Death on the Rock was a British Academy Television Award-winning episode of Thames Television's current affairs series This Week, first aired by the British television network ITV on 28 April 1988. On 6 March 1988, three Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairéad Farrell, were shot dead in Gibraltar. The programme examined the shootings and asked why there was no attempt by the Special Air Service (SAS) to arrest the IRA members.
The documentary featured witnesses who claimed that the SAS had given no warning prior to shooting. Carmen Proetta, an independent witness, told Thames Television "They [the security forces] didn't do anything. They just went and shot these people. That's all. They didn't say anything, they didn't scream, they didn't shout, they didn't do anything. These people were turning their heads back to see what was happening and when they saw these men had guns in their hands they put their hands up. It looked like the man was protecting the girl because he stood in front of her, but there was no chance. I mean they went to the floor immediately, they dropped." The researcher for Thames Television believed Ms Proetta's evidence as it coincided with another account they had received.
The then Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, attempted to prevent the broadcast of the programme in the United Kingdom, claiming it would prejudice the official inquest into the event. The Independent Broadcasting Authority refused, stating: "the issues as we see them relate to free speech and free inquiry which underpin individual liberty in a democracy". However, it was not shown in Gibraltar where the inquest was to be held.
Following transmission, the programme was heavily criticised by sections of the press, notably The Sunday Times and The Sun. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was said to be outraged by the documentary and was increasingly concerned about ITV's 'monopoly' in independent broadcasting. Thatcher said in an interview: "If you ever get trial by television...that day, freedom dies." David Elstein, then director of programmes at Thames Television, writes that there was a connection between Margaret Thatcher's dislike of the station in the wake of the documentary, and Thames's subsequent loss of the ITV franchise in 1991.
A 1989 inquiry into the programme headed by former television management executive and government minister Lord Windlesham largely cleared it of any impropriety, although it found some errors had been made
The most notorious case involving the IBA actually showed them to be a good, effective regulator, able to stand up to government in the face of fierce pressure, backed by the Tories’ many allies in the mostly right-wing press [Chomskian flak].
A “This Week” special, “Death on the Rock” upset the government of Margaret Thatcher, which put the IBA under pressure to pull the broadcast, the official reason being given was that it would prejudice the official inquiry yet to take place. Any unofficial reasons can only be a matter for conjecture.
“Death on the Rock” is often cited as the reason that Thames was not re-enfranchised by the ITC in 1991 as the ITV London broadcaster. [http://www.transdiffusion.org/tmc/thames/inevitable.php]
As the above quote highlights, its generally accepted that the biggest casualty of the new auction brought in with the 1990 Broadcasting Act was Thames, the longstanding ITV company for London. The new Act made the issuing of ITV licenses a blunt auction: highest bidder wins the license, unless the new ITC felt there were exceptional circumstances (it never did exercise this option to question any bids). Under the ITA/IBA a “beauty contest” was held with bidders winning on the quality of their proposed programming, NOT the size of their bid for the license!!!
YOU CAN WATCH DEATH ON THE ROCK AT http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j0AYNk_vY4o
(The following is quoted from Curran and Seaton)
There was a more immediate outcome: a furious Thatcher government rushed through the 1988 Broadcasting Ban, which made it illegal to broadcast the voice of anyone representing one of a list of proscribed groups (especially the IRA and Sinn Fein) – although this was also linked to the BBC’s broadcast of the Real Lives documentary. (p. 182)
It had odd effects. A doc on the Maze prisoners [the Maze was where most ‘terrorist’ prisoners were held in NI] could use their voices when they appeared as individuals … but when an IRA spokesman on food talked about the small size of sausage rolls his voice had to be cut! Shortly after, UTV were bluntly ordered by the NIO [the London government branch overseeing NI] to scrap a doc on Maze escapees. The doc-makers retaliated, arguing they would use voiceovers for the Chief Inspector of Prisons as he had praised the ingenuity of the escapees, and so could be interpreted as positively representing a terrorist group! The NIO said nothing more on the matter. (pp. 182-3)
As we have seen in class, Chris Morris’ Day Today satire show featured a stinging reflection on this ban, which was despised by all broadcasters as a grave restriction on their editorial freedom. The newscaster, Morris, announces “the voice of the Sinn Fein spokesman has been altered to reduce his credibility” … and we see Steve Coogan, the SF man, sucking in helium from a large canister before delivering his points in an absurd voice! The ban was lifted in 1994 following an IRA ceasefire, though by this time Thatcher was no longer PM – she was seen as personally responsible for the ban.