Two terrorist bombings in Northern Ireland, the loss of 700 jobs at a major Scottish steel plant and the possibility of lower property tax rates for Londoners were among the stories that went unreported for most Britons today as a strike by broadcast journalists brought the cancellation of virtually every television and radio news program in the country.
Officials of the National Union of Journalists, who had backed the 24-hour strike called by television workers at the British Broadcasting Corp. and supported by commercial network journalists, called the walkout "an extremely successful protest" that included nearly all of their 4,000 broadcasting members.
Britons also will have to wait until morning to learn that the government and the BBC management appeared to have resolved their differences over the issue at the heart of the strike -- the banning of a television documentary about Northern Ireland.
Following a two-hour meeting with Home Secretary Leon Brittan, BBC director general Alasdair Milne indicated to print reporters attending a news conference that he plans to televise an edited version of the program at an unspecified future date.
The documentary, featuring an interview with an alleged member of the Irish Republican Army, originally was scheduled to be shown tonight. In its place, a taped concert by Frank Sinatra was shown, as journalists picketed outside BBC headquarters.
In the wake of the controversy and the unprecedented broadcast strike, many people here may have a difficult time deciding who is to blame for an incident that all involved agree has damaged the prestige and the reputation of both the BBC and the government here and abroad.
In what he called a "wry situation," Milne said tonight of today's canceled BBC World Service radio broadcasts abroad that "the Russians ceased trying to jam us for the first time in many years, since we were only putting out music. There weren't any words."
Editorial opinion in the country's major newspapers largely has blamed the government, but public comments and letters to the editor have revealed deep divisions over media coverage of organizations that use terrorist tactics, such as the IRA, which has vowed to end British rule in Northern Ireland. Letters have been fairly evenly divided between condemnations of the BBC for conceiving the program in the first place and then fighting for it, and the government for squashing it.
In the longer term, the incident has served to highlight many of the difficulties the British government faces in dealing with Northern Ireland and the problems for British journalists covering it. Principal among them is Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's ongoing attempt to defeat the IRA militarily, while encouraging its supporters -- who in some cases are also its members and violent activists -- to express themselves peacefully through electoral politics.
The IRA's political party, Sinn Fein, is legal in Northern Ireland, and its members have been increasingly successful in winning recent elections. One of the most successful Sinn Fein politicians has been Martin McGuinness. McGuinness is a focus of the documentary, which contrasts his extremist views with those of a pro-British Loyalist leader. The interview with McGuinness was the focus of the government's objections to the program.
Although there are no charges against him, and he has never been convicted in a British court, McGuinness is alleged in both the British press and the banned documentary itself to be the chief of staff of the IRA. But he also is an elected member of the Ulster National Assembly, the British government's vehicle for a local legislature in Northern Ireland.
Under its own internal guidelines, the BBC is restrained from interviewing IRA terrorists. Like journalists in most of the West, however, BBC reporters are encouraged to cover their country's political process and elected officials.
McGuinness frequently has been featured on both BBC and commercial television and radio programs here. The government should "ban Sinn Fein if you want, and arrest Martin McGuinness if you have the evidence," a journalist with the BBC's Northern Ireland service told a union-organized seminar here today.
"But until you do, don't tell us that we can't talk to them."
Tonight Milne called coverage of Sinn Fein a "gray area" and "a very complicated subject." Brittan, asked by reporters if his disapproval of the documentary meant disapproval of all Sinn Fein coverage, said: "I've not said that. I've not made a proposal of that, generally, at all."
The BBC's management team, which under law is given editorial control over broadcasts, had authorized that the program be shown. That authorization was overruled by the BBC's government-appointed board of governors after Brittan, the country's chief law enforcement officer as well as its broadcasting regulator, told them it was "damaging to security and therefore wholly contrary to the public interest," and asked that it be canceled.
Brittan has denied repeatedly any intention to pressure or censor the board. The board has said it read Brittan's letter just as it would an opinion from any other viewer and decided on its own that the program was "flawed."
BBC management, while admitting that the program could do with some revisions, has heatedly defended its editorial prerogatives and, along with the journalists, charged that the corporation's reputation and integrity were being ruined.
Following the two-hour meeting today among Brittan, the board and the management team, Brittan told reporters that "the BBC always has been independent and always will be independent and will decide what it wants to put on the air."
In his own news conference, director general Milne, who referred to himself as the BBC's "editor in chief," said that he "welcomed the home secretary's categorical assurance that he will not now, or in the future, censor the BBC." He noted that while Brittan had every right to "comment on programs," such comments made before a program was broadcast were "likely to be misinterpreted."
"When such comment is further accompanied by a direct request to remove the program -- no matter what its actual content and context, in this case by a minister of the crown -- it will be assumed that government is seeking to dictate program policy. The BBC will firmly resist such pressure."
Milne acknowledged that he had considered resigning from the BBC to protest the actions of Brittan and the board of governors, but said he had decided that "there is a job of work to be done here." He said he would make a further announcement Thursday about the banned program, but said that as a result of today's meeting, "they have handed back to me that authority, and it is my decision when it will be shown, and in what form."