Jason Holmes talks with Alastair Brett - ex-legal manager to The Times, playwright and author of Gibraltar - to discuss how the role of the press has changed in the 25 years since the SAS infamously killed three IRA bombers on the Rock.
'I have written what you might call a producer's script,' says Alastair Brett, still every inch the Fleet Street man, specs balanced on his nose.
Gibraltar is a play concerned with the military operation conducted on 6 March 1988 on Gibraltar (above). At that time, Brett worked under Andrew Neil as The Sunday Times' legal manager. 'This story has stayed with me for many years and continues to fascinate,' he says.
But surely it was an open and shut case, plotting bombers stopped before they could kill? Brett shakes his head. 'Let's begin at the beginning. In 1986, John Stalker had been heading the Stalker Inquiry into whether the British government had a shoot-to-kill policy with regards to anyone who might be a member of the IRA. Stalker was a zealot, but suddenly in 1986, before he could produce his report, he was removed from office.
'Then in 1987, the SAS ambushed and killed eight members of the IRA's East Tyrone Brigade. In November 1987, the Enniskillen bomb saw the IRA kill 11 people. By this stage, British Intelligence had reason to believe the next designated IRA target was to have been Gibraltar.'
It's a story of high dudgeon: 'shoot to kill' can best be defined as a policy of assassination conducted outside the due processes of law. 'It means summary execution, or murder,' explains Brett. 'It was alleged this was the [British] policy at work in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s.'
The play is concerned with the 'appalling, unethical behaviour' of journalists and 'points out the shortcomings of the tabloid press. Television was in a better position in 1988 to discover the truth, but in the end Death on the Rock [This Week, Thames Television, 1988] was hamstrung by inadequately cross-checked testimonies.'
The British press polarised after Death on the Rock was aired, and the tabloids became 'hopelessly Right Wing', as Brett puts it. 'The broadsheets were much more circumspect, but they all got it wrong in the immediate aftermath.'
But did Death on the Rock, by shining a light on Thatcher's shoot-to-kill policy, play a part in forcing the government to the Good Friday Agreement in 1998? 'The programme probably contributed to Thatcher having to ease off on her advocation of shoot-to-kill, which forced the government to concentrate on the peace process,' concludes Brett.
Gibraltar appears on the London stage at a curious time, with the British public currently disengaged from the machinations of its political class, instead content to watch Cameron and Clegg smile winsomely at each other over podiums.
PR-wise, the Thatcher government was a much more robust entity than the current cabal of Whitehall drones, her shoot-to-kill policy one possible cause of today's touchy-feely Conservatism which sees a hand-wringing government aim its asinine blend of kindness at the heart of its Big Society. But this is a house of cards, for as any Brit knows, clever social ideas born in London never stray much farther than the M25.
'The press today is paranoid of being constrained by strict rules about fairness, honesty and impartiality,' says Brett.
It is true that the eradication of the gutter element in journalism will result in the drastic reduction of income streams for news organisations, but in gagging the press from saying uncomfortable things about government policy, Whitehall mandarins can only further the lifespan of this, and subsequent failing Coalitions who will do their utmost to strengthen the clientelism with which they feast.
Twenty-five years ago, with the issues of the day starkly drawn, Thatcher evoked a sense of awe from her public by dictating a cod-feminism to a populace longing for imperialistic bombast; but today the public should be hoping for a political truth hitherto undiscovered, and with an ethically sound press willing to countenance these truths, so can the public at large empower itself to understand the real political issues at stake.
Journalism must clean up its act, yes, for should it be unable, press obfuscation of the type seen on Gibraltar will increase as the cloaks of subterfuge that hang over Tripoli, Aleppo, Damascus and Cairo grow heavier still.
© Jason Holmes 2013 / firstname.lastname@example.org / @JasonAHolmes
Gibraltar runs from 27 March to 20 April at the Arcola Theatre, 24 Ashwin Street, Dalston, London E8 3DL (www.arcolatheatre.com)
Follow Alastair Brett on Twitter @GibraltarPlay
Images courtesy of Metro.co.uk and Chloé Nelkin Consulting