragmatism was that 'I have particularly in mind the fact that it may not have been appreciated by the companies in this case the dangers which were implicit in giving an unqualified undertaking [of confidentiality to their sources], although... this should have been in their mind. This will not apply to the future but is a compelling factor in the present situation' (Woolf and Pill 1992:20). This judgement has the effect of warning journalists what will happen if they are ever again tempted to put the public interest above the law.

The C4/Box case was a further departure in the use of legal powers over the media in two distinct ways. Firstly, the case was kept secret. Secondly, it was the first use of an additional provision of the 1989 version of the PTA. Section 17, schedule 7 confers powers to obtain information including material which would otherwise be excluded under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (in this case journalistic material). The criteria for gaining access to this material is that 'there are reasonable grounds for believing that the material is likely to be of substantial value' in a 'terrorist investigation' and that it is in the public interest (See Woolf and Pill 1992). This provision, the objective of which was originally said by the government to be uncovering funding for paramilitary organisations, has now emerged as a severe limitation on media reporting of Northern Ireland.[3] In the High Court, the import of this was made clear by Lord Justice Woolf:

I, of course, appreciate that the companies [C4 and Box] would say that 'A' would never have co-operated but for the undertakings and without his co-operation there would have been no programme. As it was in the public interest the programme be broadcast, so the public interest required them to give the undertaking. However, this in law is an impermissible approach for the companies to adopt (Woolf and Pill 1992:16-17).

In other words, in the view of the law, broadcasters should not make programmes about Northern Ireland using (non-official or unauthorised) confidential sources.

The key issue is to what extent can the rule of law remain inviolate in relation to journalistic activity when the wrongdoing which is being alleged by journalists is centrally- co-ordinated by agencies of law and order themselves:

Even if they decided improperly to adopt this approach they should have at least tried to secure 'A's' co-operation by qualified undertaking or sought advice of the highest level of government which should have been available in view of Channel Four's standing as to the propriety of the action they were proposing (Woolf and Pill 1992:17).

As Liz Forgan of Channel Four then argued, 'presumably' this would be 'with an eye to indemnity if the appropriate official agreed with the thrust of the programme. But what', she continued, 'if it were the behaviour of a government agency that a journalist was seeking to expose? And since any guarantee has to be given before the witness tells his story, let alone before it can be checked, it is hard to see how any government figure could take the proposition seriously' (Forgan 1992b).

The RUC did not let the matter rest there. Hugh Annesley the Chief Constable again took the unusual step of issuing a 7 page press release, alleging that Channel Four had been the subject of a hoax by a loyalist intent on discrediting the RUC. As with 'Death on the Rock' there then followed a series of stories based on official briefings attempting to discredit the programme. These appeared in the Daily Telegraph, the Sunday Times and the Sunday Express.[4] Among them was the predictive suggestion on August 9 1992 that the RUC was considering taking Channel Four to court for a second time in relation to the Dispatches programme. On 29 September the police did take action, arresting the Dispatches researcher Ben Hamilton at 6.30 in the morning and charging him with contempt. The nature of the charges were never officially spelt out and were eventually dropped when the case came to trial.


  1. Thanks to Martin Stott at the Channel Four Press Office for supplying me with press cuttings and associated information on this episode.
  2. Reported in Mary Kelly, 'C4 asked for murder evidence', Belfast Telegraph, 3 October 1991, David Watson, 'Annesley hits out at TV "slur"', Belfast Telegraph, 4 October 1991
  3. There has been remarkably little comment on these powers which have a very wide potential application in relation to the media. The text of the relevant parts of Section 17 is as follows:
    (2)Where in relation to a terrorist investigation a warrant or order under Schedule 7 to this Act has been issued or made or has been applied for and not refused, a person is guilty of an offence if, knowing or having reasonable cause to suspect that the investigation is taking place, he-
    (a) makes any disclosure which is likely to prejudice the investigation; or
    (b) falsifies, conceals or destroys or otherwise disposes of, or causes or permits the falsification, concealment, destruction or disposal of, material which is or is likely to be relevant to the investigation.
    There are two defences available in law. Firstly, lack of knowledge that the investigation is taking place or that the disclosure is likely to cause prejudice and secondly that the defendant had 'lawful authority' or 'reasonable excuse' for making the disclosure. It is not at all clear (to me at any rate) what would constitute lawful authority or who is in a position to grant it. Does it for example exempt the RUC press office and any journalist who reveals proceedings acting on information from the RUC press office?
  4. For a personal account of the story see McPhilemy 1992.