Real Lives - Extract from Don't Mention the War

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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. 35-8 and is reproduced by permission of the author.

Real Lives

The legacy of the Carrickmore affair, the 1979 assassination of Airey Neave, the 1984 Brighton bombing (in which Mrs Thatcher herself narrowly escaped death), coupled with the major rows over the Falklands and the coverage of the Miners Strike in 1984/85, set the context for government relations with the broadcasters. In the Summer of 1985, the government was at a critical stage in Anglo-Irish negotiations[1] and there had been much controversy about the way in which US television had covered the hijack of a TWA plane. The networks were accused of favouring the hijackers by interviewing them and televising their demands. Referring to the hijacking Mrs Thatcher suggested, in a speech in the US, that the media had supplied the 'terrorists' with the 'oxygen of publicity'.

The details of the row over Real Lives are well known: The Sunday Times, sensing a story in the forthcoming programme, started the ball rolling by asking Mrs Thatcher (who was in the US at the time) a hypothetical question about how she would react to a television interview with the Chief of Staff of the IRA. They also sought comments from the Home Secretary, the Northern Ireland Secretary and at least two of the BBC's governors, both of whom had not been previously aware of the programme. The Sunday Times report prompted the Home Secretary to issue a press statement and a day later, at the insistence of the BBC, reluctantly to write a formal letter of complaint. Leon Brittan insisted that he was not writing in his capacity as Minister for Broadcasting, for that would be censorship. 'I do on the other hand also have a ministerial responsibility for the fight against the ever present threat of terrorism', he wrote.

The programme would give 'an immensely valuable platform' and would 'in my considered judgement materially assist the terrorist cause'. The film had already been referred to senior management but after the Sunday Times story it was viewed and passed by the entire board of management (except the Director-General who was on holiday and had also not been aware of the programme). Delaying of the programme until the DG returned from holiday was difficult since 'At the edge of the Union' was the cover story in that week's edition of the Radio Times. (Milne 1988:187). Relations between the governors and management had been unsettled over the previous year and the governors were put out at not having known about the programme.[2] They broke with the usual practice, insisted on viewing the film and banned it. Apparently, only after their statement had been drafted were the words 'in its present form' added.[3]

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary congratulated the BBC. A deep division was opened up between the governors and the board of management, with the public implication that the judgement of the management was lacking. At a further meeting of the governors, at which the management tried to have the decision reversed, the ban was confirmed. A twenty four hour strike, on the day the programme was to have been screened, followed which included journalists from throughout broadcasting, not just from the BBC. The Director General considered resigning and the Controller Northern Ireland did, but was persuaded to change his mind.

'At the edge of the Union' featured two elected representatives from Derry, Gregory Campbell, a member of Ian Paisley's DUP and Sinn Féin's Martin McGuinness. The cameras followed them as they went about their daily tasks. Both men were seen in political and domestic settings, both talked of their support for political violence. There was no commentary and no hostile questioning. To that extent the programme was marked out from routine news and current affairs coverage, and qualified more as a documentary. In another respect, though it had all the classic hallmarks of 'balance' between the 'two extremes'. In a sense, the appearance of Gregory Campbell was a side issue in the row. The question which 'At the edge of the Union' threw into sharp relief was the coverage of Irish republican politicians. In the early 1980s Sinn Féin stood for and were elected to council seats across Northern Ireland.[4] This increased the democratic legitimacy of Provisional republican politics, and consequently the difficulties for the government in removing the voice of armed republicanism from the screen. From the start, the broadcasters treated Sinn Féin differently than other political parties. On the one hand they are democratically elected members of a legal political party, and hence 'legitimate' with a right to access to the media. On the other hand, they were public supporters of the armed struggle and, potentially at least, covert members of the Provisional IRA and so 'illegitimate' with no right of access. Indeed Martin McGuinness had been alleged to be a past Chief of Staff of the IRA in the Sunday Times.

Rather than try to wean Sinn Féin from the IRA, government strategy has been to try to marginalise the party as part of the wider attempt at 'containing' the Troubles. This has all been done under the guise of 'fighting terrorism'. In the official view, Sinn Féin are simply a 'front' for the Provisional IRA and as such no more deserve air time than the IRA themselves. Television programmes which feature Sinn Féin politicians are therefore expected to be clearly hostile. The BBC's internal referral procedures had anticipated this problem in 1980 giving the Director of News and Current Affairs the job of deciding which people 'are or may be associated with' 'terrorism'. The problem with Real Lives, from the official perspective was that it allowed McGuinness to appear as a legitimate politician. The scene which aroused the most ire was one in which McGuinness was shown at home with one of his children sitting on his knee. For Stuart Young, Chair of the Board of Governors who seems to have been less inclined to ban it than some, the film 'made them out to be nice guys, bouncing babies on their knees' whilst for Daphne Park, who was more inclined to ban it, it was a 'Hitler loved dogs' film (cited in Milne 1989:188 + 190). To portray McGuinness as a rational human being who lived in many deeply familiar and ordinary ways was beyond the pale of acceptable coverage. In the Real Lives affair the government came closer than ever before to direct censorship.


  1. A further casualty of this heightened sensitivity was Lieutenant Colonel Michael Dewar, whose book The British Army in Northern Ireland: An account of the Army's fight against the IRA (Dewar 1985) was due to be published towards the end of October. The typescript had been cleared by the army, but the Northern Ireland Secretary refused the author clearance for a visit to Belfast to promote the book and ordered him not to discuss the work with reporters or on television or radio. According to the publishers, Arms and Armour Press, 'The Government does not want any ballyhoo at present about the army's role. For the sake of the talks they are trying to play this down and emphasise the role of the police'. (John Ezard, 'Minister bans Ulster army author' The Guardian 7 October 1985).
  2. This was in part due to the appointment of governors favourable to the Thatcher government. According to Assistant Director General Alan Protheroe 'There was a new style of relationship between the two boards, between the Governors and the management, there was a heightened tension and it became more difficult to get one's point across, there was less discussion and more argument, it was this building up of tension' (World in Action 1988).
  3. Leapman 1987:315
  4. Sinn Féin contested elections from 1982 following the victory of Bobby Sands in the 1981 Fermanagh/South Tyrone by election. By 1985 they had gain a total of 59 council seats with 11.8% of the total vote and 35% of the nationalist vote (Flackes and Elliot 1989)