The British Media and Gibraltar

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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. 42-50 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

The Real Lives affair was followed by increasing government pressure on the BBC and the relationship between the governors and management seems to have deteriorated even further. The Tebbit attack on the BBC's coverage of the US bombing of Libya, the BBC's libel payout to two Conservative MPs, the 1987 sacking of the Director General Alasdair Milne by the Governors and the Special Branch raid on BBC Scotland the following weekend, left the BBC weak and demoralised (Leapman 1987; Milne 1988). Meanwhile, government policy on independent broadcasting had been on the move. Nineteen eighty-eight was to see the government widen its attack to both broadcasting systems. This time the controversy did not arise because of interviews with members of Sinn Féin or the IRA. Television reporting on the Gibraltar killings touched that other especially tender nerve: the conduct of the British military and intelligence services.

At approximately 3.41pm on the afternoon of Sunday March 6 1988, three members of the IRA, Mairead Farrell, Dan McCann and Sean Savage were shot dead in Gibraltar. The killings occurred in a main street of the tiny British colony at the southern tip of Spain. First reports suggested a reasonably straight forward story. Three armed members of the IRA were shot dead by Gibraltar police after planting a massive car bomb and, in some reports, engaging in a gun battle. Later that evening the MoD changed their account, acknowledging that military personnel had been involved in the killings (Miller 1991).

However, at around half past three the next afternoon, the Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe said in the House of Commons that no bomb had been found and that the three IRA members were unarmed. Roger Bolton, the editor of This Week, Thames television's networked Current Affairs programme describes his reaction to the story:

I had a late lunch and when I came back to the office sat down with Julian Manyon and Chris Oxley (respectively reporter and producer of 'Death on the Rock')... They thought me somewhat preoccupied with Ireland so, rather playfully, asked me if I was going to do anything about the shootings. 'No, there's nothing left to say'. Almost at that moment Oracle updated its report on Gibraltar quoting the Foreign Secretary's statement to the House of Commons... I drew in my breath. Well, that put a very different perspective on the whole matter. (Bolton 1990:191)

Bolton set a team to work on researching a programme almost immediately.

Death on the Rock

Following the deaths at Milltown and Andersonstown, after which hostilities between broadcasters and the state were renewed, 'there were now', according to Roger Bolton, 'even more compelling reasons to continue the story' (1990:203). The This Week team uncovered new evidence about the shootings, though without any co-operation from official sources. In London 'Death on the Rock' was guided through internal politics at Thames as well as the referral system. Senior management at Thames were kept informed and Bolton told the IBA that he thought the film would be a 'sensitive one' (Bolton 1990:224). The IBA indicated that they would want to preview the film. It was passed by the Thames hierarchy and dispatched to the IBA for approval at 6PM on April 26.

The government had been aware that the programme was being made because of regular requests from the Thames team to official sources for guidance. They had also been given an indication of the 'likely shape' of the programme over a week before transmission. A special cabinet sub committee had co-ordinated government responses to the shootings, particularly, information management. According to Roger Bolton the activities of the Thames journalists had been reported to the committee at regular intervals (Bolton 1990:223).

One hour before Thames dispatched a copy of the programme to the IBA The Foreign Secretary personally telephoned Lord Thomson, the Chair of the IBA saying that he was concerned was that the programme might prejudice the Inquest on the killings. Howe asked Thomson to postpone the programme until after the inquest in Gibraltar. Thomson said he would look into the matter.

IBA staff viewed the programme the next day and asked for three changes to be made in the commentary. According to Bolton 'senior staff in the Programme Division, together with the IBA's officer for Northern Ireland, felt that the programmes summing up suggested too strongly that the coroner's Inquest would be unable to establish the truth, and that the Gibraltar police evidence would be unreliable. I accepted these two points but the IBA accepted my arguments on the third point which concerned the Prime Minister's prior knowledge of the detection of an IRA unit in Spain.' (Bolton 1990:228). Inside the IBA, the programme was referred up to the most senior personnel, via the Director of Television to the Director General and the Chairman, all of whom viewed and passed the programme successively on the evening of April 27. Legal advice sought by the IBA indicated that the programme would not prejudice the forthcoming inquest because the programme was broadcast in a different jurisdiction. This was the end of what Windelsham and Rampton were to call the 'tortuous process' of referral (1989:75). The next morning the IBA informed Geoffrey Howe's Private Secretary of their decision and then the Cabinet was informed. At around noon Howe again phoned the IBA, this time speaking with David Glencross, the Director of Television. This time he raised the issue of contamination of evidence and referred to the Salmon Report on the law of contempt which states:

The Press, Television and Radio have always considered that once any type of tribunal has been appointed it is inappropriate for them to conduct anything in the nature of a parallel inquiry and they have never done so. We regard it as of the utmost importance that this restraint should continue to be exercised. (cited in Windelsham and Rampton 1989:136)

But, neither a tribunal nor an inquest had at that stage been appointed or scheduled. It is worth noting here that neither of the objections of the Foreign Secretary had the slightest legal basis.[1] What is more important, for the government, is the appearance of legalistic legitimacy. Shortly after Howe's second phone call, the Foreign Office invited lobby correspondents to a press conference in which they revealed the contact with the IBA. Thomson responded with a statement that afternoon and the programme went ahead as planned at 9PM that evening. This left the IBA at the centre of what the Daily Telegraph described as it's 'greatest crisis since it was set up in 1954, just at a time when the government is preparing the most radical restructuring of commercial television for 30 years' (30 April 1988).[2]

The account given by 'Death on the Rock' directly contradicted the official version, which was based on Geoffrey Howe's statement to parliament on March 7 and developed in unattributable briefings to papers such as the Sunday Times (Miller 1991; Private Eye 1989). Howe claimed that the IRA personnel had been 'challenged by the security forces. When challenged they made movements which led the military personnel, operating in support of the Gibraltar police, to conclude that their own lives and the lives of others were under threat. In the light of this response, they were shot. Those killed were subsequently found not to have been carrying arms' (Hansard 7 March 1988 Col. 21) However, eye-witnesses interviewed for 'Death on the Rock' alleged that there had been no challenge and that the IRA members had made no movements, simply putting their hands up as if in surrender.[3] Their testimony raised the possibility that the killings were simply extra-judicial executions.[4]

As well as fitting conveniently with wider policy initiatives on broadcasting, it should be remembered that the government reaction to the programme was part of a wider attempt to win the symbolic and legal battle to present the killings as lawful. As we have noted a cabinet sub committee was set up specially to deal with this problem. Consequently we can see government strategy in this area as operating at a number of levels.[5] Attacking the broadcasters serves as a tool for disciplining journalists, undermining public service broadcasting, hastening policy objectives on broadcasting and publicly legitimating the actions British military forces. The furore over 'Death on the Rock' also had the result of diverting attention from arguments about what actually happened in Gibraltar on March 6 1988.

Government strategy in relation to perceptions of the killings took two main forms. The first was to say nothing about the events of March 6 in public, the second involved unattributable briefings given to selected journalists. Misinformation was also used in order to undermine the credibility of those who contradicted the official account. We will return to the information management aspects of these approaches in later chapters, but for present purposes it is the attacks on 'Death on the Rock' which are of interest.

Both the Home Secretary and the Northern Ireland Secretary called the programme 'trial by television' and Mrs Thatcher, when asked if she was furious commented that it was 'deeper than that'. In a television interview in Japan she said:

Trial by television or guilt by accusation, is the day that freedom dies... Press and television rely on freedom. Those who do rely on freedom must have the duty and responsibility and not try to substitute their own system for it (cited in the Daily Telegraph 30 April 1988).

In their response the IBA neatly turned Mrs Thatcher's phrase the 'oxygen of publicity', back on her:

The IBA believes that to postpone the programme until after an inquest which is apparently a long time away would give the IRA more 'oxygen of publicity' and would certainly not prevent it being shown elsewhere.

The government kept up the pressure all through the summer until the inquest in September. When one of the Thames witnesses appeared to retract his testimony during the month long proceedings, knives were unsheathed in the press and the government more or less obliged Thames to hold some form of inquiry into the programme. The inquiry took on a quasi legal form in order that it might gain some credibility and it was carried out by a Privy Councillor (who was also a former Conservative Northern Ireland Minister) and a QC who were felt to have the authority to gain access to the relevant evidence (Trethowan 1989:vii-viii). Windelsham rejected the criticisms of the Foreign Secretary on prejudice and contamination and largely cleared the programme, making only a small number of minor critical points:

The programme makers were experienced, painstaking and persistent. They did not bribe, bully or misrepresent those who took part. The programme was trenchant and avoided triviality. Despite the various criticisms which we have noted in our report, we accept that those who made it were acting in good faith and without ulterior motives (Windelsham and Rampton 1989:144).


BBC Northern Ireland also made aprogramme on the killings to fill their Spotlight current affairs slot. Revealed by the press on May 4, the BBC press office maintained that 'a programme is under consideration, but has not yet been finalised. It is in its early stages and we don't have a transmission date or details of its possible content' (Irish News 4 May 1988). The day before, a senior NIO official had phoned the BBC in Belfast to enquire about 'the timing and subject matter of the programme' (Belfast Telegraph 4 May 1988). A spokesperson said that if the BBC decided to show the programme 'clearly the same criticism could be levelled at them as was levelled at Thames TV - that of prejudicing a coroner's inquest' (Irish News 4 May 1988). At this stage the programme had still to receive clearance from the BBC hierarchy.

Foreign Secretary Geoffrey Howe phoned the Chair of the BBC governors, Marmaduke Hussey at around noon on Wednesday May 4 in an attempt to stop the programme being shown. He used the same arguments as had been used against 'Death on the Rock' and sought assurances that interviews with witnesses to the shootings would not be broadcast. A Foreign Office spokesperson told the Independent (5 May 1988): 'we are not objecting to documentaries on the Gibraltar shootings. We are concerned that interviews with eyewitnesses could prejudice the inquest'. In contrast to the Real Lives affair the Chair of the Governors deflected the request onto the Director General, Michael Checkland. Hussey commented: 'I pointed out to the Foreign Secretary that programme making matters must be dealt with by the Director-General who is now considering the matter with Northern Ireland management. Once full information is available, he or I will be able to respond to the Foreign Secretary' (The Times 5 May 1988).

A rough cut of the programme was viewed by the editor of the programme, Andy Coleman, the Editor News and Current Affairs, John Conway and the Head of Programmes Arwel Ellis Owen on the evening of May 4 (The Times 5 May 1988). They passed the programme for transmission and referred it up to Controller Colin Morris, who viewed it later that evening, also recommending that it be shown. The next day the programme was apparently sent down the line to London, where a collection of senior management, including the Director General, watched it the next day. The decision to broadcast was taken during the day of May 5 and announced less than two hours before transmission. In line with the convention, broken during the Real Lives crisis, the governors did not view the film, relying on the judgement of the Director General and his senior staff. Emphasising this, the reply to Geoffrey Howe's telephone call came from the Director General Michael Checkland and not Marmaduke Hussey to whom Howe had originally spoken.

It is interesting to note the different ways in which the BBC and the IBA/Thames dealt with the government pressure over their respective programmes on Gibraltar. The special position of the BBC in relation to the government and to international perceptions means that it is easier for the government to move the BBC in the direction that it wants. Another factor is that there are a variety of different ITV companies as well as the regulatory body the ITC (then the IBA). The degree of centralised control which is possible in the BBC is less easy to maintain over the ITV companies.

BBC management were in a 'tight corner' (Bolton 1990:246) over Spotlight. It is very unusual for decisions about programmes broadcast only in Northern Ireland to be taken out of the hands of local management and referred up through the BBC hierarchy (Owen 1989). This is because BBC Northern Ireland is assumed to be a safer pair of hands than 'outside' journalists covering Northern Ireland. Journalists from Britain are required to keep BBCNI management informed of programmes concerning Northern Ireland at all stages. In this case, there was some feeling among senior executives in London that there had been a breakdown of referral procedures. Consequently there was some dismay at the lack of time that remained to adequately check the programme, although there apparently was time for a total of five editorial viewings of the programme on May 4 and 5. During the discussions on May 5 which involved Northern Ireland staff, as well as the Head of Regional programming Geraint Stanley Jones, the Controller Editorial Policy, John Wilson and the DG there was apparently some suggestion that the script should be changed and that the programme be delayed for a week (Irish News 6 May 1988). There was a corresponding feeling in BBC Northern Ireland that the referral system was overweening and unnecessary. Alex Thomson, the reporter on the programme, is reported to have said that he believed the BBC had an 'over-managed' editorial system. 'To take five editorial viewings to get it on the air is ridiculous' he said (Irish News 6 May 1988). Thomson himself was apparently denied access to the meeting at which it was finally decided to show the documentary. There was some lobbying for network transmission, which according to Bolton would 'usually' have been the case. However, Alex Thomson was apparently told 'look, you've won one battle, don't push your luck' (Bolton 1990:246). Almost at the last minute the decision was taken to broadcast the programme largely intact. Some in BBC Northern Ireland felt that the extended referral process masked a chronic indecision on the part of senior management. Others suggested that BBC executives were vulnerable to pressure from the Prime Minister. This seems to have been the view of even some of the management in BBC NI

In this view, the decision to broadcast hinged on Mrs Thatcher's performance at Prime Minister's Questions that afternoon. According to one BBC insider, the perception amongst some BBC staff was that 'If she [Thatcher] had made an outcry in particularly strong terms the impression was that they may well have shelved it' (Telephone interview February 1990). The Prime Minister was noticeably less forthright at Questions that day. There was no repetition of the legal threat of contempt via prejudice. Indeed Mrs Thatcher seemed to acknowledge that there was no legal case, but simply a custom or convention:

Trial by television was not so much a matter of the specific rules, but rather a dependence on customs and conventions that had been referred to by Lord Justice Salmon (Times 6 May 1988).

After the programme went out the feeling inside the BBC was that heads would have to roll. Alex Thomson apparently had his 'head on the chopping block', but by that time he had already been offered another job. The axe does seem to have fallen on a more senior neck, that of Arwel Ellis Owen. On the day following transmission, Owen gave a radio interview in which he criticised the BBC's caution in the face of governmental attack. In particular he is said to have alleged that the transmission of the programme hinged on the tone of Mrs Thatcher's comments at Question Time.[6] The interview came to the attention of senior management when it was proposed that it should be transmitted on Radio Four's PM programme. It was then pulled on the instructions of the Director General and staff were instructed not to refer to it in public. Hints of criticism can be found in a public lecture delivered by Owen almost a year later in Oxford. Asking why the decision on Spotlight was taken in London, he argued that 'When a government quotes "national security" as its reason for expressing an interest in say, the two programmes I have mentioned ('Death on the Rock' and Spotlight) - the Corporation slips easily into its role as a "national institution" - protecting the public interest - locally and nationally - as well as protecting its own independence and credibility. The lessons of Real Lives were fully understood' (Owen 1989:28).[7]

Owen was, by the time Spotlight was broadcast, already scheduled to take up an appointment for a sabbatical year as the first Guardian/Nuffield Fellow at Oxford University in October 1988. He was then supposed to return to the BBC, where insiders say he was tipped to get a more senior job in BBC Wales. Certainly Owen appears to have expected to return to the BBC following the scholarship. He started his Nuffield lecture by saying he was indebted to the BBC 'for releasing me for a sabbatical year. I look forward to rejoining my colleagues at the BBC' (Owen 1989:2). This, however, was not to be. In effect, and very quietly, he was sacked, or as senior management at the BBC prefer to put it 'eased out'.[8] It is a mark of the great sensitivity of this story that until now this information has never been published.


  1. See Michael Zander, 'From Aberfan to Gib', The Guardian 7 May 1988
  2. Some Conservatives sought to use the row to impose further controls on the IBA or even close it down. Some government briefings also raised the possibility of extending the powers of the nascent Broadcasting Standards Council (BSC) from monitoring sex and violence to having a power to preview and possibly veto politically sensitive broadcasts. However, the government was not prepared to go quite that far and the Prime Minister's press secretary confirmed that the BSC would not gain extra powers on May 4 (Independent, 5 May 1988).
  3. The full transcript of the programme can be found in Windelsham and Rampton 1989: 28-68.
  4. Such doubts about the official story were not laid to rest following the inquest on the killings in September 1988, which delivered a majority verdict of lawful killing. In the view of human rights and civil liberties organisations the inquest was an inadequate forum for examining whether the killings were extra judicial executions and the question therefore remained open (See Amnesty International 1989; Bonnechère 1988; Kitchin 1989; Tweedie 1988).
  5. These will reflect various alliances and priorities among different sections of the state.
  6. Incidentally, senior management at the BBC deny that Mrs Thatcher's performance had any bearing on the decision to broadcast the programme. One senior executive involved in the decision making commented to the author that 'that is just ridiculous. It does not work like that' (Interview, London February 1993)
  7. This contrasts quite markedly with the analysis of Owen's immediate superior at the time of the controversy, Colin Morris, the Controller Northern Ireland. He put it as follows:
    It was perfectly proper for government ministers to appeal to the BBC and Thames Television not to transmit their programmes - talk about Ministerial blackmail and arm-twisting is nonsense. But it was also perfectly proper for the broadcasting authorities, once they had made sure they were acting within the law, to go ahead - which they did only after the most searching deliberation, for these are grave matters, and any appeal from Ministers of the Crown must be treated with great respect and earnest consideration. So we went ahead... this time to the Government's discomfiture. But next time, should our commitment to the truth lead us to support the official position in a contentious issue, then our account will have added authority because we have been consistent in the exercise of our impartiality. Had we withdrawn a programme we conscientiously believed should be transmitted, why should the public have any faith next time round that our impartiality is still intact? (Morris 1988b:4).
  8. Interview with senior BBC executive, London February 1993. In an interview with the author in May 1993, Owen declined to comment on these events.