Jeremy Dear: Source of our freedom and some notes on a scandal

Written By: Tribune web editor
Published: May 25, 2009 Last modified: May 25, 2009

I APPEARED before the Home Affairs Select Committee a couple of weeks ago and was asked by a Tory MP if, in the wake of the G20 protests, I would encourage journalists to hand over film and photographs to help the police identify the troublemakers. I was tempted to say, in light of the video footage of alleged agent provocateurs, that they should know who most of them are – after all, they would be paying them. But instead I just said no.

I clearly upset the young Conservative and he appeared to froth a little before the chair moved on to the next inquisitor.

Events in Belfast over the past few days demonstrate why I was so happy (apart from the obvious reasons) to upset my Conservative challenger.

Suzanne Breen, the northern editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune became the latest journalist to feel the pressure of the security services. She faces an order to hand over all her material relating to articles about the Real IRA shooting of two British soldiers in March.

Suzanne faces charges under terrorism legislation with withholding information from the police and faces imprisonment even though she has been denied the chance to hear the police’s case. That means she has to present her case without having heard the other side’s version. Really. That’s how absurd the terrorism legislation is. Understandably, Suzanne’s lawyer asked how she was supposed to offer a legal defence in those circumstances. Presumably, the authorities think he’s just being picky.

It’s like a game of blind man’s bluff. But it’s more than a game – it’s downright dangerous and a gross injustice.

It is alleged that Suzanne received a call from someone claiming responsibility for the shootings of soldiers in County Antrim. As well as telephone records relating to the claim, the police are also after information from an interview Suzanne did with a senior Real IRA representative in which it was claimed that the murder of Denis Donaldson, a senior Sinn Fein official and an MI5 agent, was carried out by the Real IRA.

The journalist’s right to protect the sources of confidential information is a principle that has always been upheld by the National Union of Journalists and other press freedom organisations and, generally, by the courts. In other Northern Ireland cases of journalists such as Ed Moloney of the Irish Times and Alex Thomson and Sarah Ferguson of Channel 4 News, the courts have upheld the principle and rejected attempts to secure production orders.

If Suzanne doesn’t give up her notes, she could be sent to prison. If she does she could face the wrath of her sources. In the context of the conflict she is covering, it would put her life at risk. That’s a nice line in understatement.

For Suzanne’s sake, this order must be resisted – and the court must reject attempts by the police to turn a journalist in to an informant. But her case has a huge impact beyond the streets of Belfast or County Antrim and for people who’ve never met or even heard of Suzanne Breen.

Any threat to the protection of sources is a direct threat to whistle-blowers and therefore not in the public interest.

Recent revelations about the abuse of elderly people in care homes and the laying bare of the greed and hypocrisy of too many MPs would not have been made if the person exposing the truth did not have the confidence the journalist would protect their source.

It’s perhaps put best and simplest by Suzanne herself. “It doesn’t matter whether those sources are police, paramilitaries, politicians, or civil servants. Compromising sources undermines the freedom of the press. Journalists and police do different jobs. Our role is to put information into the public domain. If a journalist becomes a gatherer of evidence or witness for the state, they cease being a journalist.”

That Tory MP and the rest of us would be wise to listen to her words now – while we can, before the state or the paramilitaries silence her.
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Jeremy Dear is general secretary of the National Union of Journalists