Fake News and False Balance undermine Victims’ Human Rights

Last weekend was the second anniversary of the rightsinfo.org website. To mark the event, a panel discussion took place during which the site’s founder Adam Wagner stated that “fake news was old news in human rights” and that people “have been convinced by newspapers for years and years that human rights are a villain.”

He was joined at the panel discussion by Buzzfeed Special Correspondent James Ball who said “The bigger problem is…essentially the much wider ecosystem of material which is distorted or exaggerated, but which still has a kernel of truth, while being mostly untrue.”

These observations came back to me this afternoon when I saw some social media commentary regarding the setting of the date to commence the inquest into the shootings of eleven people in Ballymurphy by the British Army in 1971.

Before going any further let me state clearly that I believe all victims of the conflict – those who mourn and those who were injured – deserve truth, justice and acknowledgement to the fullest extent possible. No equivocation, no hierarchy.

That’s where the rightsinfo.org conversation comes in to play in an Irish context. Our politicians are trying to create a false balance by exaggerating a situation which has a grain of truth to it.

That grain of truth is that there are many, many people who still seek information and resolution regarding what happened to them or their loved ones and we don’t have a comprehensive system to deal with that.
What we have is a judicial system, a Police Ombudsman whose scope is limited to certain types of cases and a failed Historical Enquiries Team. And if you were someone who had the “luck” to survive and be left with life-changing injuries, no-one wanted to help.

What is fake news, though, is this notion that some victims are getting more than others in terms of legacy investigations.

In every case where a conflict-related incident is unsolved, that investigation remains open and it is the duty of the PSNI to gather and assess evidence and pass it on to the Director of Public Prosecutions to determine whether there is sufficient evidence to proceed to trial.

It is logical, therefore, that the first port of call for victims would be the PSNI to say to them “what are you doing about his?”

Yes I know what you’re going to say: the PSNI don’t have the resources to investigate 40 year old cases.

Ok, I hear you.

So who allocates resources to the PSNI?

The British government.

That’s where the pressure needs to be brought to bear.

In simple human rights legal terms, where the State has breached the right to life enshrined in Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights, or where it has failed to conduct a proper investigation into a death, then the state has a duty to right that wrong.

The DUP and UUP know this. They are attempting to create false balance by saying that investigations into state killings should not proceed, that soldiers and police officers implicated in wrongdoing should be given amnesties. They have even gone so far as to try and make the removal of the Director of Public Prosecutions a pre-condition for future Stormont talks because he has recommended prosecution of a former soldier. And they don’t want families who have been victims of the state to be allowed pursue truth and justice through the existing judicial structures.

This is victim blaming at its worst – a situation where mainly unionist politicians and commentators are putting forward a position which says “these families are not entitled to pursue truth and justice through the means available to them because those families can’t.”

They are entitled, of course, to hold an opinion about the rights of victims and survivors, but they need to be challenged when they present fake news. When they misrepresent the facts and are given airtime and column inches to do it, it leads their position a legitimacy that is unwarranted. Presentation of this one-sided viewpoint doesn’t encourage debate or discussion on the real issue.

That real issue is why have our political leaders failed to come to an agreement on dealing with the legacy of the conflict almost 20 years from the Good Friday Agreement?

Why are unionist politicians not focussing their energies on lobbying the British government to make available the resources to examine other unsolved conflict-related deaths?  Why did they fail to put in place the proposals contained in the Stormont House Agreement?

For as long as we continue to treat dealing with the past as a zero sum game, it will be victims and survivors who will continue to lose.

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  • Hugh Davison

    Ah. It’s a percentage game, is it?

  • Hugh Davison

    ‘As we know as fact the South was largely responsible for the length of campaign for letting the IRA use it as a base’. Well, we don’t actually know that as fact. If you can show otherwise, show us here.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Lack of response noted to the invitation to have paramilitary murder cases prosecuted, not just security forces ones. Funny that 😉

  • Hugh Davison

    Ha ha, very funny! We’re rolling on the floor laughing. You know perfectly well that Catholics were structurally discriminated against, but you still argue this faux-denial position time and time again. Honesty, much?

  • Hugh Davison

    ‘Countries generally can’t have police or armed forces without authorising use of force in prescribed circumstances.’
    What does this actually mean? Breaking the law is authorised in prescribed circumstances?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No, the use of force by police is within the law in some circumstances – tell me you did know that …

  • Hugh Davison

    What circumstances please (in the context of this discussion)? And examples, please, if you have them.

  • Hugh Davison

    And murder by the state is within the law? Wow!

  • MainlandUlsterman

    What “faux-denial” position? Can you point to where I denied discrimination?

    Is this because I dared suggest the depiction of N Ireland in apartheid or Southern US segregation terms was a massive distortion?

    Difference in outcomes between the communities was real and was a problem the UUP of that era did too little about. It was partly down to discrimination but actually discrimination was only part of the picture – there were and are deep-rooted and complex structural differences between the demographics, employment patterns and cultures of the two communities also and they all play into differences in outcome. Dealing with the discrimination issue was only part of the solution. The rest is to do with education, regional development, housing etc. For example a big factor was geographic location of major businesses in that era in the mainly Protestant east, and within that, in Protestant areas; and widespread practices in both communities of informal recruitment by recommendation and/or family connection. That is discriminatory in effect and it favoured Protestants overall as there were more Protestant employers. But make no mistake Catholics did it too. One set of my relatives in the Republic had their business boycotted by the local Catholic community and ultimately had to leave. Some nationalists now want to portray the practice of putting your own first as one way, it absolutely wasn’t. But I completely accept in N Ireland it was too widespread back then and Catholics came off worst out of it.

  • MainlandUlsterman

    No. Are you actually reading this?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Use_of_force
    Really you could be looking these things up yourself.

  • Hugh Davison

    Yada yada. You cannot accept that discrimination against Catholics was institutional in the North. Total denial. Yes, I know you weren’t born then etc. but it’s well documented, and anyone over the age of 60 can attest to it first hand, so stuff your themmuns equivalence.

  • Hugh Davison

    ‘No, the use of force by police is within the law in some circumstances – tell me you did know that …’
    You said it. You prove it.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Thank you Korhomme, that would have been the Specials almost certainly. The RIC itself had quite a few hard men, but had a history of trying to genuinely police the riots of the nineteenth century in Belfast without favour for either side. The new climate of Unbionist control after 1920 eroded all this and Catholic members of the old RIC who did not support new policies of sectarian targeting against the Catholic community in some areas were targeted themselves and either intimidated or killed. The Specials at Brown Square barracks, at the foot of the Shankill, were notorious for this, and the behaviour of its Specials even, anecdotally, repelled other less “Freidkorps” style specials in Belfast who were repelled by the willingness of the boys in Brown Square to snipe at the army, even, when they were defending Catholic streets.

    And I, too, was told by what I’d previously thought of as quite Liberal Unionist family in the 1968-70 period that a bit of the spirit of 1920 would do the trick and put “themuns” back in their place. I was active in the PD at the time and was frequently warned that there would be no limit that could realistically be put on how far the RUC might need to go to put a cap on dissent, so I might even find myself summarily executed if it came to that. O’Neill had of course approached Wilson in 1968 to discuss his freedom to use the Specials to suppress Civil Rights activity, and the sort of talk you heard was very current in inner Unionist circles in 1970! With people who had until that date seemed to be both reasonable and progressive speaking in that way, I became all too aware of how what developed in National Socialist Germany could easily involve usually decent people in the same way, as you say a most chilling thought.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    We are very much on the same page here Korhomme. I, too, am tremendously concerned regarding any enquiry that might become bogged down in the adversarial approach which is built into our legal system. It is the very last thing that people need for if any resolution which meaningfully redress their need for justice is to be possible, in this situation where we are trying to bring a fractured community together after a century of rupture, rather than to simply compound and perpetuate the problem with the old pattern of partiality implicit with one side simply “winning” and then imposing its will on another. I can see that some aspects of the European inquisitorial process of law might be examined here as offering a possible non-adversarial model.

    “As for the elite power, the ability to shut off criticism or discussion with an injunction; to me, this is close to corruption.” It has been the main line of defence in abuse cases, with Cyril Smith, for example, using it at every turn when challenged. The second line would be to call on the Home office to send in Special Branch to seize evidence “in the national interest”, as the late Leon Brittan apparently did with the lost Geoffrey Dickens Dossier according to Barbara Castle’s claim. Again, as you say, the state’s immediate response is denial, and the mirror image of this is seen in how their erstwhile opponents ape this response in their own denial. On Slugger, we end up with a localised version of what is occurring across our community at large with most posters readily taking defined sides in this and simply attacking the denials of their opponents who are supporting either the state or Republicanism, while failing to seriously question their own sides parallel denials. This encoded approach must inevitably serve to compound the PTSD character of what is happening to “survivors”.

    I would fully agree that making the truth public, rather than simply ensuring some plethora of prosecutions, is the necessary route to personal and social healing here. Many of the abuse survivors I know, although their lives have been seriously curtailed, especially their ability to work, are unwilling to even think of financial compensation despite great personal need sometimes, although many see the only way their situation might be made public as coming through the courts. But even in this what they really wish for is for their community to understand the meaning of their experience and to openly recognise in some public way the damage done by the perpetrator. But where the perpetrator is still in the public eye and viewed in a positive light, or active in any political role, any possibility of a release of stress and suffering is simply impossible.

    I’ve come on DABDA myself in the context of how the public reacts to abuse and rape. It is this early experience of “denial” that abuse has actually occurred, perpetrated by someone who is a familiar family friend, by the community a survivor moves in which sets the PTSD in motion as a long term problem. Sometimes the attempt of a survivor to engage with their community will ensure a pattern of denial even in how they remember their experiences, and the experience of Sylvia Woosley recorded on the Clement Freud Exposure documentary last year was a text book example of this, with her own encoded “denial” evident in a later sexual encounter with the abuser during adult life, in part encoded in her with the refusal of her family to even begin to accept the nature of her destructive experiences during adolescence. An intelligent examination of what might be learnt from such cases in examining our own Troubles survivor experiences might do much to offer possible models as to how our own deep social trauma might be addressed and mitigated. However, as with aspects of our own situation the early hopefulness of the last few years for the abuse survivor’s situation is again fading with that erosion of public trust that has become inevitable since the current instructions to police forces to again fully question stories rather than maintaining their very necessary default of a core belief in the stories of such survivors. The willingness of the police to accept stories had for a short while permitted survivors to begin to imagine that some redress was going to be possible, but this is now waining. As with our local demand for truth and justice, the social inconvenience of addressing their stories is simply too great, and might prove inconvenient personally to many who have some power in the the state itself.

  • john millar

    “Surely you would want the people involved in front of the court, not only the ones who did it but the ones who ordered it, supported it, covered up and murdered for those who did it and continue to do so”

    Here here

  • john millar

    “Comparing apples and oranges”
    Protestant discrimination bad Catholic discrimination good

    Protestants still can`t get a job in the (State funded) Catholic school system

  • MainlandUlsterman

    Are you serious?

  • MainlandUlsterman

    That’s just a really rude and unfair comment Hugh.

  • Hugh Davison

    Maybe rude, but not unfair.

  • Croiteir

    I don’t think they are – the latter ones you describe.