Breen case: Idle politics has led to targeting of ‘dissident journalists’

Xena Breena Warrior Princess

Plenty has already been said about the precise nature of Suzanne Breen’s court victory over the PSNI. But as I noted here on the When Slugger Cowpes site yesterday, it is a highly conditional one. A view also taken by Will Crawley and Roy Greenslade. However over on Comment is Free, I have tried to lay out some of the political context for this situation, with an Executive that’s becoming increasing dysfunctional with each that passes, and in that vacuum it’s main protagonists both feeling what they had conceived of as the cold hand of the past pressing on their shoulders…

Cartoon by John Kennedy

, , ,

  • Danny O’Connor

    If,by “dissident”, he means investigative journalists who seek the truth rather than accept as truth the shite that comes from him and the likes,then I hope that there are many more out there.
    Maybe he would have described the late Marty O’Hagan or Veronica Guerin as dissidents.
    The pen is mightier than the sword.

  • chip wrapper

    So now we congratulate Journalists on the information they withold rather than that which they expose.

    Veronica Guerin gave her life exposing gangsterism.

    If the Tribune’s policy is never to expose criminality what is it for?

  • Mick Fealty


    That may be the way you see it, but it is not the way the law currently stands. This judgement does not introduce automatic rights, but introduces an imperative to balance public interest (in combating the activities and means of terrorist organisations) with a journalist’s right to protect their sources.

  • chip wrapper

    “This judgement does not introduce automatic rights, but introduces an imperative to balance public interest (in combating the activities and means of terrorist organisations) with a journalist’s right to protect their sources.”

    No Mick

    A journalist’s right to protect their life.

    The Tribune made a lot of sales that day. They did so on the basis of an RIRA PR release, not on the basis of any investigative reporting. At least when a commercial firm releases PR the papers usually ask about a bit of advertising.

    This was not journalism. It was parastism.

  • Mick Fealty

    Go and read the judgement, here’s the bit on the Cowpe site that makes it perfectly clear.

    So you are wrong on a crucial point. IN fact the only crucial point you raise. The rest is merely a criticism of the editorial (political) line of the paper. It fits fairly well with my suggestion that there’s been a developing culture of intolerance for journalists who sing notes that are not on the prescribed hymn sheet.

    And it completely ignores two other things worth mentioning: the MSM had been taking statements from P O’Neill and others with impunity from the security forces (and the Securocrats) for years; and two, SF was previously the victim of this kind of screening out of journalists who wanted to give them a voice when they too were doing some pretty despicable things. An irony lost on no one who gives this story more than a second thought.

    Some evidently thought ‘the rules’ needed changing… The judge clearly thinks otherwise…

  • chip wrapper

    Someone who is supposed to investgate and report on terrorism is now compromised because they know the identity of members of the RIRA but have given an undertaking not to reveal it. What they could and should have done was to tell their contact that they were in the business of informing their readership, not in the business of issuing RIRA PR statements without further investigation, and that the RIRA would be better to just post a general release to all the papers.

    The scoop was more important than professional integrity when it suited. When it doesn’t professional integrity is more important than the next victim’s life.

  • The Accused

    Chip wrapper, or should it be Chip on the shoulder

    This is an outstanding judgement for all the media.
    It basically means instead of the PSNI automatically getting an order and the jurnalist/paper/nuj/radio station/tv ect ect then having to argue in court why the order should not be granted, the Journalist right to confidentiality is the standing order and the PSNI have to go to court to argue why they should get access to it.

    I can’t impress upon you enough the difference in the two positions but it’s not lost on legal sources, each and everyone of them realised the importance of the ruling by Tom Burgess.

    So fair play to Suzanne Breen for taking this to court and risking a custodial sentence for her beliefs, remember far too many media outlets have done technical deals in legal departments to get the PSNI to go away from their doors, she and the Sunday Tribune didn’t.
    If you don’t like the order there’s nothing anyone can do to make you feel better but a quick look at the petition of the people who supported her stance and the quality of the 5,000 names from former assistant chief constables to senior detectives to academics to writers like Roddy Doyle and John Pilgner to CAJ, Amnesty International to the entire NUJ should let you know that perhaps your judgement is somewhat flawed.

    Or perhaps you have a dislike of Suzanne Breen out of jealousey, but I would argue that you personally wouldn’t have the courage in a lifetime that this woman shows any given day of the week

  • chip wrapper

    Why would I be jealous of any journalist?

    Why would I be jealous of someone who’s job is to reprint the crime reports issued by those people who actually do undertake investigation, and who do put their own safety at risk and, on alternate days, to reprint the PR statements of people who put bullets in their heads.

    A fine profession. You must be proud.

    This isn’t about the protection of people who may have undertaken personal risk to bring important information to the public. It’s about a paper that compromised itself for a scoop and then cries foul when people charged with protecting life ask it to show the repsonsibility it should have done in the first place.

  • …..with an Executive that’s becoming increasing dysfunctional….

    No. An Executive that was dysfunctional to start with, continues to be dysfunctional, and will only cease to be dysfunctional when it..erm, ceases to function.

    Let’s just accept that the useless Executive needs levelled and then we can get on with living our lives in peace – after all, the terrorists have all gone away, haven’t they?

  • Roman E Lowse

    “MSM had been taking statements from P O’Neill and others with impunity from the security forces”

    Actually Danny Morrisson faced charges over this. He got off when his solicitor asked why he was not also charged with UVF membership. He had a statement from them too.

    Point is: don’t lose the run of yourself. Those who are not MI5 agents are most likely nobodies.

  • Danny O’Connor

    Chip Wrapper
    I was not commenting on the judgement,I was commenting on the term ” dissident journalists “.

    Just because someone doesn’t agree with the Politburo seems to be enough to deride them.

  • Danny O’Connor

    The term used by the joint fm

  • coca cola

    There is nothing heroic about Breen,s actions in fact it is the opposite. This is a murder investigation breen can provide important information i.e at a minumim she can estimate age,sex,accent distinguishing speech telephone number. At best she can provide the identity of the terrorist making the call. She can do all of that in confidence and no one would know any better. But she choose to grab a headline, sell a few papers and become a hero in the eyes of some jounalists. Would she do the same if a journalist had been murdered? Investigative journalist my a**e.

  • puca

    Surely what is important is the principle involved here. The fact that the case revolves around Breen is secondary and quite unimportant. The Sunday Tribune could be gone (again) within the year but the precedent in this case remains. And it is an important prerequisite of a free press that the cops can’t access a journalists notes. If journalists cooperate with the police then they would not have access to the kind of information Breen has in this case. her quality as a journalist is of no consequence here. Indeed a similar case in the US involved the awful Judith Miller, little more than a stenographer for the Pentagon, and though she is detested for her spineless propaganda her case was supported because it involves a bedrock principle of democracy.

  • Comrade Stalin

    I think this judgement was right and the PSNI were engaged in a nasty and vindictive piece of jobsworthism.

    I have no doubt that the PSNI already know the names and details of the leading figures in the RIRA. I doubt anything that Breen found out could be used as evidence to bring any kind of substantial prosecution in court. All she’s got is someone claiming that they represent a paramilitary organization. They can easily claim that they made it all up in court. It’s her word against theirs.

    If Breen had lost the case, she’d have been jailed, which would achieve nothing except ensure that newspapers don’t publish interviews with paramilitaries anymore.

    I am sure that the same will apply to Ian Paisley Jnr. I can’t see how it would be in the public interest for the prison warder who passed information on to him to be outed.

  • Tangi

    Nothing in the judgement related to any journalistic right. It says that anyone who has information on a terrorist or crime gang murder does not have the need to give information to the police. It in effect says the witnesses to the McCartney murder did not have to give any assistance to the police. As some papers said they were champions of civil liberities by not giving evidence.

  • cynic

    “Nothing in the judgement related to any journalistic right. ”

    Presumably that’s why the judge referred to the specific legal protections for journalists in both ECHR and UK legislation. Try reading it before commenting on it?

  • Hugh Doherty

    I know breen reads this website so she would have a field day legally with some people on here.

  • the defendant

    Really Hugh?

    On what basis?

    A mis-statement of fact? Which ones?

    The opinion of people that newspapers should not persue exclusives to the point that they find themselves so compromised that they end up defending criminal organisations?

    You think that’s actionable?

  • Comrade Stalin


    Nothing in the judgement related to any journalistic right. It says that anyone who has information on a terrorist or crime gang murder does not have the need to give information to the police.

    You guys don’t seem to get it.

    Prosecuting Breen would not have caused more information to be passed to the police. It would simply have stopped journalists from interviewing individuals suspected of paramilitary associations. We would, as a result, know less about them than we do now.

    This was a piece of lazy and vindictive work by the police. The same motivations apply, in my opinion, to the case involving Ian Paisley Jnr.

  • Mark McGregor


    The Paisley case is slightly different though. Jnr forgot he wasn’t covered by parliamentary privlege, so often used by the DUP to spread something they can’t stand over, and spoke out in public on a claim some think is just pure made up nonsense. He gets to stand over it for a change not something the DUP are given to doing.

    Personally, I reckon the whole thing was a fabrication and he now has to face a court over bullshit.

  • John

    While we all discuss the outcome of this case, there is a small piece in the Sunday Tribunes story that is very disturbing. A journalist has been accused in open court by the police lawyer of betraying his sources, not many have picked up on this point ( might be no one wants to ) but this is a serious development. The whole case on Suzanne Breens part was the protection of press sources, the NUJ backed their member, will the press and the NUJ now investigate the member that is alleged to have betrayed his sources ? this point is every bit as important.

  • skullion

    As coca-cola says investigative journalism my arse.As far as i’m aware all she did was answer the phone.Now she may have answered the phone in a darkened room wearing a trilby and smoking a fag but it was still just answering the phone.It really is amazing the way some journos lose the run of thenselves when one of their own is questioned.

  • Neil

    The point is decidedly not what brand of journalist she or anyone else describes her as. The point is that she’s a journalist and as such ought to be protected from being forced to reveal her sources. There are many examples of why this should be so, for instance the behaviour of the RUC here over the years and any reporting on it would not happen if sources were not protected. Who would have had the balls to expose the RUC’s antics if the RUC were then able to sieze the reporters information? If the RUC murder someone, why would a source feel that they too wouldn’t get murdered if the police could just demand the info and get it? After all a cop willing to murder for no personal gain would in all likelihood murder for self preservation.

    The same applies to the expenses info, if we didn’t have the leak we would never have known anything like what we do. If the source could be exposed would that person have handed over the info? No one knows, but there’s a strong possibility the answer’s no.

    Why would we want to hand over the last remaining piece of people power we have and allow the governments and the police which they control to have control of the media, the population’s source of information. People are quite happy to hand over their freedoms, it shocks me. Sleepwalking into 1984 where the Ministry of Information controls the past, present and future.

    The story at the centre of this, according to the judgement was unquestionably in the public interest. It’s the PSNI (fucking lazy bunch that they are) to find these things out. It should come as no surprise that the same officers who allowed the fascists to make their getaway last week and did nothing, the same cops who allegedly sat and did nothing while Kevin McDaid was beaten to death, when faced with a choice these hardworking officers have to either do some work in investigating the crime in question, they instead try to bully a journo into handing what should be protected info over they choose the option that requires one trip to court over the one that involves hauling their fat holes out of their chairs, putting the food down and doing some work.

    The PSNI are lazy, incompetent fucking useless. It is they that are to blame for this, there woulodn’t be a story if they hadn’t taken Breen to court, and the law says Breen was right not the fat lazy officers. There would be no story if the PSNI weren’t wrong in their interpretation of the law.

  • otto

    Forcefully put Neil.

    The judgement didn’t just tell the police they had no right to pursue the enquiry. In fact I didn’t see any criticism of the police. I’m not even sure that they didn’t feel that they were professionally obliged to collect all evidence available within the legislative framework they work under. The judge mentioned PACE 2000 which protects journalists’ information but he also mentioned the ECHR which allows that in a democratic society there may be situations of such gravity that journalistic material should be disclosed.

    He then said that balancing these was a question of weighing the public interest and, I think most importantly, that the general public interest included the specific interest of the journalist.
    In other words the danger to the journalist’s life (let alone her livelihood) was relevant – as you scroll down the judgement the last quarter to a third is given to this.

    It suits journalists to paint this as close to possible as an unconditional affirmation of their professional freedom but I don’t see how that’s the case. So I think the judgement was right but it was right in these circumstances.

    And I’ve a feeling that a change to the circumstances – a more immediate threat, a greater certainty of the immediate capture of the entire criminal association, a different group of victims (a paedophile ring for example), or even just the absence of physical threat to the journalist, might have led to a different ruling.

    You’re very hard on the RUC. You accuse them of “murder”. When the RUC allowed killers to remain at large, which was always as far as I know to protect a source, and then claimed this, unpleasant as it was to them, was in the wider public interest, other people called it collusion and state murder.

    Do you still think that’s a fair charge?

  • Neil

    Yes Otto I do, aside from the fact that many people would argue that members of the RUC sometimes had a more hands on role in murder (i.e. providing weapons, ensuring getaways and pulling triggers), even ignoring that the cops are held to a higher account than terrorists. The cops were responsible for the murders that they could have prevented but didn’t, due to ineptitude, cowardice, laziness or sectarianism.

  • otto

    Fair enough

    I wasn’t judging the RUC against terrorists though.

    I was asking whether the “public interest” defence for protecting sources only applies to journalists.

  • Neil

    It’s the information which the journo publishes which is in the public interest, and as fas as I know there is little legal protection here for journalists, and what there is is confused, but in other countries such as the USA it would apply only to journalists (I think there was a high profile blogger who used that defence succesfully a few years back too).

  • coca cola

    neil did you get a speeding ticket recently? The Police have a responsibility to investigate all lines of enquiry, now i am no sherlock holmes but if someone phones up and claims a double murder and 5 attempted murders then it seems to me to be a valid line of enquiry. the police presented this to the court who initialy were of a mind to grant the order but then decided against it due to the possible threat to the journalist. that is what the role of the court is about, balancing the two sides of the argument. you acuse the police of being fat and lazy but i seem to remember they have charged someone for these murders. If they hadnt of pursued this line of enquiry i have no doubt in some public enquiry in ten years time they would be accused of ignoring a line of enquiry and as you put it sitting on their fat holes in a chair.