October 2012        

Is state censorship of the media returning?

Ireland is certainly no stranger to state censorship. What country is? The most draconian provision was the order made in 1977 by the minister, Conor Cruise O’Brien, under section 31 of the Broadcasting Authority Act (1960) and in operation until 1993. The order placed restrictions on the broadcast media, ordering RTE to stop representatives of Sinn Féin and the IRA from being broadcast. When the RTE Authority refused to abide by the order, the authority was sacked, and a journalist ended up being jailed.
     The vast majority of people in this country would have hoped that this kind of thing was consigned to the dustbin of history. Recent comments from the minister for justice, Alan Shatter, suggest that we may be about to revisit those dark days—if Shatter gets his way, that is.
     Following the republican funeral of Alan Reilly, who was shot dead in Dublin in September, a spokesperson for Shatter said that broadcasters should not give a platform to those engaged in subversive activities or their supporters.
     The spokesperson added: “Broadcasters should not give a platform or undue prominence or credibility to such individuals or to their supporters, who show no respect for the overwhelming support given by the majority of people on this island to the Good Friday Agreement.”
     The spokesperson must have been suffering from a bout of amnesia, as it’s not too long ago that Fine Gael and their partners in government, the Labour Party, didn’t support the Belfast Agreement. Are we then looking at a situation where if one doesn’t support the Belfast Agreement, warts and all, they will be forbidden from appearing on RTE? The Belfast Agreement, like so much else in our society, needs to be looked at and evaluated by opposing sides to see whether it is truly working, beyond the relative peace in the North of Ireland.
     The term “subversives” is quite loose too: this treatment could be meted out to any number of political and solidarity organisations.
     With Shatter in this kind of mood, it came as no surprise when, after the Irish Daily Star published topless images of Kate Middleton, he announced his intention of revising the privacy laws governing the media. Why anyone in Ireland should care about anyone connected to the British royal family, topless or otherwise, is bemusing.
     While there was no overriding public interest in publishing the photographs, and they were published solely to boost sales, this is another sign of the state attempting to exert control over the media.
     It must be added, as Vincent Browne quite rightly pointed out in an article for politico.ie, that cries that privacy legislation would prevent journalists from doing their job won’t fly, because there is almost no journalism here that seeks to hold the powerful to account—and, in truth, there never has been.
     Browne also pointed out that “the media closed its eyes to the social and political swamp that was Northern Ireland under the old Stormont until it was far too late. It closed its eyes too to the sexual and physical abuse of children,” and “the media failed to communicate the creeping coup on our democratic institutions that developments in the EU have represented since the Maastricht treaty of 1992.”
     There’s plenty more that can be added to that list; but there are those journalists—few in number, it must be said—who wish to do their job properly, and any attempt to encroach on their ability to do so should be resisted. Worrying times for the Irish media, in more ways than one.

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