Death on the Rock is a British Academy Television Award-winning episode of Thames Television's current affairs series This Week, first aired by the British television network ITV on 28 April 1988. On 6 March 1988, three Irish Republican Army (IRA) members, Danny McCann, Sean Savage and Mairéad Farrell, were shot dead in Gibraltar. The programme examined the shootings and asked why there was no attempt by the Special Air Service (SAS) to arrest the IRA members.
The documentary investigated Operation Flavius, an SAS mission in Gibraltar which ended in the deaths of the three Provisional IRA members. The programme editor was Roger Bolton, the reporter was Julian Manyon, the producer was Chris Oxley and the researcher was Alison Cahn.  Jonathan Dimbleby introduced the programme in the studio.
The brief of the mission had been to arrest the IRA members who were suspected by the Joint Intelligence Committee of being in the process of organising a bomb attack on the changing of the guard at The Convent in Gibraltar. The SAS were authorised to '. . . open fire against a person [only] if you or they have reasonable grounds for believing that he/she is currently committing, or is about to commit, an action which is likely to endanger your or their lives, or the life of any other person, and if there is no other way to prevent this.'
The SAS stated 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. After McCann was killed, Farrell made a move towards her handbag and was killed on similar grounds. Faced with arrest, Savage moved his hand to his pocket, and the SAS also killed him. In all, McCann was shot five times, Farrell eight times, and Savage between 16 and 18 times. All three were subsequently found to be unarmed. Ingredients for a bomb, including 64 kilograms of Semtex, were later found in a car in Spain, identified by keys found in Farrell's handbag.
The documentary featured witnesses who claimed that the SAS had given no warning prior to shooting. Carmen Proetta, an independent witness, told Thames Television "They [the security forces] didn't do anything. They just went and shot these people. That's all. They didn't say anything, they didn't scream, they didn't shout, they didn't do anything. These people were turning their heads back to see what was happening and when they saw these men had guns in their hands they put their hands up. It looked like the man was protecting the girl because he stood in front of her, but there was no chance. I mean they went to the floor immediately, they dropped." The researcher, Alison Cahn, for Thames Television believed Ms Proetta's evidence as it coincided with another account they had received.
Government and media reaction
The then Foreign Secretary, Geoffrey Howe, attempted to prevent the broadcast of the programme in the United Kingdom, claiming it would prejudice the official inquest into the event. The Independent Broadcasting Authority refused, stating: "the issues as we see them relate to free speech and free inquiry which underpin individual liberty in a democracy". However, it was not shown in Gibraltar where the inquest was to be held.
Following transmission, the programme was heavily criticised by sections of the press, notably 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 ITV's 'monopoly' in independent broadcasting. Thatcher said in an interview: "If you ever get trial by television...that day, freedom dies." David Elstein, then director of programmes at Thames Television, writes that there was a connection between Margaret Thatcher's dislike of the station in the wake of the documentary, and Thames' subsequent loss of the ITV franchise in 1991.
A 1989 inquiry into the programme headed by former television management executive and government minister Lord Windlesham largely cleared it of any impropriety, although it found some errors had been made.
- Death on the Rock at Museum of Broadcast Communications
- The Windlesham/Rampton Report on Death on the Rock, p.6, Faber & Faber, London 1989.
- McCann and Others v United Kingdom at U.K. Law Online
- ECHR review: Paras 98-99
- State Violence: Northern Ireland 1969-1997, Raymond Murray, Mercier Press, Dublin, 1998, ISBN 1-85635-235-8 [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] , pg. 193
- The Windlesham/Rampton Report on Death on the Rock, p.92, par 85, Faber & Faber, London 1989.
- David Elstein, 23 November 2009
- History of Thames Television
- 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.