When is TV censorship a good idea?
CM509 – Television Journalism
FAO: Ms. Cathy Moore
By: Marc O’Driscoll (Team 4)
A report on a seminar presentation
addressing the question of “When is TV censorship a good idea?” This
document focuses on the history of censorship in Ireland since the
foundation of the Free State and the conclusions that can be drawn from the
past when answering the above question.
Table of Contents
1. What is censorship?. 1
2. Introduction to Censorship in
3. The Censorship of Film Act,
4. The Censorship of
Publications Act, 1929. 2
5. The Emergency Powers Act, 1939. 3
6. Censored Publications in Ireland. 3
7. RTÉ & Censorship (Section 31) 4
8. Modern Day Censorship. 5
9. Conclusion. 6
10. Bibliography. 7
What is censorship?
The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word
“censor” simply as “an official who examines books, films, news, etc. that are
about to be published and suppresses any parts that are considered obscene,
politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.” However, this definition
leaves a number of obvious gaps in the censorship process. Does censorship only
refer to publications such as books, films and news and not the suppression of
the actual ideas themselves communicated by these mediums? What about
censorship by a non-governmental group (a non-official)? What about censorship
A much better definition of the word “censor”
is given by American political scientist, Harold Laswell: “The process of
restricting the public expression of ideas, opinions, conceptions and impulses
which have or are believed to have the capacity to undermine the governing
authority or the social or moral code which that authority considers itself
bound to protect.” (Martin, 2006)
This is a far more explanatory definition of
the word “censor” that implies censorship is not just about the suppression of
publications but also certain mind-sets, thoughts and opinions of the general
population which are not looked favourably on by those in power. Laswell’s
definition also defines a “censor” as not only the government but other
non-governmental groups that wish to uphold a social or moral code, such as
religious organisations. Finally, the definition encompasses censorship after
publication which is the modus operandi of the Irish Censorship of Publications
to Censorship in Ireland
Ireland has had a turbulent relationship with censorship
since the foundation of the Free State. Before being able to answer the
question “When is TV censorship a good
idea?”, it is necessary to explore what exactly censorship is and the part
that it has played in the Irish Free State over the last almost one hundred
years. Only by analysing the censorship legislation of the past, can censorship
today be put in perspective and classified as good, bad or indifferent.
Censorship of Films Act, 1923
Censorship first began in the Irish Free State
with the introduction of the Censorship of Films Act in 1923. It’s important to
remember that television did not yet exist at this time and that cinema was the
only form of medium available for the mass broadcasting of visual images.
“Newsreels” were also often shown before main
feature films. These were short documentary films covering news, current
affairs and entertainment. This made the cinema one of the main sources of news
up until the introduction of the television in the 1950s.
The Act established the office of the Official
Censor of Films and a Censorship of Films Appeal Board. Under the Act, James
Montgomery was appointed the first Irish Free State censor. He was once quoted
as saying: “I know nothing about films, but I know the 10 commandments!” (News
Four, 2017). This statement was a sign of things to come for censorship in
Ireland, censorship that would centre around upholding the Catholic ethos and
values of the time.
Over 2,500 films were banned, and 11,000 films
were censored between 1923 and 1940, including the likes of Casablanca and Gone
with the Wind. (Irishstatutebook.ie, 2017 – Censorship of Films Act, 1923)
Censorship of Publications Act, 1929
The aim of the Censorship
of Publications Act, 1929 was to prevent the introduction of “unwholesome
literature” from abroad with influences such as materialism, consumerism and
immortality. (Irishstatutebook.ie, 2017 – Censorship of Publications Act, 1929)
The laws introduced under the Act give an
insight into Ireland and the type of country that it was at the time. Catholicism
was the religion of 93% of the country and essentially the philosophy for
drafting the censorship laws.
Valera, who was prominent figure in the foundation of the Irish Free State
and the drafting of the Irish Constitution, gave the Catholic Church a special
position in the state and legislation. This was reflected in the Censorship of
Publications Act, 1929. Éamon de Valera felt that publications and the arts
should be promoted but only if they observed the “holiest traditions.” If they
did not, they should be censored. (Irishexaminer.com, 2013)
The Emergency Powers Act, 1939
The Emergency Powers Act, 1939
was introduced as a response to the outbreak of World War II, after an official
state of emergency had been declared in the country.
Amongst other state security
measures, the Act allowed the government at the time to censor communications
such as newspapers, periodicals and mail. Radio broadcasts were also censored
as news bulletins had to be reviewed by the head of the Government Information
Bureau before being broadcast by Radio Éireann.
The Act prevented media backlash
to the juryless court martialling and execution of civilians. This was the case
with many members of the Irish Republican Army at the time. (Irishstatutebook.ie, 2017 – The Emergency Powers Act,
Censored Publications in Ireland
Over the years, there were a
number of publications and certain types of information censored in Ireland,
many of which continued to be outlawed up until relatively recent times:
Newspapers & Magazines: There were many newspapers and
magazines banned in Ireland up until the late 1980s. These were mainly foreign
publications and included the likes of the British edition of the News of the
World and Playboy magazine.
Abortion & Birth Control Information: The publication of any
literature containing information about abortion, even if impartial, was banned
up until the early 1990s. This even included the publishing of phone numbers for
abortion clinics in the United Kingdom. Irish distributers of the British
newspaper The Guardian once withdrew from selling the publication due to an
advertisement for an abortion clinic in the UK appearing in the paper.
Mail: Censorship of postal mail in Ireland dates back to the 1660s,
when mail was censored in England before being sent on to Ireland. During the
Civil War, both the IRA and National Army censored each other’s mail. As
previously mentioned, the Emergency Powers Act, 1939 gave the Department of
Defence the power to control civilian mail during the Second World War. The
censorship of mail lasted up until the 1980s when IRA members in Limerick and
Portlaoise prisons had their mail censored during The Troubles. (O? Drisceoil,
RTÉ & Censorship (Section 31)
Section 31 of the Broadcasting
Authority Act, 1960 allowed the Minister for Post & Telegraphs to make a
Ministerial Order preventing RTÉ from broadcasting certain material at the
discretion of the government. The first Order made under Section 31 was in 1971
and prevented RTÉ from broadcasting:
“any matter that could be calculated to
promote the aims or activities of any organisation which engages in, promotes,
encourages or advocates the attaining of any particular objectives by violent
This was effectively used to ban
RTÉ from interviewing spokespersons for Sinn Féin and for the IRA during the
time of the conflict in Northern Ireland. The Order was met with confusion at
RTÉ as to what it meant in practice. In 1972, the Government sacked the RTÉ
Authority for not upholding the Order and censoring broadcasts accordingly.
In 1976, Section 31 was amended
and a new Order was issued that censored spokespersons for specific organisations,
including the Sinn Féin political party. This Order removed RTÉ’s ability to
exercise discretion under Section 31 and put a ban on interviews with named
Sinn Féin spokespersons, rather than specified content.
RTÉ extended Section 31 to censor
all Sinn Féin political party members and not just spokespersons in 1977 after
severe pressure from successive governments. The Order finally came to a head
in the 1990s when Sinn Féin member Larry O’Toole wanted to speak on RTÉ about a
strike at a factory in his constituency but was prohibited from doing so
because of his membership to the Sinn Féin party, even though the issue had
nothing to do with IRA or The Trouble in the Northern Ireland.
Larry O’Toole subsequently
challenged the ban in the Irish High Court and won the case. RTÉ appealed the
verdict to the Supreme Court and lost. RTÉ were accused of appealing to
The Section 31 broadcasting ban
lapsed in January 1994 due to the legislation not being renewed. Although, it
was introduced to supress the IRA movement, Section 31 portrayed the IRA and Sinn
Féin as the oppressed in society and gave them a greater platform than ever. (Irishstatutebook.ie,
2017 – The Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960)
Some modern-day examples of
censorship in Ireland were introduced as a result of the financial crisis in
the late 2000s. In 2009, the Central Bank of Ireland prevented banks and
insurers from broadcasting critical statements about its performance so as not
to further undermine the public’s confidence in the economy.
The Credit Institutions
(Stabilisation) Act, 2010 allowed the Irish government to make an order under
the Act in private that could not be reported on by the media. The Act allowed former
Minister for Finance Brian Lenihan Jnr to bailout Allied Irish Bank (then
insolvent) with over €3.7 billion of taxpayers’ money unbeknownst to the media.
(Irishstatutebook.ie, 2017 – The Credit Institutions
(Stabilisation) Act, 2010)
Finally, the broadcasting or
publishing of blasphemous material is still technically censored by the Irish
Constitution. The offense originally only included blasphemous libel applicable
to the Christian religion but was widened to include “any religion” under the
Defamation Act, 2009 to remove a legal loophole. As the ban is mandated by the
Irish Constitution, a referendum would be needed to abolish the offence that is
viewed as a restriction on free speech. However, the last prosecution under the
offense was not since 1855 and recent governments have cited the time and
expense needed for a referendum as the main reasons for not lifting the ban. The
government formed in 2016 made a commitment to holding a referendum on
abolishing the constructional offense in the near future. (Irishstatutebook.ie,
2017 – The Defamation Act, 2009)
It is clear that since the
foundation of the Free State, Ireland has been a largely conservative and
religion orientated county. This has been reflected in Irish law over the years
and in particular censorship legislation which has primarily been used by those
in power to create an Ireland reflective of their own views and beliefs. A
quick search of the word “censorship” on the RTÉ Archives website (www.rte.ie/archives)
gives a great insight to the type of Ireland that existed in the past and
strict regulations faced by TV broadcasters. However, Ireland is in a period of
change now and rapidly becoming an increasingly liberal country. Therefore, it
is only by looking at the censorship of the past that we can draw conclusions
about the present and begin to answer the question: “When is TV censorship a good idea?” It was through this analysis of
the past that my teammates put forward their theories on Moral Censorship, Political
Censorship and 21st Century Online & TV Censorship in each of
their respective parts of the seminar presentation.
Martin, P. (2006). Censorship in
the two Irelands 1922-1939. Dublin: Irish Academic Press.
News Four. (2017). Censorship in
Ireland. online Available at:
http://www.newsfour.ie/2015/01/censorship-in-ireland/ Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
Censorship of Films Act, 1923. online Available at:
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1923/act/23/enacted/en/html Accessed 20 Nov.
Irishexaminer.com. (2013). De
Valera and the Church’s special position. online Available at:
Accessed 20 Nov. 2017.
Irishstatutebook.ie. (2017). Censorship
of Publications Act, 1929. online Available at:
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1929/act/21/enacted/en/html Accessed 21 Nov.
Emergency Powers Act, 1939. online Available at:
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1939/act/28/enacted/en/print Accessed 21 Nov.
O? Drisceoil, D. (1996).
Censorship in Ireland, 1939-1945. Cork: Cork University Press.
Broadcasting Authority Act, 1960. online Available at: http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/1960/act/10/enacted/en/html
Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.
Credit Institutions (Stabilisation) Act, 2010. online Available at:
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2010/act/36/enacted/en/html Accessed 22
Defamation Act 2009. online Available at:
http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/eli/2009/act/31 Accessed 22 Nov. 2017.
Rte.ie. (2017). RTÉ Archives “Censorship”
Search. online Available at: http://www.rte.ie/archives/ Accessed 22 Nov.