Eve Patten, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub, opened the discussion with the quotation from George Orwell that is inscribed beside his statue at the BBC headquarters:

"If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people they do not want to hear."

She posed the question: were public broadcasters able to maintain their commitment to the freedom of speaking and hearing during the traumatic events and scenes of the Troubles? She outlined the difficult questions, complex history, and the day-to-day reporting decisions that informed what was seen and heard about Northern Ireland in the period. 

Eve patten opening the Censorship discussion at Schuler Democracy Forum

Robert Savage, Professor of History at Boston College and former Trinity Long Room Hub Visiting Research Fellow, explored the origins of the broadcasting bans. He explained that the BBC and RTÉ practised a form of self-censorship and noted their tendency to overlook Northern Ireland before the outbreak of the Troubles. He discussed the introduction of formal restrictions by the governments in Dublin and London in the 1970s and 1980s. He also examined the reactions of politicians and journalists, attempts to circumvent the ban, and the ending of formal censorship during the peace process. In his conclusion, he noted:   

"In spite of the introduction of state censorship, a number of intrepid editors and journalists, two of whom are with us this evening, worked to explain the complexities and the brutality of Northern Ireland's troubles."

Ailbhe O'Neill, Ussher Professor in Law at Trinity College Dublin and Senior Counsel at the Bar of Ireland, focused on the legal basis for the broadcasting ban that operated in the Republic of Ireland. She examined the attempts to challenge the restrictions in the Irish courts and the European Court of Human Rights.

She suggested the challenges would be very different if the ban were still in place today due to the evolution of our understanding of judicial review and a stronger emphasis on free speech law.   

Ailbhe O'Neill, Ussher Professor in Law speaking at censorship discussion

Roger Bolton, British television producer and TV and radio presenter, explored the motives for the introduction of the broadcasting ban at Westminster. He discussed the opposition from senior BBC journalists and their attempts to circumvent restrictions. He ended by reflecting on the challenges of indifference and expressing his frustration that:

"As a programme editor … we were too often summoned by violence".

Tommie Gorman, Irish journalist and former RTÉ Northern Editor, reflected on his experience working as a journalist during the troubles when Section 31 was operating. He discussed the day-to-day realities, challenges, and pressures and explained how decisions were made. He also reflected on specific events and incidences, the overall impact of the ban, and the significance of today's changing political, media, and technology landscape.

Such was the demanding nature of the work, that you had to be good and you had to be tough to survive. News was about the basics of journalism. The who, what, where, when, why questions. Getting the important details. Making sure you have an accurate account of them and get them on air. Incidents were happening all the time. A killing. Condemnation. A funeral. Retaliation. - Tommie Gorman, Former RTÉ Northern Editor

Following the presentations the speakers took questions from the Hub’s in-person and online audience, addressing subjects ranging from the complex judicial and diplomatic backdrop to the broadcasting bans to the differing media forms of the era, before the Hub’s Director closed the discussion and thanked all present for their generous and sensitive contributions on a difficult topic. 

The event was co-hosted by the Schuler Democracy Forum in the Trinity Long Room Hub and Boston College. The Schuler Democracy Forum is generously supported by Dr Beate Schuler. Robert Savage’s new book, Northern Ireland, the BBC, and Censorship in Thatcher's Britain (Oxford, 2022), is available now.

Tommie Gorman, Irish journalist and former RTÉ Northern Editor, reflected on his experience working as a journalist during the trouble