Mick is the latest to suggest that the mainstream local media have been soft pedalling in pursuit of Gerry Adamss fast moving goalposts in order not to “rock public opinion” at a very sensitive time politically. The charge is certainly worth examining. I dont want to be dogmatic about it, still less a knee- jerk defender of the mainstream media over their coverage. But my first problem with the argument is this. Why be soft on Adams and hard on Robinson if the aim is to somehow to shield the political process? It doesnt stack up for me.Ive just had a quick look at how my former associates in the BBC and the Belfast Telegraph have covered the Adams affair in hard news on their websites. I must say, I dont hear an eerie silence; I hear a chorus in support of Suzanne Breens and the Irish News’s leads. Ive counted around a dozen stories in just over a week from each. The Bel Tel has even carried a Breen piece slamming the local media for treating Adams with kid gloves. As Suzanne who is seldom slow to make a case doesnt offer an answer, is her charge really true in the sense she suggests? True, these stories have been rewrites or obvious follow-ups and not original investigative material compared to what each has been doing on aspects of Irisgate.
Why not? Are they remiss? Up to a point. On Adams, Suzanne has been doing much of the grind work and much of the rest of the press have been riding on the back of it, just as everyone seized on BBC Spotlights exclusive whistleblowing. Although restraints have been cast aside, some caution is still needed on Adams, if only in the interests of fairness, as Mick has rightly warned. The Sunday Tribune have been taking considerable risks over defamation, confidentiality and reporting detail that could prejudice a trial. The Cahill case goes very far indeed, as if the paper believes there’s little chance of a prosecution or need to shield the victim, despite her voluntary testimony. Note too the polices warning to Gerry Adams over his own persistent attempts at self-exculpation. That line may actually have been crossed some time ago, albeit arguably in the public interest.
Newspapers’ editorials help readers make judgements on their policy. I think it fair to say that the Irish Times are very protective of the peace process.. By law, the BBC of course may not take any editorial line, although its journalists can sharply angle questions and topics. I have no inside knowledge of their editorial thinking at the present juncture but a good deal about the BBCs editorial stances for 20 years during the Troubles. In common with other media the BBC bowed to intense and sometimes unscrupulous pressure on well-attested occasions over claims that stories would inflame violence or give an easy hit to paramilitaries. Restraint, or if you prefer self-censorship, played a part particularly over timing of publication. Frequently however, the BBC published and took the heat. Those days are long gone. Today I just dont see how any representations formal or informal from the likes of Shaun Woodward ( with huge respect.), would translate into going easy on Adams. Whether under pressure or left to themselves, broadcasters just dont weigh up the direct effect of a story on supposedly political outcomes when it comes to publishing or not. Look at the record of struggle with Alistair Campbell- but that’s another long story. If Im wrong, Ill be more than disappointed.
How do I rate the Adams affair as a story? Cumulatively gripping, but quite a slow burn which could yet ignite. The long fuse partly consists of Gerry Adams himself under pressure. The allegations against both Adams brothers may well be about a greater immorality than anything Iris Robinson committed. But news judgements are essentially amoral although moral judgements may figure. The painstaking trawl through newspaper records about who said what and when, if at all, lacks the punch of the Iris affair, particularly for broadcasters. Moreover the political fallout has been conspicuously less so far. Almost certainly Adamss exposure would have been greater had he been deputy first minister. But those still on the hunt can take comfort: this is surely a story that hasnt peaked yet.
Why did the police and social services not perform better? Think of Victoria Climbie, think Baby Peter in London and now think Doncaster. Project that record onto republican royalty in West Belfast, even after the final ceasefire. The thought is not an excuse but a partial explanation. I see that Gerry Adams is now trying to shift some blame onto the RUC. Gobsmacking effrontery doesnt express it.
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London