Silence Not an Option

THREATS to journalism and journalists from paramilitaries and governments and police were put under the microscope at the Journalism Under Threat" conference held at Queen's University, Belfast on Saturday 22 November 2003. Organised by the NUJ's Ethics Council, it was co-sponsored by Queen's University Belfast Human Rights Centre and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC). NEC member and chair of Belfast and District Branch Gerry Carson welcomed delegates to Belfast.

The conference heard that, six years into the Belfast Agreement, more journalists than ever - sixteen - are living under paramilitary threat.

The key topics of discussion revolved around the implications of the still-unsolved murder of investigative reporter and secretary to the NUJ's Belfast and District Branch Martin O'Hagan, shot dead by loyalists on 28 September 2001. His murder has provoked claims of security force collusion.

John Toner - photo © Kevin Cooper
Are existing legal protections for investigative journalists seeking to protect sources or material in the face of hostile legal or political environments adequate? What and the boundaries of journalistic confidentiality? The conference dealt in particular with the ramifications for northern-based NUJ members of a recent Belfast murder trial, in which Nick Martin Clarke, a self-described English journalist, broke his promise and gave evidence against a loyalist being tried for murder. Jeremy Dear, NUJ General Secretary, opened the conference by congratulating NUJ Ethics Council servicing officer John Toner and NUJ Northern Ireland Committee (NIC) Chair Kevin Cooper "for organizing something which couldn't be more timely or vital".

He slammed the weekend's attack on a Sunday World reporter by the INLA (drug gang) and governments for failing to halt the growing attacks on journalists. He added that the NUJ was "immensely proud" of the work of local journalists, including Martin O'Hagan. It was "outrageous" that no one has yet been charged in relation to his killing.

Dear then broadened the context by concluding that governments, just like paramilitaries, intimidate journalists: "through fear, with the weapons of injunction, threats of imprisonment, financial ruin and the seizure of information." It had, he said, become "central government strategy to attack those who ask awkward questions." (text of speech)

Conflict between journalists and the criminal justice system

The first panel included Sir Louis Blom-Cooper, Dermot Feenan, Michael Lavery QC and Austin Hunter, Director of Media and Public Relations for the Police Service of Nothern Ireland (PSNI). (detailed notes)

They debated whether there are sufficient legal safeguards under existing international treaties and conventions and UK laws, for investigative and news journalists, drawing on the Goodwin and Moloney cases. Or had UK governments, they asked, enabled judges to duck press safeguards?

Austin Hunter - photo © Kevin Cooper
Hunter acknowledged there have been major issues involving police raids on journalists, but said both sides had agreed to build a stronger professional relationship.

The conference also heard a call from banking representative Robert Thompson, a member of the Officer Board of the Union and the IBOA Officer for the National Australia Group, for the NUJ, PSNI and the northern Irish legal system to stop naming individual bank officials in the reportage of bank raids.

Journalism and human rights

Ciarán Ó Maolain, NIHRC researcher, give an overview of the government's obligations under international treaties and the main human rights principles affecting "best journalism" standards. (text of speech) He was followed by Jane Winter of British Irish Rights Watch (BIRW) (notes).

She acknowledged the chilling effects of the conflict on journalism and journalists, including the "most chilling of all" - Martin O'Hagan's murder - and the raids on journalists Anthony McIntyre, Liam Clarke and wife Kathryn Johnson, and government injunctions.

But she pasted journalists for not appreciating the dangers inherent in the Blair government's upcoming Civil Contingencies Bill, which she said, posed the gravest threat to civil liberties and free press. She criticised "the widespread assumption by the media, based on Irish government briefings, that Michael McKevitt was the leader of the RIRA." And she criticised the bugging of loyalist Ken Barrett by the (then) RUC, and secret recording of him by the BBC Panorama programme, in relation to the murder of solicitor Pat Finucane.

She demanded journalists ask themselves profound ethical questions. What is more important: "telling the true story, or the right to a fair trial?" And: "if a case would not stand up in court, is it right to brand someone as a murderer via the media?" Describing insensitive treatment of the trauma of Troubles victims, she said: "Good journalism makes the world a better place, bad journalism just makes matters worse."  

Personal experiences

In the third panel journalist Bill Goodwin, NUJ Irish Secretary Séamus Dooley, northern editor of Dublin broadsheet The Sunday Tribune Susan McKay and Kathryn Johnston, author and journalist described their direct experiences.

Goodwin recounted successfully taking a defence of his right to protect his sources to the European Court of Human Rights. Séamus Dooley then spoke on the range of challenges to journalists, from paramilitary threats to broader issues facing southern Irish media, including the Irish government's undermining of the recent Freedom of Information Act and proposals to criminalize contacts between Gardai and journalists as checks on press freedoms.

Séamus Dooley - photo © Kevin Cooper

Kathryn Johnston gave a personal account of the harrowing impact on her and her family of the recent PSNI raid on her home. Susan McKay talked about the implications for northern-based journalists of the Nick Martin Clarke case, especially in the wake of Martin O'Hagan's murder.

She said Martin Clarke's actions in giving evidence against a source, breaking an oath of confidentiality in the process, had undermined what she called the "highpoint for Irish journalism" - the 1999 Ed Moloney case, who defied a threat of prison to defend his right to protect sources, and it had damaged journalism and possibly put journalists lives at risk: "What he did was say there was no such thing as 'off the record'. That was very dangerous for journalists in Northern Ireland, especially in light of the fact that Martin O'Hagan has been killed specifically for being a journalist."

Certainly the case has caused wide differences of opinion within the NUJ on confidentiality, and also provoked concern after the judge said UK courts do not recognise journalistic confidentiality.

But she also criticised the reckless reporting of material from "quite dodgy security sources." She explained the last year's news had been marked by massive "fake stories" on Stormontgate, Colombia, Castlereagh and "Stakeknife", which contributed directly to the collapse of the Belfast institutions. "We need to be suspicious, when people are so ready to provide information, that we are not in fact being used. Sometimes in the last year I felt as if we were all part of The Truman Show, where we are like Jim Carey, thinking we are living our life, when in fact we are powerless characters in a soap opera where everything that happened to us was in fact scripted." Summing up she said: "While we need to be able to write stories, we shouldn't always write them, just because we can." She urging journalists not to fall victim to maligning people to suit the political agendas of others.

Journalism in a political landscape

The panelists were Kevin Cooper, chair of the NUJ's Northern Ireland Committee (notes), Chris Frost, Chair of the NUJ Ethics Council, Dr. John Coulter, a researcher for the 1991 Channel 4 "Committee" programme and Nick Jones, veteran BBC "Wapping" political correspondent.

Chris Frost, author and head of Journalism at Liverpool University, gave an overview of the philosophical justifications for journalists - "to find news or information that people can use to help construct their understanding of their own personal universe, so they can use that for political or other forms of decision-making."

Nick Jones then spoke passionately and convincingly about the impact on journalism of the recent Kelly-Gilligan affair, and drew on his own experience of the tensions between breaking and respecting a journalistic oath of confidentiality. John Coulter, now a senior journalism lecturer, gave an account of the personal and professional isolation he suffered from for his role in the 1991 C4 documentary The Committee, which exposed RUC involvement in state murder. He also contrasted his refusal to name his source with that of Nick Martin Clarke.

Kevin Cooper lashed those who shamefully harassed NUJ members during the conflict, from republicans to loyalists to both Irish and UK governments, and having recounted journalist casualties, including the murder of Martin O'Hagan. He stressed the NUJ must be seen to defend its core principles, an issue he and others local NUJ members feel needs to be done and seen to be done. He typically summed up local NUJ members concerns - "Silence is not an option."

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