If there was always one reason to look forward to a Friday, it was because that was the day Alex Cockburn’s Counterpunch piece appeared and you could be assured of a forceful, well informed take on a topical issue, of the sort the conventional, conforming media would usually strive to avoid.
It would be quite late, New York time before his article appeared so I used to cheat and take a peak at ‘The Week’, the lively internet newspaper which every week carried a truncated version of his Counterpunch column.
Last Friday, however, there was no sign of it, nor in Counterpunch later. I was disappointed and curious but thought no more of it until late Saturday afternoon when the dreadful news of his death came through.
I had never met Alex Cockburn but we had talked by phone, he in California and me in Belfast. I will always remember, with gratitude and a sense of humility, the piece he wrote in The Nation magazine in 1999 about my run-in with Scotland Yard over my interview notes with Billy Stobie.
The police were trying to frame Stobie with the murder of Belfast attorney, Pat Finucane even though as a Special Branch agent in the UDA he had done his best to warn his handlers, both before and after the killing. I had interviewed Stobie eight years before about his role in the killing and his work for the RUC on the understanding that the interview would stay secret until he gave the say-so. When he was arrested and charged by the team led by Hugh Orde with the Finucane murder, he gave the green light and I wrote up the story in the Sunday Tribune, a disgraceful tale of collusion with killers by the RUC Special Branch to remove a lawyer whose speciality was defending IRA members.
A few days after the article appeared, Scotland Yard appeared on my doorstep with a subpoena demanding I hand over my interview notes. I refused.
A campaign to resist the subpoena was launched and was particularly effective in the US where, in those days at least, they still took matters like journalistic confidentiality seriously and did not at all like the idea of cops helping to kill defence lawyers. Alex phoned me to say he wanted to use his weekly column in The Nation to publicize the case and as he interviewed me, he also composed the article. Within twenty minutes he had the piece written and it was as cogent and biting an article as appeared anywhere at that time. It was an astonishing and rare gift, as anyone who has practised this trade can tell you.
I write this tribute to him with a sense of deja vu. The cops, this time in the shape of the PSNI, are attempting to seize interviews from the Belfast Project archive at Boston College and once more I am in the midst of a campaign to defend source confidentiality. And once again, Alex Cockburn in the shape of his invaluable Counterpunch site came up trumps, giving space to myself and Eamonn McCann to write about aspects of this affair that the mainstream media will not.
Thanks Alex. They broke the mould when they made you.