To the Editor:
John O’Sullivan’s description of the Left’s paranoia about Margaret Thatcher is keen [“Britain: Under the Iron (High) Heel?,” September 1989]. His reference to the Irish precedent for her ban on IRA spokesmen on British television is, however, incomplete. The ban covers only direct speech by these salesmen for terrorism. It has been circumvented in a number of ways, including quotation, the use of printing on the screen, and in one case deliberately designed by the BBC to mock Mrs. Thatcher, the use of a dubbed Northern Irish voice which was lip-synched to the spokesman.
The fact that the British media now treat terrorists with a bit more circumspection is due largely to public anger at a decade of seeing these murderers portrayed both by the BBC and ITV as a species of simple opposition to the government of the day, and to a general climate of popular hostility to arrogant media journalists.
There was a more useful precedent for the British ban, which has never, so far as I know, been discussed by the media either in Britain or the United States. This occurred in Canada in 1970, when the Front de Libération Québecois (FLQ) terrorists kidnapped a British trade commissioner and murdered a Canadian minister. Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau slapped a genuine ban on appearances and propaganda by the FLQ and its spokesmen. Canadian journalists boiled over with righteous indignation, uttering the usual platitudes about totalitarianism and the end of democracy. The FLQ did not survive the ban, although Canadian democracy did, easily. A certain amount of damage was also done to the amour-propre of many self-righteous journalists, but democracy may have been a little healthier for that.
Finally, those who saw my letter in the October 1989 COMMENTARY on British reaction to the Rushdie affair will realize that Mr. O’Sullivan’s picture of Britain as the safe haven of liberty and tolerance is rather overdrawn. During the fuss over The Satanic Verses many important public figures, including members of Parliament, the Chief Rabbi, the anti-Israel writer Roald Dahl, and others, spoke out in favor of censorship and appealed for more trimming to accommodate the “sensibilities” of Islam and, indeed, of any religious group that might take offense at published matter. Since my letter was published, one bookshop has been bombed, others attacked with incendiary devices, and militant Muslims continue to break public-order laws with impunity. Penguin is under pressure not to publish a paperback edition of The Satanic Verses and it is far from certain that it will not give in to this pressure.