I looked out my kitchen window to see a man carrying a machinegun…

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IN the wake of the PSNI’s threat to use legal action to force Suzanne Breen to reveal her Real IRA sources, journalist Kathryn Johnston (pictured) recalls for Slugger the day her home was raided by the police – and calls for support for the Sunday Tribune’s northern editor.

I had a shiver of recognition when I read Suzanne Breen’s disclosure in the Tribune that the PSNI had visited her Belfast home to demand that she hand over her computer, disks, notes, phone and any material relating to stories she had written about the Real IRA.

At the end of April 2003, I looked out of my kitchen window to see a man in a navy boiler suit carrying an MP5 machinegun walking round to the back of our house. Within minutes our drive was blocked by police vehicles and two detectives were serving us with a warrant under the Official Secrets Act 1911.

The ‘reason’ for the raid? My husband, Liam Clarke, and I had published transcripts of four politically embarrassing telephone calls as an appendix to the paperback edition of our book, From Guns to Government, a biography of Martin McGuinness.

Continues below the fold.Three officers from the Technical Support Unit of the PSNI ransacked our house for the next five and a half hours on suspicion that we had committed an offence under Section 1 of the Act. By the end of the night they had seized four computer hard drives, mobile phones, files, kids’ computer games, personal financial information, contact books, and a laptop computer.

By 2am on May Day we had both been cautioned and arrested by a CID officer under the Official Secrets Act, despite our concerns for the welfare of our 8 year old daughter who was sleeping over at a neighbour’s house and was due to be left back at 8.30 that morning for school.

We complained to the Police Ombudsman about our arrests.  Her subsequent report recommended disciplinary action against eight individual officers on over thirty counts for what she described as “a poorly led and unprofessional operation”.  Sir Hugh Orde told the Ombudsman that he unequivocally accepted the recommendations in her report and would implement them.  So why have the PSNI again demanded that a journalist breach her duty of confidentiality to her source by producing her phone, computer, notes and any material relating to the story she wrote about the Real IRA?

The job of a journalist is to bring information into the public domain and to expose wrongdoing to scrutiny. It is right to extend confidentiality when people take risks to help us, but that is not an end in itself. The underlying motive behind confidentiality should always be to bring about disclosure.

There is no doubt that Suzanne’s story added to our knowledge of the Real IRA.  She carried their claim that they murdered Denis Donaldson, that they intended to strike again, and that they considered Martin McGuinness a traitor. She published the statement they intended to make the following day at their Easter commemoration in Derry, giving the police plenty of time to mount an operation to arrest and question the Real IRA spokespersons that day.  So what action did the PSNI take? Well, none really, save bullying Breen to disclose her sources, an action which would surely put the lives of her and her family at risk.

What happened to us and what Suzanne Breen is facing is just another example of a growing trend by the state to harass investigative journalists. If legitimate journalistic investigation is curtailed, it will be devastating for press freedom and democracy. The same government which boasts of its commitment to Freedom of Information uses archaic and clumsy legislation, coupled with strong arm tactics, to stifle legitimate disclosure in the public interest.  Prosecutions seldom succeed – the collapse of the cases against Nigel Wylde, Tony Geraghty, Katharine Gun, Ed Moloney and others attests to this fact.

The attempt to prosecute entails disruption, expense and stress which is enough to discourage others from tangling with the authorities. For every public servant, or potential source, or journalist who is charged with revealing secrets, there are many others who read in the press and watch on television the disruption to their lives, the lengthy and dispiriting court battles they are forced to engage in, their public naming and shaming, and decide they do not want to take that risk.

Handing over your sources to the police brands journalists as untrustworthy and means that people reluctant to speak to the police won’t speak to the press either. The result is that less information comes into the public domain. A chill factor which militates against disclosure, the main business of journalism, is created.

There are a few journalists who have broken confidentiality to their source.  One is Nick Martin-Clark, who did co-operate with police. The loyalist paramilitary Clifford McKeown was sentenced on Martin-Clark’s evidence after boasting in a prison interview that he had murdered Michael McGoldrick, a young Catholic taxi driver, as a “birthday present” for Billy “King Rat” Wright, founder of the Loyalist Volunteer Force.  It was obvious that McKeown would have no compunction about killing again. Martin-Clark agonised over the promise of confidentiality McKeown had demanded before making his disclosure. “In the end”, he said, “my duty as a citizen was more important.?  He still lives under a witness protection scheme and can never again visit Northern Ireland, his main interest of journalistic work.

Most journalists do not agree with Martin Clark’s decision, in fact he was expelled from the NUJ. However, there is no denying that life is messy and, as he says, there can be a tension between our duties as citizens and our duties as journalists.

There is no such dilemma in Suzanne Breen’s case. Her interviewee was not the killer of the soldiers and her testimony would not lead to conviction or the prevention of future crime.

The clear balance of public interest lies in preserving confidentiality, and she deserves all our support. If the courts do not uphold this position it is they, and not she, who will lose credibility.

,

  • joeCanuck

    Eloquent account by Ms. Johnston, and very persuasive.
    Apart from which, any “evidence” that Ms.Breen could offer would be simply hearsay which would never be admissible in Court, I believe.

  • pól

    Of course Joe. Great piece. It’s amazing that journalists can get bullied here for hiding their sources like this. Look at the state of Fleet Street and their continued usage of the “Dark Arts”. Severe illegality is everyday business in the English press, but it’s very rare that the police do anything about that.

  • Complainant 1

    http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/government-unmasked-ferry-safety-whistleblower-14101733.html

    DRD don’t appear to have the same moral dilemma.

    I understand that the “whistle blower” in this case made valid and proper disclosures as the relevant legislation would uphold.

    These disclosures were made to relevant government departments and not to a journalist.

    Let’s hope there is no “independent investigation”….

  • DC

    I’m sorry I cant support this nonsense.

    Breen failed to publish anything of worth, she acted as the collector of information, just because she played little part in the production of terror, or if you like in the meting out and distribution of it, she still ‘collected’ the info. Which in the end was distributed.

    The times now are different, the people are the water in which the revolutionary fish flow. This water has since turned into a tiny little trickle and only a few big fish left in that and they are almost in full view: ready to be scooped out; yet the definition and the ability to pin point isn’t honed in enough yet. Breen could help.

    This isn’t the murky 70s where the Provos spoke to the papers so as to pass message back to the British who couldn’t figure out what was happening in terms of the IRA on the ground. The British state could neither protect key parts of the state well: the army and indeed civilians were killed. Then it would respect the right of journalists to keep their sources silent to keep themselves alive and the *useful* sources.

    TODAY, it is different the state can pretty much protect itself against this group given the changes to the political landscape, the police can help Breen in terms of protection.

    What Breen wrote about was nothing new, it was banal, it’s like if you give Peter Mandelson a blank page he’ll write about New Labour, same with these guys except it’s about murder, now there is close to 1.7 million people here against it. If murder to them is an end in itself, why collect this nonsense and pass it off as something we already know? It just seems like bragging on the part of the RIRA. Besides, most importantly of all, what’s more important: the potential to protect lives by helping the police to hone in better on these thoughtless idiots, or to help protect them?

    Suzanne (I know she reads Slugger) NI is a small place and any info could help, think of Omagh, I have no doubt that if it were me, better to fuck journalism and do something to effect positive change in NI, do something better than any little article ever could. Reveal your sources and pick up another career elsewhere, manager of news office etc, or whatever? For example, 85% of those with degrees as archeologists retrain and do something different with their lives; life long learning and retraining is the thing, is it not?

    Or maybe Suzanne is deep down frightened that if she reveals her sources she will be targeted and meted out the sort of treatment as per Omagh and Massereene if she tells. Yet not telling only serves to increase this terror on unsuspecting others who will suffer something similar to Omagh/Massereene, something that she doesn’t want to suffer herself by telling.

    Question: What’s journalism anyway today? Fuck it, give it up and do something worth your while with your life by probably saving other lives, for goodness sake. Give over the info.

    [Libellous material removed. Material like this puts the future of the open ended nature of the site in jeopardy. Red Card!. Continuance will result in publication of real world ID - ]

    With the Real IRA, murder is an end in itself, nothing worth reporting there: it’s just nihilism. And that’s banal, a story with no useful or positive purpose.

  • Complainant1

    What the “great and good” of Slugger tend to forget is that its the “wee people” who get “fucked over”.

    It is not the journalists, the government , but the person with the “audacity” to speak out who trembles for their kneecaps, at the very least.

    Suzanne, is protected by lawyers and her union, I hope.

  • complainant1

    DC
    Recent FOI requests would further indicate that enough material has been handed over to journalists, but that none have “balls enough” to prevent potential loss of life.
    “Pot/kettle?”

  • Dave

    It is essentially a calculated act of bullying by the PSNI that is designed to “put manners” on uppity journalists.

    As Kathryn Johnston points out, even if the PSNI get no direct result from harassing Suzanne Breen, they get an indirect pay-off by creating a climate of fear and harrassment that will serve to deter other journalists from similar acts in future. And it surely is an embarrassment to the PSNI that Ms Breen was able to inform the public which group(supposedly) killed Donaldson when the PSNI was not or did not.

    It is also an extremely dangerous form of police harassment since it directly exposes the journalist to the threat of loss of both career and life on one side of the choice and to considerable unpleasantness from the State on the other.

    Perhaps the rules need to be codified so that a request for information is made by the PSNI to the journalist’s editor or union in future, thereby removing the ‘terror’ tactics that the PSNI use to harass these journalists. At any rate, just as the PSNI makes a calculation that other journalists will cower, then the journalists should make a calculation that the PSNI will cower if those journalists give the PSNI one hell of a bad press every time they pull a stunt like this. Deterrence by dread of consequences is a game that two can play.

  • Dave

    By the way, the “game” doesn’t have to trivilise such reporting. There is plenty of legitimate questions that should be raised about the police in the media but which the police would rather were not addressed by public via the media.

  • Neil

    I think it’s outrageous that the police think they have any right to demand any information of any kind. By handing information to the PSNI she would not only be risking her own life (which she’s under no obligation to do Omagh or otherwise), she would be deterring any future source from disclosing information. Not just the RIRA either, think of any source that a newspaper uses – would someone give information about any criminal activity if they thought the highly unprofessional PSNI were to weigh down on them?

    Bearing in mind that this is the police force that made us all so proud by their behaviour in the past six months, with the series of high profile cases that have been lost due to their mishandling of evidence and other misbehaviour. The same PSNI that has a clear up rate of around 20%? As I said initially, it’s completely fucking outrageous that these people think they can demand that a journalist do their jobs for them, get off your collective fat holes and do it yourselves.

  • Reap and sow

    Apr 9 – Martin McGuinness

    Unsurprisingly our republican co-ruler is somewhat consumed with dissidents and their doings. But even Insider ears pricked up (our ears are everywhere) on hearing the senior Sinn Fein figure had launched an attack on “dissident” journalists.

    The unexpected outburst came at a private briefing for political correspondents with Mr Robinson at Stormont, and Mr McGuinness made clear he was not referring to any of the fine men around the Executive table.

    The Mid Ulster MP is normally unflappable in the presence of the Press (unlike his power-sharing partner Peter) but said: “We still have dissident journalists.” indicating that everyone knew who he was talking about, Marty opined that such scribes were writing in a way which is “giving succour to these people”.

    Is anyone surprised the PSNI then goes after Suzanne Breen?

  • Mediacynic

    “PRIVATE BRIEFING FOR POLITICAL CORRESPONDENTS”

    Is that where they tell ye what you are allowed to cover, (or not) as the case may be?

    Surely therefore “dissident” journalists are a good thing?

    Damien Mc Bride might not agree

  • Complainant1

    The job of a journalist is to bring information into the public domain and to expose wrongdoing to scrutiny

    Hmm….

    “Dissident” and proud

    a person who disagrees with a government or a powerful organization

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    It would be nice if journalists did more investigation and acted less as messengers for the good, the bad and mainly the ugly

  • Pigeon Toes

    Nevin,
    If you continue on that line there will be no more sponsored http://www.stratagem-ni.com/awards for you!

  • Mick Fealty

    PT, do keep up. Why do you think he won a Slugger Award in the first place?

  • Pigeon Toes

    Mick,
    I can only guess that it was assisting in the game, not for the rightful value of his blog….

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Belfast Gonzo, what credibility do the courts have to lose?

    I can think of one recent case where one judge reversed the judgement of another judge. Let’s not and never assume that the judges are impartial.

    In a small place like NI it’s quite possible that some guilty parties and some judges may dine together on a regular basis.

    In another instance I noted that the full name of a company had not been given in a court judgement. I made some inquiries with the Courts Service and they were unable to determine from the judge the full name of the company. It was quite clear from the documentation that a space had been left for the detail that would clearly have identified the company and all the ‘juicy’ information that follows from that.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “the police think they have any right to demand any information of any kind.”

    Neil, perhaps it’s worth pointing out that the police are the servants of the state or, in the case of NI, two states; their actions are politically circumscribed. Naturally, not all police officers dance to the state’s political tune.

  • Mick Fealty

    PT, another time perhaps? It’s a bit off topic. Email me if you want to feed back further?

  • Hurler on the ditch

    [Text removed -Play the ball!! - mods] it would seem to me that this in the short to medium term especially if there is a court case etc .. is one up for the dizzies and the dissenters – the PSNI Over l-Ordes in this case may have own goaled and badly self agrandised their acclaimed public support after recent events.

    Im thinking thats not only a bad call for the Neo’s that might back fire on them big time but the blowback will most especially affect the Derry Deputy in the time ahead and he knows it.

    [Text removed -Play the ball!! - mods]

    As an aside, on the Mr Adam’s other best friend issue could it be that what may have happened there is that the actual trigger man/men may have recently hooked up their cart as it were to the Reals (Ive read there is a lot of that about these days) and during the initial ‘job interview’ submitted their full cv to perhaps gain better pay and benefits?

    And again its a guessing game, might a delighted Derry Don ‘ so full as a l-Orde with self agrandisement’ have jumped at the chance to make an albeit opportune yet vacuous (I mean did you READ that nonsense they spouted to Ms Breen?) years old ‘claim of responsibility’ on such a prestigiously and popular (?) hit.

    If there is any merit in my morning speculation it kinda makes you ponder what else might have recently been claimed but unactioned, a la another man’s wound so to speak – Incidently a crime bitterly detested (almost as much as the despicable act of touting) in the traditional republican midset.

    Ive a feeling there’s a real story or two lurking about in there somewhere Ms Breen … Stay focused and keep your chin up … Ps Love your work :-)

  • Ulsters my homeland

    I can’t understand how a journalist can expect to keep criminal imformation private. If they had any morals at all, they would disclose criminal information to the police.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    “If legitimate journalistic investigation is curtailed, it will be devastating for press freedom and democracy.”

    Who or what is currently curtailing journalistic investigation? Investigative journalists appear to be a bit thin on the ground and getting thinner.

    Some journalists seem happy to cut and paste press releases; they achieve ‘balance’ by compiling cuttings from across the spectrum or just from the extremes.

    I was intrigued by Mick’s recent comment on the radio that I lit a fire that IIRC led to the resignation of the former First Minister. Me, a blogger arsonist :)

    Well, “Where was the fire brigade?,” I ask, me being an old cynic. Was it too busy putting out fires alongside the Bushmills and Giants Causeway Railway track or was it locked behind the gates of an ornate private development? Where were the journalistic beaters on those occasions? :)

    The investigative journalist and the independent blogger operating in tandem can have an unnerving effect on Government ministers and the Sir Humphreys and I think that’s very healthy for the body politic.

  • PigeonToes

    Nevin,

    How do you manage to kill so many

    threads?

  • bover

    She hasnt been arrested and if in the unlikely event she were and it was to go to court the Maloney judgement would still be relevant.
    I’m sure Suzanne Breen knows that.
    And its not her job to investigate murders and I’m sure the people she speaks to are under surveilance or more likely police informants anyway so I doubt there is anything she could tell the PSNI that they dont already know.
    The Tribune reads like the Real IRA news these days so I suppose in some ways this isnt that unexpected but pretty poor PR move on the part of the police.

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    It’s not dead; it’s just resting, PT.

  • http://86.134.171.131 oldhack

    It was indeed a poor PR move by the PSNI, but it was hardly unprecedented. Belfast newspapers are well used to detectives turning up on their doorsteps unannounced and seeking information about paramilitary-linked stories. They are usually refered to the editor, and the paper’s policy is explained. As a general rule, that is the end of the matter. It would be wrong to assume that such approaches are always sanctioned at a senior level, although the Liam Clarke case was pretty clearly down to a political intervention. However, many rank and file detectives, probably due to a lack of training,apparently do not appreciate that there may be sensitivities involved in dealing with journalists.

  • whither verity

    “There is no such dilemma in Suzanne Breen’s case. Her interviewee was not the killer of the soldiers and her testimony would not lead to conviction or the prevention of future crime.”

    Wouldn’t being a member of the “Army Council” of the RIRA leave Breen’s interviewees open to a possible charge of directing terrorism? Further, how does Johnston know that those whom Breen interviewed weren’t involved in the murders?

    Breen claimed on the BBC on Monday that the men she interviewed were “masked” but in a lengthy, detailed and some might feel less than rigorously critical article about the Massareene attack, she seems to have neglected this fairly significant detail. Perhaps she forgot. Doh!

    She described Sinn Fein’s condemnation initially as “watery”. Good to know she puts great store by the words people use. On the BBC she spoke about Omagh being a “massacre” but, oddly enough, in this article she notes merely that 29 people “died”. How careless of them.

    “The Real IRA launched a series of bombings in Northern Ireland and mainland Britain. However, the Omagh bombing in August 1998 – in which 29 people died, including nine children, and 220 were injured – and its aftermath devastated the organisation.” Twenty-nine people died but it was “the organisation” which was “devastated”. Is this her view or a quote?

    In her opinion and she states it as her opinion, the Real IRA are “deadly professional”. People in Omagh could speak to the verity of that, the deadly bit anyway. Hardly any of the other pitiful Real IRA attacks could be described as professional, not even Massareene.

    “In 1997, when the Provisional IRA was briefly back “at war”, it murdered a British soldier, Stephen Restorick, in south Armagh. Like the troops at Massereene, he wasn’t kicking in nationalist doors when he was killed – he was smiling at a local Catholic woman, Lorraine McElroy, handing her back her driving licence, when he was shot in the head.” This time she does use the word murder but only in respect of a Provisional IRA killing. Breen likes to write spiky jibes and provocative, tendentious articles about the IRA and Sinn Fein which is good for her except that it seems to warp her reporting as the unfortunate last sentence of the following paragraph demonstrates.

    “Claiming responsibility for the attack on Massereene, the Real IRA made no apology for shooting the pizza delivery men who they said were “collaborating with British rule in Ireland” by servicing the soldiers. In 1990, the Provisional IRA turned Patsy Gillespie, a civilian who worked as a British Army cook, into a human bomb. He was forced to drive a car laden with explosives into a checkpoint; the bomb was set off remotely, killing Gillespie and five soldiers. So it’s logically difficult for anyone who supported the Provisional IRA, and such attacks, to abhor the Real IRA.”

    It seems doubtful that the RIRA will do to Breen what they did to the British soldiers and pizza delivery men in Antrim. And in case you forget what that was, here’s a breathless account of the attack from you know who, “The Real IRA gunmen weren’t to know that the security guards on the gate, or other soldiers, wouldn’t return fire. It was an even more audacious attack because unionist south Antrim is hostile territory for the organisation.”

    And once the terrorists got into the barracks they, “…riddled with bullets four British soldiers and two delivery men who were dropping off pizzas,” according to Breen.

    In a post-Massareene article in the Tribune she canvassed a range of republican opinion including Willie Gallagher, Richard O’Rawe and Geraldine Taylor. Could it be that she only asked those critical of Adams so that she could have quotes that fit in with a particular agenda?
    http://www.tribune.ie/article/2009/mar/15/the-week-the-funerals-returned/?q=Real IRA

    Hacks should protect their sources but her life is not at risk.

    http://www.sundayherald.com/search/display.var.2495559.0.not_again.php

  • Bon mot

    Whither Verity,

    I am surprised and disappointed that you failed to include that other choice phrase from Ms Breen’s reporting on the Masserene atrocity.

    ‘If the RIRA had a slogan if would probably be “An Armalite in one hand – and we don’t do ballot boxes”‘

    I will leave the good denizens of Slugger to ponder that piece of dispassionate reportage.

  • Neil

    It makes damn all odds whether she was interviewing the quartermaster or the RIRA tea boy. Once you hand over your sources to the police, you no longer have any sources. Why would anyone ever talk to her again? So if we allow this kind of thuggish behaviour from teh PSNI what happens? All sources know that if they talk to a journo they will have their identity known to the police, so they won’t talk.

    This means people talking about illegal behaviour in government, illegal behaviour perpetrated by PSNI members etc. The press has protection for exactly that reason, so that the forces of the state cannot prevent the publication of information that is in the public interest. If she hands over her sources, or indeed if the police illegally try to sieze the information, then that will be the beginning of the end of press freedom.

    This would suit no-one more than the PSNI, who would I’m sure have loved to surpress many, many stories detailing the illegal behaviour of the police. I wonder what would have become of the recruits who passed information to the press regarding PSNI officers handbraking their car, speeding, with guns drawn playing ‘party tunes’.

  • Mick Fealty

    There’s a good piece on the Media Show this afternoon when Steve Hewlett interviewed John Gaunt about SunTalk Radio.

    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00k40l5

    Gaunt showboats and Hewlett lets him. Then finally you can tell Gaunt is disappointed to not have wound up the liberal lefty, and he has to answer the reasonable questions the listener wants to hear about SunRadio and Internet Radio in general.

    This thread and several related thread has that same self serving melodramatic feel to it. There’s an obsession here with the messenger and a determination on the part of some, to obscure whatever messages there are to be taken out of this episode. And there is almost certainly more than one.

    I would just ask people to look down the thread and note that legitimate criticism will always be sustained. But is there any way we can move this conversation on to some of the other legitimate questions that objectively arise?

  • picador

    Sorry Mick didn’t see your last post.

    The police – and other professions – should be open to criticism – as this thread shows (or perhaps they shouldn’t and it should be pulled?). What about the press?

    Should journalists be allowed a clear run on ‘self-serving melodrama’? Should they be treated as holier than the rest of us. If so why?

  • Dave

    [i]The Mid Ulster MP is normally unflappable in the presence of the Press (unlike his power-sharing partner Peter) but said: “We still have dissident journalists.” indicating that everyone knew who he was talking about, Marty opined that such scribes were writing in a way which is “giving succour to these people”.[/i]

    “Is anyone surprised the PSNI then goes after Suzanne Breen?” – Reap and sow

    Interesting. And with rather obvious parallels to the former Tory minister Douglas Hogg who, after a briefing from the RUC, infamously condemned lawyers in Northern Ireland for doing their job, conflating the occupation with partisanship: “I have to state as fact, but with great regret, that there are in Northern Ireland a number of solicitors who are unduly sympathetic to the IRA.” Of course, a ‘dissident lawyer’ Patrick Finucane was subsequently murdered by the UDA in collusion with the RUC in response to those remarks. Now we have “dissident journalists” to add to ‘dissident lawyers’ and another ‘political policing’ follow-up of another minister’s remarks.

    It’s also interesting that a lot of Shinners are singing from a scripted hymn sheet regarding Ms Breen, and I doubt it has anything to do with viewpoints on press freedom or the cooperation with the PSNI but is rooted in more ulterior dynamics.

  • picador

    There are now a number of posts on this subject. But the law is ultimately on Ms Breen’s side. The peelers will have to wind their neck in.