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.