British Investigative Documentary

Death on the Rock was the title of a programme in the current affairs series This Week, made by Thames Television and broadcast on the ITV network on 28 April 1988. The programme investigated the incident, on Sunday 6 March 1988, when three members of the IRA, sent to Gibraltar on an active service mission, were shot and killed by members of British special forces. The incident, and subsequently the programme about it, became controversial as a result of uncertainty and conflicting evidence about the manner in which the killing was carried out and the degree to which it was an "execution" with no attempted arrest. The programme interviewed witnesses who claimed to have heard no prior warning given by the SAS troops and to have seen the shooting as one carried out "in cold blood." Furthermore, the defence that the IRA team might, if allowed time, have had the capacity to trigger by remote control a car bomb in the main street, was also subject to criticism, including that from an Army bomb disposal expert.

Claiming that its transmission prior to the official inquest was an impediment to justice, the then foreign secretary, Sir Geoffrey Howe, attempted to stop the programme being broadcast by writing to the chairman of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, Lord Thomson of Monifieth. Lord Thomson refused to prevent transmission noting that "the issues as we see them relate to free speech and free inquiry which underpin individual liberty in a democracy." Following transmission, there was widespread criticism of the programme's investigative stance in sections of the press (e.g. "Storm at SAS Telly Trial" The Sun; "Fury over SAS 'Trial by TV'," Daily Mail; "TV Slur on the SAS," Daily Star). Subsequently, a number of papers, notably The Sunday Times and The Sun, attempted to show not only that the programme's procedures of inquiry were faulty but that the character of some of its witnesses was dubious (in one case, this latter charge resulted in a successful libel action being brought).

Such was the debate which developed around the programme, intensified by one of its witnesses subsequently repudiating his testimony in it, that an independent inquiry was conducted at the behest of Thames Television. This inquiry was undertaken by Lord Windlesham, an ex-Government minister with experience as a managing director in television, and Richard Rampton QC, a barrister specializing in defamation and media law. The inquiry's findings, which were published as a book in 1989 largely cleared the programme of any impropriety, although it noted a number of errors.

Any assessment of the Death on the Rock affair has to note a number of constituent factors. The hugely emotive and politically controversial issue of British military presence in Northern Ireland provides the backdrop. For much of the British public, the various bombing attacks of the IRA (many of them involving civilian casualties), seemed to give the incident in Gibraltar the character of a wartime event, whose legitimacy was unquestionable. At a more focused level, the Windlesham/Rampton report opened up, in unusual detail, on the narrative structure of current affairs exposition--its movement between interview and presenter commentary, its use of location material, its movements of evaluation. It also probed further back, into the way in which the programme was put together through the contacting of various witnesses and the investigations of researchers. This was set in the context of long-standing tension between the Conservative government and broadcasters, particularly investigative journalists, on the matter of "national interest" and on the "limits" which should be imposed (preferably self-imposed) on work which brought into question the activities of the state.

There is obviously little space here to look at the programme's form in any detail but a number of features in its opening suggest something of its character. The programme starts with a pre-title sequence which features two of its principal witnesses, Carmen Proetta and Stephen Bullock, in "soundbites" from the longer interviews. These go as follows:

(Witness 1) There was no exchange of words on either side, no warning, nothing said; no screams, nothing; just the shots.

(Witness 2) I should say they were from a distance of about four feet and that the firing was continuous; in other words, probably as fast as it's possible to fire.

After the titles, the programme is "launched" by the studio-based presenter (Jonathan Dimbleby):

The killing by the SAS of three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar provoked intense debate not only in Britain but throughout the world--and especially in the Republic of Ireland and the United States. There are perhaps those who wonder what the fuss is about, who ask "Does it really matter when or how they were killed?"; who say "They were terrorists, there's a war on; and we got to them before they got us." However in the eyes of the law and of the state it is not so simple...The question which goes to the heart of the issue, is this: did the SAS men have the law on their side when they shot dead (photo stills) Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell who were unarmed at the time? (photo of bodies and ambulance) Were the soldiers acting in self-defence or were they operating what has become known as a "shoot to kill policy"--simply eliminating a group of known terrorists outside the due process of law, without arrest, trial or verdict?

Dimbleby concludes his introduction by promising the viewer something of "critical importance for those who wish to find out what really happened."

Death on the Rock
Photo courtesy of the British Film Institute

This use of a "shock" opener, followed by the framing of the report in terms which anticipate one kind of popular response but which set against this the need for questions to be asked, gives the programme a strong but measured start. Its conclusion is similarly balanced, anticipating at least some of the next morning's complaints by attempting to connect its own inquiries with the due process of the law:

That report by Julian Manyon was made, as you may have detected, without the co-operation of the British Government which says that it will make no comment until the inquest. As our film contained much new evidence hitherto unavailable to the Coroner, we are sending the transcripts to his court in Gibraltar, where it's been made clear to us that all such evidence is welcomed.

Given the political debate which it caused, there is little doubt that Death on the Rock is established as a marker in the long history of Government-Broadcaster relationships in Britain.

-John Corner


28 April 1988


"A Child of Its Time." The Economist (London), 4 February 1989.

Windlesham, P., and R. Rampton. The Windlesham/Rampton Report on 'Death on the Rock'. London: Faber, 1989.