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Death on the Rock

Death on the Rock was a controversial and BAFTA award winning episode of Thames Television's current affairs strand This Week. It was screened by the British television network ITV on 28 April 1988.

The documentary, produced by Roger Bolton and presented by Jonathan Dimbleby, investigated Operation Flavius: an SAS mission in Gibraltar which ended in the death of three IRA members.

The brief of the mission had been to arrest three IRA members suspected by the Joint Intelligence Committee of being in the process of organising a bomb attack on the changing of the guard in Gibraltar, before such an attack could take place. The SAS were authorised the use of deadly force "if those using them had reasonable grounds for believing an act was being committed or about to be committed which would endanger life or lives and if there was no other way of preventing that other than the use of firearms".

On Sunday 6 March 1988, the three IRA members: Dan McCann, Sean Savage and Mairead Farrell, were shot dead. The programme examined to what extent the incident had been an "execution" with no attempt to arrest the IRA members.

The SAS had claimed that McCann had made an 'aggressive move' towards a bag he was carrying. They had presumed he was intending to trigger a car bomb using a remote control device. When he was shot, Farrell made a move towards her handbag and was therfore shot on similar grounds. Faced with arrest, Savage moved his hand to his pocket. The SAS therefore shot him. In all, McGann was shot five times, Farrell eight, and Savage between 16 and 18 times. All three were subsequently found to be unarmed. Ingredients for a bomb were later found in a car related to the trio.

The documentary interviewed witnesses who claimed that the SAS had given no warning prior to shooting, and that the incident had been carried out 'in cold blood'. In addition, the defence that the IRA team may have had the capacity to trigger a car bomb by remote control was subject to criticism, including that of an Army bomb disposal expert.

The then Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, attempted to prevent the broadcast of the programme, claiming it would purjour the official inquest into the incident. The Independent Broadcasting Authority refused him, stating: "the issues as we see them relate to free speech and free inquiry which underpin individual liberty in a democracy". Following transmission, the programme was heavilly criticised by the right wing press; notably the Rupert Murdoch-owned papers: The Sunday Times and The Sun. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was said to be outraged by the documentary, and was increasingly concerned about the ITV's "monopoly" in independent broadcasting.

A 1989 inquiry into the programme largely cleared it of any inpropriety.

A year later, Rupert Murdoch's offshore satellite broadcasting company Sky Television was granted the right to merge with the UK satellite broadcaster BSB, increasing Murdoch's media share.

Subsequently, Thatcher's government ordered that the ITV broadcasting franchises, which were up for renewal in 1992, be determined by silent auction. The amount the programme's makers, Thames Television, offered for their franchise was significantly less than the money offered by other companies. This led many commentators to speculate that Thames had fallen victim to a government vendetta.