Will judge jail journalist for doing her job..?

LATER today, Judge Tom Burgess will deliver a verdict in Belfast that will either have a chilling effect on the nature of investigative journalism across the UK, or will justify Suzanne Breen’s decision not to betray a confidential source to the police. Not that all police agree with the PSNI prosecution – Alan McQuillan, the former senior Special Branch officer and deputy chief constable of the force, who went on to head the Assets Recovery Agency here, has backed Breen’s decision. I would argue that neither Suzanne (nor Ian Paisley Jr, for that matter) deserve prison for protecting their sources. Here’s a clip I made of the NUJ protest from last Thursday explaining the importance of this case.In Laganside courthouse last Thursday, it eventually became clear that the PSNI is prepared to expose the lives of journalists to a terrorist group that regards even pizza delivery men as ‘collaborators’ – and not just Suzanne Breen’s, as the court listened to the bombshell dropped in proceedings by the counsel for the PSNI. It was mentioned by Roy Greenslade on his blog here, and was commented upon by a poster named gleamin, who is surely a cypher for the police.

The PSNI counsel, Tony McGleenan, virtually identified a journalist who had passed on information on RIRA in the past – of little evidential or intelligence value, from what was heard in court, but enough to cause concern about his/her safety. When McGleenan sprung this on the BBC’s John Ware, who has exposed more about the Omagh bomb and investigation than anyone else, the Panorama investigator was caught off guard. Yet he still had the wit to ask: “Is this person still working as a journalist?”

I thought it was incredible and irresponsible that the PSNI would deliberately expose someone who helped them to potential harm. Since the court heard that this occurred in the course of the Omagh bomb investigation, we now know that the information was of limited use, since the PSNI investigation did not lead to any successful prosecutions. Yet that journalist has been hung out to dry by the police, may now be in danger from a terrorist group and is probably unlikely to find much support amongst journalists now for breaching the NUJ code of conduct.

The PSNI’s counsel also tried to argue that because there was no legal precedent, Suzanne could not avail of an Article 2 defence (the right to life), as her life was not in imminent danger, because the threat from the RIRA was conditional upon information being disclosed to the police. This seems perverse; he was implicitly acknowledging that her life would be under threat as soon as Suzanne did as he asked.

Suzanne – photographed last week outside court with Eamonn McCann – also explained how she would not be able to continue her current work if she did so, how the life of her baby and partner would also be jeopardised, and how the authorities could not guarantee her safety if she was forced to co-operate. The petition supporting Suzanne’s stance has been signed by Nick Martin Clark, a former journalist who broke source confidentiality, who has subsequently regretted the decision and has neither set foot in Northern Ireland nor worked as a journalist since. Nor have the authorities been able to prevent attacks on those who willingly gave their assistance.

I am unsure of the legal status, if any, journalists have these days to retain source confidentiality. In 1999, Lord Chief Justice Sir Robert Carswell ruled that another judge had been wrong to order another Sunday Tribune journalist, Ed Moloney, to give up his notes on the Pat Finucane murder to the Stevens Inquiry, which, coincidentally, the current Chief Constable was also involved in. Carswell said:

Police have to show something more than a possibility that the material will be of some use. They must establish that there are reasonable grounds for believing that the material is likely to be of substantial use to the investigation.

If there are “reasonable grounds”, they will not be made public in Suzanne’s case, as the police evidence was heard behind closed doors. Nor did the wilful exposure of the journalist referred to above reveal information of “substantial use”, as it was nothing more than recollections during a phone call of a possible age, accent and so forth.

The NUJ code of conduct obliges members not to disclose information that could identify sources who have spoken in confidence, which can bring it into conflict with the law. Yet it is confidential sources who enable journalists to put into the publish and broadcast information that is in the public interest. There would have been no Watergate saga without ‘Deep Throat’. The recent expenses scandal – which is leading to wholesale reform at Westminster – was revealed through an anonymous source, although he later chose to go public. Would these and other whistleblowers have come forward if they knew that they would be exposed to a State determined to keep its secrets?

Even before last week’s evidence was heard, the judge had heard evidence in secret from the police, after which he stated he was “minded” to grant the police application to force the journalist to hand over her notes. Today we’ll find out if what he heard in public last week was enough to change his opinion and keep Suzanne from behind bars.

  • Big Maggie

    It’s immaterial whether you like or dislike the journalist at issue here. The quality of her journalism is likewise unimportant. There’s a principle at stake here. Finding against Breen could have devastating repercussions.

  • Yeah

    [text removed – mods]
    Posted by Gabriel on Jun 18, 2009 @ 10:21 AM

    Oh you daft buffoon, Breen told us about the dissappeared.. oh! and she was right.
    She told us about rapist and paedophile in the McCartney murder.. oh! and she was right.
    She located another unclaimed murder victim of the Provo/Sinn Fein murder and dissappear gangs oh! and she was right.
    She told us about the splits in the Provos oh! and she was right.
    She told us the RIRA were planning to attack Security installations oh! and she was spot on again.

    Now if the psni know all these touts and morons why didn’t they stop the attack on Masseereen or did you not stop yourself to think

  • Gaelic Con

    She’s not just “doing her job”

    By keeping tip offs and sources confidential she’s aiding and abetting terrorism.

    Ask yourself the question: are her actions helpful, or unhelpful to terrorism?

    If they’re helpful, she shouldn’t be doing it.

    End of.

  • Mick Fealty

    Guys. I’ve taken the first three attacks on Breen off. This all has the feel of that famed ‘Sinn Fein Slugger monitoring committee’.

    There is a legitimate debate to be had here, but if you breach the law in doing it, I will not only not protect you, if I’m caught up in any action, I will be doing everything myself to, as they say, ‘pursue you and hunt you down like a dog’.

    IP address are only one means of detection. DC, you particularly had better keep your head right down; for so help me I’ll be coming after you myself! If anyone can help track down any ‘character’ who steps across the legal line here, please punt me an email! It will be dealt with in total confidence.

    That said, I want to know why for years it was perfectly well accepted that people could meet with representatives of the IRA, UDA, INLA, UVF, UFF and even the Reals and not face the kind of state prosecution facing Breen?

    And tell me why people on here, some of whom who have unremittingly defended the word of such organisations in the past, are so hot in the pursuit of a journalist who seeks to defend her (and any journalist’s) right to do so now?

    And remember, stick the one clear rule of the site: play the ball and not the man!

  • Ruby Mags

    I am absolutely horrified by this case and the disregard for Breen’s life that has been shown by the PSNI and their counsel. Have they been dropped here from another planet?! Everyone knows what happens to ‘touts’ here, whether we are at peace or not, and to ask a young mother to choose between living or prison shows just how desperate and clueless the PSNI really are.

    If Breen had been a doctor, lawyer or even a priest, this case wouldn’t have gotten near a court as the rights of these professions are respected. Yet a journalist who has provided more viable and accurate information about Real IRA activity, as posted by Yeah above, has been dragged into court and lambasted for not giving them more. It’s not like Breen has the Real IRA playbook up her sleeve and is refusing to share it out of spite; she is just attempting to keep her integrity and her life intact, not to mention the lives of her family.

    It is the job of the PSNI to track down and punish these vicious criminals who are hell-bent on destroying everything we’ve built together. If they have to ruin innocent people in this process, then they are directly contravening their sole duty – to protect.

  • Big Maggie

    Belfast Gonzon,

    Please don’t think my comment was addressed to you! It may appear so now but I posted it in reply to three others that preceded it, each of which contained disgraceful slurs on Suzanne Breen.

    Thanks for removing them, Mick.

  • Big Maggie

    Gonzon = Gonzo!

  • Dec

    want to know why for years it was perfectly well accepted that people could meet with representatives of the IRA, UDA, INLA, UVF, UFF and even the Reals and not face the kind of state prosecution facing Breen?

    It’s a fair question – could it possibly be the PSNI no longer havethe famed ‘network of informers’ we’d been reassured they had in the dissidents due to the shambolic handling of previous court cases whereby the ‘mole was all too readily identified (think Gareth O’Connor for example)? Either that or someone up there has been mightily pissed off by Breen.

  • joeCanuck

    Breen has won. Recorder threw the application out totally.

  • fin

    Dec, Gareth O’ Connor?

    Thats a story that hasn’t seen the light of day for a while, not since his car and body was found in the Victoria canel, and he wasn’t on the list of RIRA Easter statement.

    here’s the judgement on the case


  • Big Maggie

    Three cheers for Breen. Three cheers for journalistic confidentiality.

    Two cheers for the PSNI.

  • Little Adams


    She got off. McCann looks like one of the Provie heavies standing behind Adams in the GFA sit com.

    Nice guy but a face only a mother could love. Is he getting any?

  • joeCanuck

    His mother is dead. Show some respect.

  • Little Adams

    “That said, I want to know why for years it was perfectly well accepted that people could meet with representatives of the IRA, UDA, INLA, UVF, UFF and even the Reals and not face the kind of state prosecution facing Breen?”



    Nothing new under the sun.

  • John

    This is a great result, whistle-blowers can now breath easy and blab, all you have to do is find a journalist that you can trust. Suzanne has proved that she is willing to go to jail before betraying any of her sources, that’s good in any mans / woman’s book. Today there are a few journalist’s in N. Ireland ashamed with themselves for secretly handing over their notes to the police. Good luck Suzanne !!

  • oracle


    Surely it is very much in the public interest when other lives are at stake.

    Remember SF gave specific undertakings not to allow the PIRA to kill former comrades who were outted as informers or long term British agents, so many of these people (and there are more that the headline makers like Donaldson) are still living openly and unprotected as they believe that the SF assurance would be good enough to keep them alive.
    Breen has publish a story that conclusively proves that the previously unknown killers of Donaldson have been identified the RIRA, and that this organisation doen’t give a hoot about SF promises to British Governments or the IMC, that if they catch up with outted SF personel working for the State that they are going to kill them without remorse.

    I think most sane people would agree DC that this is of vital interest to the public but especially to SF members revealed as informers.