The Gibraltar Three − journalistic truth vs political expediency
The play Gibraltar which opens at the Arcola on 27 March analyses the pursuit of journalistic truth against political expediency following the controversial shooting of three unarmed IRA terrorists in 1988. Did the flawed documentary Death on the Rock, which suggested that the SAS had summarily executed three IRA terrorists, help lead to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998? Did it undermine the hawks on both sides of the political divide and give impetus to the peace process?
There is an old saying in political propaganda: ‘get saturation coverage for your story as soon after the controversial event as possible. Once it has gone out the damage is done. Even when the true facts come out the original damage is what sticks’. Thames Television’s controversial broadcast to 6.5 million viewers inexorably suggested that the Gibraltar shootings were ‘shoot-to-kill’ and the troops were dispensing summary justice to terrorists while they were trying to surrender.
The key account of how the troops killed the terrorists in cold blood came from a woman whose account was later shown to be manifestly wrong. But the damage was done by the television documentary. Even at the Gibraltar Coroner’s inquest, six months later, she stuck to her guns although by then she was the only witness to say the SAS had jumped out of a police car on the other side of the road, vaulted a central reservation and shot two terrorists while they were trying to surrender.
The Coroner’s inquest returned a majority verdict of ‘lawful killing’ but the message of Death on the Rock still stuck. Then six years later, the European Court of Human Rights, by the thinnest majority, ruled that the killings were illegal and ‘disproportionate to the perceived threat’ – there was never actually a bomb in Gibraltar at the time. But was the journalistic question, ‘had the IRA somehow forced her to gild the lily and give a hugely over-stated and inaccurate account of the shootings’, worth pursuing if that account led to a greater good?
The play examines the controversy over ‘shoot-to-kill’ and the prevailing thesis that Maggie Thatcher sent the SAS out to ‘teach the IRA a lesson’. Was the journalist in the play right to analyse who might be to blame for the shootings? Were the public entitled to know that the SAS are taught ‘he who hesitates is dead’ and that there was a running certainty that someone would get killed if they were sent out to do a policeman’s job?
And had the ‘doves’ in the IRA, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuiness, sacrificed the ‘Gibraltar three’ – all hawks – rather than have another bombing disaster like Enniskillen on their hands? If Maggie had to think twice before using the SAS again, did this help the peace process move forward? Was it worth pursuing the TRUTH if an account, however wrong, misjudged or even duplicitous, actually helped lead to a greater good? Should the TRUTH be sacrificed on the altar of expediency and the end justify the means?
Gibraltar tackles these issues through the eyes of a journalist who believes in ethical journalism and is horrified by the Fleet Street over-reaction to Death on the Rock. He becomes obsessed with his pursuit of the truth and if and how the IRA might have managed to procure the biggest propaganda coup of all time. But did the oxygen of publicity, unwittingly given to the IRA through a flawed documentary, bring a far greater good to Northern Ireland? The play will ask you which is more important, the truth or political expediency.
Gibraltar by media law expert Alastair Brett and Siân Evans is on at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, from 27 March to 20 April