Covering the conflict: Human rights and journalism in Northern Ireland

Did journalists do enough to defend human rights during the troubles in Northern Ireland? That was a key question in a fascinating debate in Belfast last week under the auspices of Amnesty International and Féile an Phobail.

Did journalists do enough to defend human rights during the troubles in Northern Ireland? That was a key question in a fascinating debate in Belfast last week under the auspices of Amnesty International and Féile an Phobail.

Chaired by the BBC's Dennis Murray, the event heard from some of the most experienced reporters of the Troubles.

The former Northern Ireland editor of the Sunday Times, Liam Clarke, outlined some of the dilemmas of investigative journalism, which has a basic purpose of disclosing information, but often has to compromise that by relying on confidential sources.

"Developing sources is quite vital, people who can tell you things others would prefer not to be disclosed," Clarke said.

Over the years pursuing that, I think fairly consistently, I had problems with the paramilitaries in the early days, because that was the kind of thing the Sunday Times was asking for. Who was who in the paramilitaries, what was going on and so on.

As the Troubles developed, it became more towards the security forces. It became clear, as somebody who had been working in journalism for a while, that the security forces had infiltrated the paramilitary groups to quite some degree. You became aware  of people who were agents, or who were almost certainly agents within them, and that shifted the centre of attention. I remember being aware, for instance, of Freddie Scappaticci for some time before he was exposed, being unwilling to name him, because I felt he would be killed, but I did write about Stakeknife, and talked to him on one or two occasions.

Clarke came into increasing conflict with the state as a result of his cultivation of sources: 

One was a man known as Martin Ingram, (some of you may know his real name, but I'll not give it), who was a military intelligence agent in Northern Ireland. People always have their own motives. He had various disagreements with the Army, because they didn't approve of who he married, and so on, but he was willing to disclose quite a lot about undercover activity.

Both the person who the authorities believed was him and I got arrested by Metropolitan Police Special Branch. Generally speaking in those situations, if you stay shtum and don't say much you get out if it, but I think with the state here quite often the punishment is being arrested. It disrupts your life, you maybe have a legal battle that will go on for a year or more and it could land you in a lot of expense. 

I was fortunate enough to have a newspaper supporting me and picking up the tab, but for people who didn't, independent journalists, it was a very difficult situation even if they ended up being acquitted. I remember a friend of mine, Tony Geraghty, that happened to, and his source, Nigel Wylde, over disclosing aspects of the military intelligence computer here. 

The person who does most of these things against journalists is Hugh Orde, because he had this fascination with getting hold of journalists' records. He did it with Ed Moloney, he did it with me, he did it with Suzanne Breen. He was unsuccessful in each case and ended up increasing press freedom.

The intrinsically contested and controversial role of investigative journalism in the North was underlined by a pointed question for Clarke from Sinn Fein's Jim Gibney:

[Clarke has] asked 20 questions trying to find out something about the hunger strike. He thinks there's a story there. I'd be interested to know how many times he's asked Freedom of Information questions over collusion in terms of the trail of activities from the death squads here in the streets of Belfast to Downing Street.

"Journalism and journalists generally in the nationalist and republican community are not held in high esteem", Gibney added.

They are entitled to accuse the IRA of being involved in human rights abuses, I have no issue with that, but rarely did we have any investigative journalist worth speaking about that looked at the question of collusion in any significant detail.

In an equally barbed response, Clarke rejected the suggestion that collusion is a hidden issue:

Jim's making a debating point here. If you just listened to what I said, I got arrested with Martin Ingram over trying to expose collusion, and I've done quite a lot of work on that.

I've done an awful lot on Pat Finucane. I mentioned Scappaticci because of course collusion didn't just work with one set of paramilitaries.

Irish Times writer Fionola Meredith underlined the challenges for journalists in getting the opportunity to wite about serious stories: 

Simply the fact that they are important issues isn't enough. There always has to be a news hook, or especially from the point of view of a feature writer, some kind of personal narrative. Amnesty send me [material] about various issues, from domestic violence to trafficking to sexual exploitation, I want to write about these things but you constantly have to look at the practical side and what's going to get a producer or an editor to take this thing.

Former BBC journalist Anne Cadwallader highlighted the impact of such commercial pressures on the wider role of journalism:

I've worked for thirty years as a journalist on both sides of the border in Ireland. I'm now working for the Pat Finucane Centre and I'm also on the executive of the Committee for the Administration of Justice, so I've seen both sides of this story.

I was very taken aback when I first started to meet people not as a journalist in my new job. I found both in the statutory agencies and in the families of victims, a complete change of attitude. People are much more willing to talk to me now. Their silence and reticence has turned into confidence and trust. The conclusion I've drawn from that is that the status of journalists is extremely low in this community and across the water as well.

The experience of all three writers suggests that it remains uncertain how the emerging structure of the media can accomodate serious human rights journalism, even to the limited extent that the old print and broadcast media did.   

 

About the author

Tom Griffin is a Ph.D researcher at the University of Bath and a freelance writer. He is a former Executive Editor of the Irish World.