Nearly two weeks ago, the governing board of the British Broadcasting Corporation, with a heavy shove from the Thatcher government that appointed it, ordered a scheduled television documentary about Northern Ireland off the air on grounds it would encourage terrorists.
The BBC management, which is supposed to exercise such editorial control, objected to this infringement of its prerogatives and threatened resignation.
BBC journalists cried censorship and called a day-long broadcasting strike. For 24 hours on Wednesday, British radio and television carried no news programs.
There are a number of important, interesting and portentous aspects to the controversy. Many governments -- particularly our own -- and many citizens clearly believe that the media unwittingly play a role in promoting terrorism by providing a platform for dissemination of terrorist views and deeds. As they struggle to deal with a rising tide of violence, they may come to see the British solution as a viable one.
Precedents have no doubt been set in the last two weeks. But it is worthwhile noting that neither the substance of the documentary itself nor the British government's attempt to censor a broadcast are new here. More than a fight over coverage of contemporary terrorism, the battle is an internal one occurring in the context of more general disagreements between Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the BBC.
At the same time, the traditional relationship between British government and the British media is somewhat different from our own. For the journalists here, the issue has been one not so much of freedom from government censorship as a demand that the government clarify the rules of what is not allowed.
What has happened in Britain provides a poor model for either the U.S. government or American journalists in their struggles to deal with problems of the sort recently posed in Beirut.
The offending BBC documentary is the story, told in their own words, of two Northern Irishmen. One is a Catholic who considers the British an illegal occupying force in the province and wants them out.
He believes the only way to achieve this is through violence and terrorism that will make the cost of staying on too high for Britain. The program strongly suggests what many in the government believe but cannot prove -- that this man is a senior activist in the Irish Republican Army, the main anti- British terrorist organization held responsible for 2,500 deaths in the last 16 years.
The other man is a Protestant who thinks his country should remain part of the United Kingdom and believes the only way to do this and to restore peace is to kill all the IRA. If the British won't do it, he says, he is willing to do it himself.
In scenes showing them with their families, in their communities and in church, the point is made that both the suspected killer and the potential one are in other ways normal people. They just happen to hate each other with a passion that clearly is beyond compromise.
It is all pretty standard fare for British television viewers. Not even the protagonists are new -- both men are frequently quoted in newspapers and have appeared often on television and radio.
Similarly, there are numerous past examples of a British government trying to stop or alter BBC programs about Northern Ireland. Past governments, however, have used more subtle means than Home Secretary Leon Brittan's public letter to the board branding the documentary a threat to national security and "requesting" that it not be shown. The more usual procedure is a quiet telephone call suggesting that the BBC might want to think again.
Most, although not all, of these previous efforts have been unsuccessful. The BBC may be a state-owned corporation, but in that peculiarly masochistic British way, it was set up by the government in 1927 at least in part to provide independent criticism of the government itself. The board of governors, and the editorial charge given its managers, are part of an elaborate system of buffers designed to preserve the BBCs integrity in the face of inevitable government pressure.
Thatcher has long been at odds with the BBC. A proponent of less rather than more government involvement in business, she has appointed a committee to study BBC funding and see if it wouldn't work better if paid for by commercial advertising rather than the government-set and collected public licensing fee that now provides the entire corporation budget. This year she cut the BBC's license fee increase request in half, and the corporation has said it will have to fire at least 4,000 people.
At the same time, she has criticized it for being too independent from what the government thinks is best. Ever since the BBC interviewed a man whose organization claimed responsibility for the murder of one of Thatcher's closest political associates in a Northern Ireland-related bomb attack six years ago, she has voiced concern about the way it covers the troubled province.
Many at the BBC believe, rightly or wrongly, that Thatcher is out to get them. The proof, they say, is in the funding study, the ongoing public criticisms and the fact that she has appointed a governing board that is no buffer at all, but a group of lackeys whose subservience has been proved by its unprecedented cave-in to Brittan's "request." Additionally, they say, the banned documentary gave an increasingly unpopular Thatcher government a chance to burnish the get-tough domestic and international image that has served it so well in the past.
But if the Thatcher government's relationship with the BBC makes its resolution of the current controversy inapplicable to American problems, so too do British journalistic traditions. When asked, many reporters, editors and government officials here agree that the adversary relationship that American reporters consider an integral part of their jobs is not so prominent here, particular on defense and national security matters.
A successful British reporter often is not the one who has managed to invade high levels of government and find out what he is not supposed to know, but the one who has become the chosen vehicle for information the government wishes to impart.
At the same time, while British journalists may occasionally challenge what are strict legal limits on their coverage of security issues, they more often come to blows with the government over protests that the rules aren't clear enough for them to know what is not allowed.
One case in point was a government-sponsored and approved report issued last spring in the wake of media complaints about the 1982 Falklands War. Journalists protested that their government had tried to limit their access to the conflict zone, had withheld information about what was happening and actually lied in some cases.
The government, in turn, complained that British media coverage sometimes undermined the national war effort by being so "objective" that it reported what Argentina and other nations involved on a diplomatic level said and did the same with what Britain itself was saying and doing. And when the British government did not want to say what it was doing, sometimes other sources were willing to provide such information. The journalists responded that such reporting, after all, was not against the law.
In an effort to avoid the problem in the future, the government last April went some distance toward making it so. The Defense Ministry approved a bargain with the media under which war correspondents would agree in writing, in advance, not to report anything the military did not want them to report. In exchange, the journalists would in effect be made part of the military unit or operation they were covering. They would be provided with uniforms, transportation with the troops, briefings and assistance in transmitting their dispatches.
At home, a government "advisory group" would counsel editors and reporters on coverage. If the media decided not to heed the advice, the government could then invoke punitive national security laws.
When substantially less restrictive measures were proposed by the Reagan administration in the wake of similar press controversy over its 1983 invasion of Grenada, the U.S. media raised an uproar. Here, the proposals caused barely a whimper and were not even reported by most of the press. The problem, it seemed, had been the lack of rules, and the government finally had come up with some.
Last Wednesday, the day of the broadcasters' strike, the National Union of Journalists held a seminar on the media and terrorism. Time after time, BBC journalists and others rose to complain, not that the government had in effect censored a program, but that it had censored after the fact something that it had allowed before -- the interviewing of a member of Sinn Fein, the IRA's political party.
"The goal posts have been moved in the middle of the game," said one BBC reporter. "I have no objection to the government saying they are unhappy with the way we're broadcasting terrorism . . . if they want to change the rules, then change them."
BBC internal procedures to avoid presentation of active, known terrorists from the IRA were followed meticulously in the case of the banned program, said another. "The whole question revolves around whether (the interviewees) are on the restricted list. They are not on the list."
Would American reporters, brought up in a different press tradition, have reacted in the same way? It is more likely that the mere suggestion of a "restricted list" would have raised ethical and legal hackles.
The problem for the British journalists is that the Catholic interviewed in the documentary may be a reputed IRA man, but he is also a member of Sinn Fein and a public official elected under its banner. He openly walks the streets of Londonderry, where the program was filmed, there are no charges against him and he has never been convicted by a British court.
Allowing Sinn Fein to exist is part of the political side of Britain's Northern Ireland strategy of defeating the IRA militarily and persuading the Catholics to take their grievances to the ballot box. "The real issue is not for the BBC but for the government," said a member of Parliament. "Is Sinn Fein a legitimate political party or not?"
Sinn Fein candidates have received thousands of Northern Irish votes, and, according to staffers of the BBC Northern Ireland service, are the most active political party in Londonderry. But should Thatcher decide it is illegitimate, British journalists have indicated they will willingly stop covering it.
For a frustrated Western world trying to deal with terrorism, Belfast can never be Beirut and the IRA cannot be dismissed as crazed religious fanatics, no matter how many bombs go off or how many lives may be lost. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom, and a significant portion of its people do not want it to be. The conflicts that result, far from being a distant geopolitical dilemma, are part of London's daily domestic political diet. As such, coverage of them by the media will always be a particularly British problem.
Perhaps the best lesson other Western governments can learn from events here over the past two weeks is the obvious one that selective censorship in an otherwise free society can be self-defeating. As a result of the banning, and the strike, Britons and the world doubtless know more now about the IRA and their cause in Northern Ireland than perhaps they ever wanted or needed to.