Ministerial discretion and the supremacy of European principles, force the judiciary to impose demarcation when the imposition of press regulation extends the powers of the executive beyond what some might consider ‘reasonable’ bounds.
At a time when the media was becoming central to the lives of the general public, there were numerous attempts by terrorist factions to use television as a means of political propagation.
In direct response, the Home Secretary of the time issued instructions to both the BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) and the IBA (Independent Broadcasting Authority) to censor the speech and appearance of those representing such organisations, as to prevent viewers from taking offence and to cripple plans to advocate fear as a means of influence.
These orders fell under the terms of section 29(3) of the Broadcasting Act 1981 and clause 13(4) of the licences agreement between the BBC and IBA respectively, and while stymying the direct effects of terrorist representation, they were flexible enough to allow dubbed voiceovers for the sake of reporting, and also allowed the affected reporters to discuss the comments and associate the parties involved; therefore, not entirely curtailing the views and commentary of those included within the Prevention of Terrorism (Temporary Provisions) Act 1984 and the Northern Ireland (Emergency Provisions) Act 1978.
In an abject reaction of professional outrage, a number of prominent and established representatives of the associated media sought a judicial review on grounds that the censorship of those affected, stood in direct violation of article 10 (Freedom of Expression) of the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms 1953, while the use of those powers was disproportionate to their objectives and irrational in design, to the extent that such an abuse of power was in need of legal redress.
Heard first in the Divisional Courts, the application was dismissed on grounds that while the principles of the Convention were recognised, the executive powers granted to those qualified were never given lightly; and that on this occasion there was insufficient evidence to suggest the Home Secretary had acted ultra vires of his position.
Taken to the Court of Appeal, the appellants relied upon the principles held in Associated Provincial Picture Houses Ltd v Wednesbury Corporation whereby the reasonableness of the decision must reflect the objectives while balancing the needs of public interest; again citing that when allowing the Home Secretary to enforce the orders, the executive must have had the Convention principles in mind; and so, therefore allowed a breach that denied impartiality to those affected.
Having evaluated the arguments presented, the Court dismissed the appeal while allowing leave to the House of Lords, at which point the same contentions were used to urge the judiciary to intervene and quash the restrictions now in place, with particular emphasis on the very principles upon which judicial review was founded.
With due consideration of the points raised, the House reminded the appellants that judicial review was a means of management rather than contest for those displeased with case outcomes, while emphasis was placed upon the almost microscopic levels of disruption the censorship caused the broadcasters when accusations of impartiality, irrationality and unreasonableness were made.
When taken collectively, the House dismissed the appeal and ruled unanimously that regardless of what may appear as an abuse of power, was nothing more than a calculated protection of democracy; and that as expressed within article 10(1) of the Convention, those same rights of expression are subject to a degree of restriction where public interest requires it, while concluding that:
“In any civilised and law-abiding society the defeat of the terrorist is a public interest of the first importance.”