This month is the 25th anniversary of the broadcast ban intended to starve Northern Ireland's Troubles of 'the oxygen of publicity'. The Pogues' accordion player tells the story of how the band were caught up in a political row
James Fearnley theguardian.com
, Wednesday 23 October 2013
There are two anniversaries in the life of the Pogues
this year. First, Warner Music Group is marking our 30th anniversary – although we actually formed in 1982 – with a box set of our original albums. This month also marks another anniversary in our career – a less welcome one, even though our involvement was peripheral, and won't be celebrated by reissues.
On 19 October 1988, the then home secretary, Douglas Hurd, announced what was called the "broadcast ban
": a notice issued under a clause of the BBC
Licence and Agreement and a section of the 1981 Broadcasting Act that prohibited the broadcast of direct statements by representatives or supporters of 11 Irish political and paramilitary organisations. The restrictions were part of the Thatcher government's desire to prevent Sinn Féin
from employing the media for political advantage.
As early as the summer of 1985, in a speech to American Bar Association
, Margaret Thatcher had employed the words "the oxygen of publicity" when referring to the media coverage of acts of terrorism. In her speech, she stressed that the British government did not believe "in constraining the media, still less in censorship", but yet proposed the idea that society should "ask the media to agree among themselves a voluntary code of conduct … under which they would not … show anything which could assist the terrorists' morale or their cause".
During the course of our career, the Pogues have had some experience with what we thought was censorship. In spring 1984, the DJs Richard Skinner, David Jensen and John Peel had been playing our debut single, The Dark Streets of London
on their Radio 1
shows. Then Jensen's producer received a phone call from BBC Radio Scotland informing him that each time Jensen pronounced the name of our band – at the time, in full, Pogue Mahone – he was inadvertently telling Gaelic listeners to "kiss my arse". When Jensen started to call us "the Pogues", we withdrew into righteous indignation and bandied about such words as "censorship" and "ban", but eventually emerged from our meeting place at the Pindar of Wakefield pub in King's Cross with the realisation that, notwithstanding the leg up that Mike Read's interdiction
had given to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Jensen's modification of our band name, when it came to censorship, didn't really give us a leg to stand on.
We expected censure from the very beginning, and even went as far as lying down before we were hit. Transmetropolitan
, the first track of our debut album Red Roses For Me
, is in many respects the Pogues' mission statement. It's a generous, degenerate song. Shane MacGowan's lyrics pressed us to march across London as if armed with cobblestones and lengths of railing, shouting oaths. For approval, each of the band was recently sent the remix of the album for the upcoming box set. The quality of the remix of Transmetropolitan astonished me. The revitalised clarity seemed even to extend as far as the words. After a couple of listens, though, the memory came back to me of recording Shane's vocal with alternative lyrics, from which had been removed the least controversy. The words "piss", "whores", "queers", "poofs", "bastards", "bloody" and "shite" – and even "spew" – were exchanged for euphemisms in this alternate version. All brand names were expunged. A vow to "start on the EEC" replaced the original lyrics' threat that we would "storm the BBC". So convinced must we have been that we were going to run into trouble that Shane's original vocal only exists in the masters of the record, the less temperate version on the multi-track having been erased in favour of avoiding offence.
Things got serious as the ideas in Thatcher's American speech began to grow and form connective tissue. In May 1987 we started work on our third album, If I Should Fall From Grace With God
. One of the songs Shane had written dealt with the arrest, imprisonment and continuing incarceration, since 1975, of the Birmingham Six
and the Guildford Four
. Called Birmingham Six, the song was hard-hitting, musically and lyrically, and made no bones about declaring that those convicted of the 1974 pub bombings had been "picked up and tortured and framed" and were still in prison "for being Irish in the wrong place and at the wrong time".
To promote our LP, we were invited to appear on Friday Night Live, a Thames Television programme hosted by Ben Elton. The producers had been informed of the song we intended to perform. In the afternoon of the show we had played through the song more than once in technical rehearsal. When the time came, we took our places on stage, against a backdrop of large, pink, fibreglass hands, our feet invisible under streams of dry ice. Well before the song was finished, the producers made the decision to cut to a commercial break.
Again, we withdrew into righteous indignation. Our first thought was that Thames Television had been cowed by the political climate engendered by the Thatcher government, even though it was a full six months before the execution of the broadcast ban. We accused Thames Television of suppression, but I was ashamed of my abiding ambivalence as to whether the song had been subject to censorship, preferring to assume that we had simply gone over time. My stubborn predisposition to believe in the benevolence of the English government inclined me to believe that the shortening of our performance was merely due to the exigencies of television. Then, in November, the song was banned by the Independent Broadcasting Authority (IBA), which claimed that the lyrics could "incite terrorism".
Censorship of a more dangerous kind – deletions, additions and the manipulation of police notes, accompanied by a regimen tantamount to torture – had been utilised to justify the convictions of both the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six. In the course of the appeals which were eventually granted the prisoners, the disclosure of the authorities' misdoings resulted in the release of the Guildford Four
– on the first anniversary of the broadcast ban; the group known as "the Maguire Seven", who were also convicted in relation to the Guildford bombings, had their convictions quashed in July 1990. The case of the Birmingham Six was more prolonged and it wasn't until March 1991 that the men's convictions were stated to be "unsafe and unsatisfactory" and they were set free
Gerry Conlon – who spent 15 years in prison as one of the Guildford Four – hung out with us on tour for a few months. His gratitude for publicising the plight of the Guildford Four and that of the Birmingham Six – not merely by means of Shane's song, but through press interviews and collections at our gigs for the prisoners' families – was affecting. So too was Paddy Hill's, one of the Birmingham Six, when he was interviewed on a Channel 4 chart programme of contraband songs and videos, called Top Ten: X-Rated
– which began with a lurid montage of flames, Mary Whitehouse, a pole-dancer's buttocks and vomited blood. Half an hour into the programme, Hill talked with bemusement at the IBA's banning of the Pogues' Birmingham Six and fondly of the group's efforts on his behalf and the five other accused.
I like to think that we helped not only to point out the noxiousness of the broadcast ban, but also contributed, by stirring public opinion, the eventual release of the Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six.• Here Comes Everybody – the Story of the Pogues, by James Fearnley, is published by Faber & Faberhttp://www.theguardian.com/music/musicblog/2013/oct/23/pogues-ira-broadcast-ban-25th-anniversary?CMP=twt_fd