The government’s proposal to restrict appearances on TV by terrorists follows the murder of British soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich last week, the bloody and gruesome aftermath of which was widely broadcast on TV and via Twitter. It reminds us of the broadcast ban that affected coverage of the Northern Ireland conflict from 1988 to 1994; and of the corresponding Section 31 ban in the Republic of Ireland. But censorship of this kind doesn’t work. In fact, it is an assault not on terrorism but on democracy.
The broadcast ban in Northern Ireland shifted the onus of censorship from the state onto the broadcasters, making it so troublesome to include interviews with proscribed individuals that it was easier to exclude them altogether. There is some evidence to suggest that it had an immediate impact on coverage. A study in 1990 by the Glasgow Media Group showed that in the first year of the ban, appearances on TV by Sinn Féin politicians such as Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness decreased by 63 percent from the year before. Some readers may take this as evidence that censorship works but they might also want to ask whether it had any impact upon support for Sinn Féin during this period. There was certainly no corresponding drop in the party’s vote.
But we should also look beyond the politics of a ban like this and consider its wider implications for democracy and free speech. Far from protecting democracy from terrorism and political extremism, censorship allows bad ideas and bad politics to go unchallenged and unexamined in public debate. It stymies the free circulation of information, news and opinion – the lifeblood of a healthy public sphere. But perhaps its most far-reaching effect is that it sets a dangerous precedent. It makes the censorship of any form of controversial opinion suddenly thinkable and justifiable. The question any democratic government must ask itself in that eventuality is that posed by John Milton in 1664: “If you would have us slaves, you must be tyrants. And then, who will stand by you?” (Areopagitica)