Television and Terrorism
Date:15th November 1987
Organisation: Irish Television Producers Association
Author:Eoghan Harris
View: View Document
Discuss:Comments on this document
Subjects: Section 31 of the Broadcasting Act

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Commentary From The Cedar Lounge Revolution

23rd January 2012

This is a document written by Eoghan Harris in 1987 as a ‘critique of the liberal case for the abolition of Section 31’. Although not explicitly positioned within a left discourse Harris was at that time still a member of the Workers’ Party - despite the WP taking an anti-Section 31 line, and his thoughts had some currency during the period.

It argues on the first page that it is ‘a commentary on the crucial concept of concensus(sic); a critique of the pseudo-professional concensus which together with a leaky national concensus is certain to offer major propaganda victories to Provisional mouthpieces’

And it continues that it contains: ‘some proposals for assisting the emergence of a less leaky concensus in Southern attitudes to the North’

It notes that:

This treatise is meant to be read in tandem with a video of role-playing exercise on Section 31 carried out by the staff of the RTE Training Department at Booterstown who simulated the realistic studio conditions…

The document takes as its starting position the idea that there are three groups who wished to lift Section 31. Firstly ‘a tiny tantrum of liberals who believe all censorship is wrong… There is nothing printable I have to say to them’; Secondly ‘Hush puppy broadcasters who think the abolition of Section 31 will do the Provos a lot of good’ and finally ‘the majority of honest broadcasters… Who believe that abolishing S31 would expose the Provisional case…’.

He writes:

The first fact of life is that Mr. Gerry Adams appears regularly on the BBC and UTV and nobody has yet made bits of him. The second is that the Provos are very anxious to lift S31 which hardly argues any fear of being reduced to smithereens. The third is that there is no possibility of the Provos ever being exposed on television as long as the National Concensus leaks like a sieve and we have no adequate theory of television. This has nothing to do with the Provos having a good case. The Provos admitted themselves that they had no case after Enniskillen. The point I wish to make and that is reinforced by the videotape is: A Provo spokesperson could appear one hour after Enniskillen and without any defence of that particular case, win support for the Provos general cause provided the spokesperson exploited the professional and national concensus which governs the praxis of production in RTE.

Subsequently Harris wrote in the Sunday Independent that:

…far from being furtive, our advocacy of Section 31 was carried on openly among RTE trade union members and was the subject of a document - which I publicly circulated to my producer and union colleagues in 1987 called Television and Terrorism - and which is never mentioned by certain commentators. Irish Independent 

And also, in a response to Caomghin O Caolain SF TD:

Let us hope Deputy O Caolain’s charges against Deputies O’Dea and Hayes are more accurate than his reference to my 1987 RTE document, Television and Terrorism. Deputy O Caolain inaccurately describes as an “internal paper distributed by Harris in RTE and subsequently leaked” (my italics). Far from it being “leaked”, I printed off hundreds of copies of the document, circulated them to colleagues all over RTE, sent copies to all political correspondents, and generally looked for, and got lots of publicity for its central political prediction which, of course, turned out to be correct that if Section 31 were lifted the Provos would walk all over RTE reporters, especially those who were “hush puppies”. At the time, my document was reviewed at length by Conor Cruise O’Brien in his widely read Saturday column in the Irish Independent. I am told there is even a copy in the Linenhall Library, and that it used to be regularly consulted by republicans anxious to pick up media tips. Some leak! Irish Independent 

So clearly, by his own words, this document was intended for public distribution and review.

Whether one is convinced or not by the argument presented it is made in a distinctly forceful style.


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  • By: smiffy Mon, 23 Jan 2012 22:28:42

    In reply to Dr. X.

    Brilliant. I must steal that.

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  • By: Mark P Tue, 24 Jan 2012 00:09:03

    In reply to Mark P.

    “Do you really think that could have been persuasive at all?”

    I don’t find it remotely persuasive, but I’m not the target audience and neither are you. I think however that some of the glaring flaws in his argument might have been less apparent to you if you had been a reasonably senior broadcaster of strongly anti-Republican views in 1987.

    His central point is that censorship better serves the cause of suppressing support for the Provos than a reliance on the capacity of RTE presenters to put them in their place through their skill and professionalism. He rambles on about a bunch of other stuff, but that central point was probably correct (if you accept the shared premise of Harris and his audience that combating Provoism was a duty of broadcasters).

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  • By: Michael Carley Tue, 24 Jan 2012 09:19:38

    In reply to Dr. X.

    Originally applied to Stephen Fry.

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  • By: Phil Tue, 24 Jan 2012 09:21:39

    In reply to Mark P.

    The intended audience is key – I was working on the assumption that at least some of the hundreds of people he sent this thing to would be not entirely 100% rock-solid anti-Provo, in which case all he’d achieve would be to alienate them. But if there wasn’t anyone – or there was hardly anyone – fitting that description then yes, it would fall into the category of Crazy But It Might Just Work. That “hush puppy” stuff is the real litmus test, I think – you would have to read that and think “by God he’s right about that, those damned hush puppies…” Not “we all know what he means but that’s really not the most helpful way of putting it”, which I would have thought (naively?) would be a more widespread reaction.

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  • By: Phil Tue, 24 Jan 2012 09:24:22

    In reply to Michael Carley.

    Ouch. Actually I think there’s a difference – Newt (and the Senator) are a stupid person’s idea of what a clever person sounds like. Stephen Fry is a stupid person’s idea of what an intellectual sounds like.

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  • By: Ed Tue, 24 Jan 2012 10:53:26

    Eamonn McCann (who seems to come in for more bile in this article than the Provos) wrote a piece not long after this talking about a debate on the broadcasting ban he spoke at in Scotland, he was part of a panel with Cruise O’Brien and Peter Robinson, the audience included most of the big-wigs in ITV and BBC current affairs. He said by the end of the night he was in an odd sort of alliance with his co-panelists, even though he opposed the ban – every journalist and producer argued against the ban on the grounds that it made it harder to expose the Provos, while he agreed with O’Brien and Robinson that it hurt the Provos, hence he opposed it and they supported it.

    I would be curious to know how this document went down with its intended audience – I appreciate that their standards of judgement wouldn’t be the same as most people here, but I wonder even so if it could have made a positive impression, there’s something weird and obsessive about it, quite apart from the substance of the arguments.

    By the way, one of the most striking things was that Harris felt the need to invent Provo atrocities. It was only a short time since the Enniskillen bombing, so that would have been the obvious choice for his hypothetical exercise where a Provo spokesman has to go on air shortly after an atrocity and try to excuse it. But instead he invents this story about Provo mortars hitting a school and killing scores of young children – something that never happened, that never even came close to happening, at any time during the Troubles. You wonder if there was some little part of Harris that wanted the Provos to kill 50+ children so that he’d have an opportunity to denounce them …

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  • By: TheOtherRiverR(h)ine Tue, 24 Jan 2012 16:42:26

    “a landmark critical analysis of how PIRA spokespersons manipulate the media.” – John Paul-McCarthy.

    I laughed at the case Ed mentioned above and at his description of public concensus (sic) after Enniskillen where he labels someone opposed to extradition as a “psychopath”.

    Seriously this reads like something Nietszche wrote after his mental breakdown. Shame for the WP that they didn’t get rid of him sooner.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 24 Jan 2012 17:09:59

    A couple of thoughts.


    The target audience was unimpressed. IIRC RTÉ staff continued to vote against Section 31.


    There’s simply no sign of submerged political support for the Provos throughout the period of the conflict in the South. And precious little of a nascent support.

    As I’ve noted before young Irish urban males and females through BBC NI and UTV were exposed to precisely the sort of media questioning of SF spokespeople. That, I presume was the audience Harris et al were so fearful of being subverted, and yet nada. I went to school in a overwhelmingly working class area and the monolithic political presence was FF as it remained until the last four or five years – despite the irruption of the hunger strikes.

    Then there’s the small point that at no time between 1969 and the cessations was there any evidence that the Irish state was in any danger of being destabilised by SF or PIRA. The closest, perhaps that it came was during the events of the Arms Trial and after, and yet tellingly that was focused on FF, not SF and the former party backed away sharpish from any seeming support of SF. Bloody Sunday, well as someone put it to me recently, clever man or woman the person who said ‘let them burn the British embassy’ because once that had been done the cathartic moment had been served up and the anger dissipated. But even that tells its own story. The focus of anger was the British, not the Irish state. The H-Blocks? A handful of TDs elected none of which made any difference to the stability of the polity. There was a sort of mass sentiment, where I went to school teachers wore black armbands, but even then none of this translated into continuing activist political support for SF or the IRA [and in any case the lesson should one care to draw one was that politics rather than armed conflict was the way forward].
    Then there’s the incredible gift that SF gave to the state by being leery about contesting elections and absolute about not taking seats where they did – at least until 1987. What state could but be blessed by an oppositional force that didn’t, well, oppose in any serious fashion?
    And look at how long it took for SF to get a seat even in the context of the Peace Process, almost a decade later. That suggests far from any groundswell of Republican sentiment just below the surface that it took a long time even for SFs supposed target electorate to come around to voting for them. In any case all this ignores, as I saw first hand, the terrible paucity of political thinking in SF at ground level in Dublin, and presumably elsewhere in the South, in the 1970s and much of the 1980s where the national issue took precedence and all else was

    What I think was at the back of all this was an atavistic fear that the events of 1969-1973 could be played out in the South, where there was a sort of mobilisation of nationalists and Republicans. And more pointedly given the direct history a sort of memory of the Fianna many who went over to the INLA. But that just demonstrates how dangerous it is to extrapolate from ones own experience in such matters. Possibly the worst possible vantage point for anything is from within an organisation that has been or is a protagonist in such events.

    And there was added to this a vast condescension as to the sense of Irish people and their supposed innate gullibility, and the efficacy of protest and movements which I presume was part of the leftist component. It takes but a moment to suss out that there was – despite the bleatings of the likes of CCO’B et al, no chance at all that there could be a Provo coup d’etat, or that this state could not with stand such an event even if it could be mounted, or that there would be genuine mass support for the Provos.
    But the reality was that there was no support waiting to be called upon, that bar highly emotive events which were unlikely to be replicated, there was no configuration of events that could mobilise the population in the South. It was essentially a chimera and one that was crafted in order to boost the significance of those who were making this case.
    Suppressing the Provos? They didn’t need to. The Provos did that quite brilliantly themselves by one after another of events like Enniskillen… not to mention the supporting role played by the INLA.

    But here’s the most important thing about all this.
    Let’s step back from the efficacy or otherwise of S31, the rhetoric of the document and the supposed conflict within RTÉ staff over this issue.

    What Government between the introduction of S31 and 1990 suggested discarding it? And what Government was likely to pay any attention whatsoever to RTÉ staff on the matter, given that it was willing to go to law to keep S31 implemented. And since the answers to both of those questions are ‘none’, then how was Harris doing any more than aligning himself with a cause that he, and I imagine his opponents, knew full well wasn’t going go down in flames during that period.

    Almost entirely risk free on his part, but reified into an historic battle by exaggerating the array of forces against him and their capacity to change the substance of what was actually happening, diminishing or ignoring that he had sided with government thinking and tying it all up neatly by making out that the Irish state faced some sort of existential threat from the Provos.

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Tue, 24 Jan 2012 18:12:00

    In reply to Ed.

    Maybe he was thnking of Aldershot

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Tue, 24 Jan 2012 18:20:27

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    Thoughtful. The State was/is remarkable stable. The most stable of those which emerged after WW1. Though I think there is a latent republicanism which now has an anti troika aspect as well as unity. But this did/does not mean just Provism.Traditional militarism turns off more people than it attracts.That is why I think Eirigi will grow if it avoids ths cul de sac.I, also, think that if the crisis becmes unbearable, the reaction to it will take on a national liberation aspect.
    While the crisis of this period is international, the form and shape will take on a local colour based on the history of a country’s workngclass.

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  • By: Dr.Nightdub Tue, 24 Jan 2012 18:28:58

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    WbS, in the wake of the H-Blocks struggle, SF involvement in the anti-drugs campaign in Dublin, etc, I’m, not sure the Provos were as much of a straw man as you seem to be suggesting. Not as much of an imminent doomsday Harris was banging on about either, but hardly just a figment of his dystopian imagination.

    There’s an interesting interview with Brian Hanley here, giving his views on the impact of the Troubles on this side of the border – Section 31 obviously being part of the reaction against that overspill:

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 24 Jan 2012 18:38:00

    In reply to Dr.Nightdub.

    I’d agree in so far as the Provos had some power [and by the way I’m not using that as a pejorative term, simply it’s hard to sum up both the military and political aspects of their influence easily and I won’t use a certain term beloved of Harris and others] – no armed group with the staying power they had lacks that. But it was enormously limited both politically and societally. The drugs issue is interesting because there they stepped in when the WP, at which time I was a member – and I remember meeting residents reps at the time who were calling out for WP support and ‘pressure’ against dealers, stepped out. And yet even then it was the WP which by 89 had the seven seats and SF had nowt [indeed WP blocked directly or indirectly SF growth once SF turned away from abstention, as did DL subsequently].

    I think a major problem for them was that there was no clear way of leveraging what they had into political representation and immediate influence.

    Now I’d make one big qualification to my argument in the comment you respond to. That is that SF involvement in both those areas you reference built the ground work for later political success, perhaps precisely like OSF involvement in the campaigns of the early 1970s did precisely the same, so that ten or fifteen years later that was recognised and began to reap dividends politically. But it wasn’t a short term gain, it meant plugging away for the best part of thirty years [and the current tally of fourteen SF seats makes me wonder what the WP might have achieved had it not split].

    But even so, in 1987 when the text above was put together there wasn’t an existential threat to the ROI from SF or the IRA. And again to reiterate my other point, paradoxically neither was there any threat to S31. The entirety of RTÉ could complain about it, but the governments weren’t for turning.

    Sorry, just to add to that last thought. The Provos weren’t a straw man, you’re absolutely right. But remember, that’s not what Harris was saying. What he was saying was that S31 was central to holding them back [highly questionable] and that somehow sentiment in RTÉ was undermining S31 [absurd]. The government didn’t give a rashers about journalists attitudes to S31.

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  • By: Jim Monaghan Tue, 24 Jan 2012 18:46:59

    O’Cathasaig in Red Banner compares ULAs breakthrough negatively to the SF 1918 one. This applies to SF now. In 1918 unknowns got elected without the years of electoral slog.Then there was a revolutionary moment. Now with an economic collapse in sight, what have we?. Even FF seems to be in recovery mode. Interesting how media moulders are involved in the rehab. work. Better a revived tweedleedum rather than SF who might still not be housetrained. Perhaps emmigration has sapped the nation of all but a bleat of resistance.

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  • By: WorldbyStorm Tue, 24 Jan 2012 19:19:21

    In reply to Jim Monaghan.

    That’s very true Jim. It is a bit of an oddity the Irish state.

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  • By: Marxman Tue, 24 Jan 2012 23:22:20

    In reply to Ed.

    The incident Eoghan Harris could be reffering to was a near tradgedy that happened on the 10th February, 1984. The provos fired a RPG rocket-propelled grenade at a British Army saracen troop carrier as it went up the Whiterock Road in a very built up area of W. Belfast. Missing its target, it slammed into St. Aidan’s primary school, penetrating a classroom wall and emerged through the blackboard and finally hit the classrooms opposite wall. I heard the massive bang as it hit the gable wall of the school, I live in sight of the school. Now here’s the thing, the class was full of children reading to their teacher, Mr. Logan and almost unbelievably, the ‘war head’ didn’t explode! Children covered in plaster, glass and dust ran screaming from the room into the arms of waiting teachers. My friends son was in that class and is now married with young children of his own. He is still recieving specialist treatment for ruptured eardrums.

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  • By: Ramzi Nohra Wed, 25 Jan 2012 01:14:28

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    The ridiculous idea that the provos were going to launch a coup was used by Harris and CCOB to justify all sorts of authoritarian action
    I remember reading something Harris wrote last year in a newspaper (not the Sindo) about how the heavy gang was the only thing standing between the Irish public and a Provo take-over.

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  • By: Dr. X Wed, 25 Jan 2012 08:33:42

    In reply to Marxman.

    You may be right, but if so why didn’t EH explicitly refer to that incident?

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  • By: Shay Guevara Wed, 25 Jan 2012 09:46:28

    In reply to WorldbyStorm.

    “RTÉ staff continued to vote against Section 31.”

    This is true, but I think the Harris type invective must have played some part in the way they opposed it. When a Section 31 type ban came in in Britain broadcasters made a mockery of it. They put subtitles under Gerry Adams, a voiceover, even professional actors doing an impression of him. (Although they never got it quite right!) In RTE they voted against it but didn’t use their position as broadcasters like that. Instead they loyally filtered SF members out of everything, even phone in programmes on how to improve your gardening.

    But I think Harris’s position in RTE had more to do with it than his intellectual critique. He was a producer and had a fair bit of say on how someone’s career in RTE would progress (or not progress). To a new RTE journalist who opposed censorship, this diatribe from Harris would have been a warning of what you would face if you raised your head above the parapet.

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  • By: Garibaldy Wed, 25 Jan 2012 18:11:23

    In reply to Marxman.

    I think this debate demonstrates some of the problems when it comes to people dealing with Harris and his arguments. There is a (perhaps understandable) tendency to exaggerate and lose nuance so angry does he make people.

    There were numerous occasions when I suspect every paramilitary group endangered the lives of children at schools (I think there was one in Twinbrook by dissidents within the last few years). It was far from unheard of for mortars to overshoot their target and hit the likes of churches or houses nearby (even if they often failed to explode). But because it’s Harris saying this, we get an overheated reaction that, as Marxman has amply demonstrated, goes too far, and misses the reality and the recklessness that was often displayed by paramilitary groups during the troubles, and especially those using explosive devices in built up areas. On top of which, Harris is faulted for his hypothetical while no note is taken of the fact that the incident is not entirely beyond the reach of probability.

    Harris was wrong about Section 31 as with a great many other things, but some perspective seems in order too when discussing what he has said or does say.

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  • By: Left Archive Index now updated to October 2012 to March 2012 – and some items of particular interest « The Cedar Lounge Revolution Mon, 09 Apr 2012 02:54:16

    […] There’s the Irish Television Producers Association document written by Eoghan Harris in 1987 and found here. […]

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