Robert J. Savage

Nov 21, 2022

Northern Ireland, the BBC, and Censorship in Thatcher's Britain, 1979-1990

Oxford University Press 2022

Robert J. Savage is a professor in the Boston College History Department and served as one of the directors of the University’s Irish Studies program for close to twenty years. He has been awarded Visiting Fellowships at Trinity College, Dublin, the University of Edinburgh, Queen’s University, Belfast and the University of Galway. Savage’s publications explore contemporary Irish and British history and include The BBC’s Irish Troubles: Television, Conflict and Northern Ireland (2015) short listed for the Ewart-Biggs Literary Award; A Loss of Innocence? Television and Irish Society 1960-1972, (2010) winner of the James S. Donnelly Sr. Book Prize from the American Conference for Irish Studies and Sean Lemass, a biography (2014).

In this interview, he discusses his new book Northern Ireland, the BBC and Censorship in Thatcher’s Britain (Oxford University Press, 2022), which explores issues of censorship, paramilitary violence and British and international politics in the 1980s.

Northern Ireland, the BBC and Censorship in Thatcher’s Britain is a study of how the Northern Ireland conflict was presented to an increasingly global audience during the premiership of Britain's 'Iron Lady', Margaret Thatcher. It addresses the tensions that characterized the relationship between the broadcast media and the Thatcher Government throughout the 1980s. Savage explores how that tension worked its way into decisions made by managers, editors, and reporters addressing a conflict that seemed insoluble. Margaret Thatcher mistrusted the broadcast media, especially the BBC, believing it had a left-wing bias that was hostile to her interests and policies. This was especially true of the broadcast media's reporting about Northern Ireland. She regarded investigative reporting that explored the roots of republican violence in the region or coverage critical of her government's initiatives as undermining the rule of law, and thereby providing terrorists with what she termed the 'oxygen of publicity'. She followed in the footsteps of the Labour Government that proceeded her by threatening and bullying both the BBC and IBA, promising that the draconian Prevention of Terrorism Act would be deployed to punish journalists that came into contact with the IRA. Although both networks continued to offer compelling news and current affairs programming, the tactics of her government produced considerable success. Wary of direct government intervention, both networks encouraged a remarkable degree of self-censorship when addressing 'the Troubles'. Regardless, by 1988, the Thatcher Government, unhappy with criticism of its policies, took the extraordinary step of imposing formal censorship on the British broadcast media. The infamous 'broadcasting ban' lasted six years, successfully silencing the voices of Irish republicans while tarnishing the reputation of the United Kingdom as a leading global democracy.

Aidan Beatty is a historian at the Frederick Honors College of the University of Pittsburgh

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