Monthly Archives: January 2013

Dolours Price, RIP

Dolours, a pic taken during her fateful interview with the Irish News which pitched her into the Jean McConville controversy

Dolours, in a pic taken during her fateful 2010 interview with The Irish News which pitched her into the Jean McConville controversy

Statement by Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre on the death of Dolours Price

We wish to express our great sadness at the death of Dolours Price who was both a friend and a valued participant in the Belfast Project and we would like to convey our condolences to her boys, to her sisters and brother and to other members of her family.

Throughout the last two years of our fight to prevent her interviews being handed over to the police in Belfast, our greatest fear was always for the health and well-being of Dolours. Now that she is no longer with us perhaps those who initiated this legal case can take some time to reflect upon the consequences of their action.

Dolours Price’s interviews will not now be immediately handed over, as some reports have wrongly claimed. The interviews are the subject of a stay imposed by the Supreme Court of the United States and that stay remains in place until that court, the highest in the land, decides otherwise. There are other subpoenas outstanding and as far as we are concerned the same issues affect them as they did Dolours Price’s case and we look forward to continuing the fight with renewed vigor to stop the remaining Belfast Project interviews from being handed over.

Dolours Price as I prefer to remember her

Dolours Price as I prefer to remember her

The Lance Armstrong Story – How The American Media Failed To Do Its Job

Oprah Winfrey’s pathetic excuse of an interview with Lance Armstrong shown on her cable TV network last night (Part 2 is to be screened tonight but somehow I think I’ll give it a miss) is both a timely reminder of just how poorly the US media covered the Lance Armstrong scandal down the years and a classic example of the fatal nexus that exists between the media and big business in America.

Lance

A fascinating piece in today’s New York Times makes it clear that the unspoken issue uppermost in the minds of la Winfrey and her business partners when they signed up the disgraced cyclist for the interview was less the journalism of the story – how they would handle the sports scandal of this and arguably last century so that the truth would be exposed – but more the ratings and advertising revenue boost the Lance Armstrong interview could give her ailing cable channel, the Oprah Winfrey Network which she founded two years ago and which has been in financial distress ever since.

In a sense this is absolutely appropriate because from the beginning the Lance Armstrong story has really been about money, about corporate profits, about feathering Lance Armstrong’s nest and about a largely corporate media unwilling to ask too loudly whether the goose that laid the golden egg was actually a cheating cuckoo which had no right squatting in that particular nest.

Money explains why it has taken so long to bring Lance Armstrong to something approaching justice and it explains why the American media was the last in the world to recognise the truth of the Lance Armstrong fraud. The US media of the 1970’s would, I suspect, have done that job in quick order but not its modern, corporate-beholden cousins.

It cannot entirely be an accident that the Lance Armstrong story almost exactly parallels chronologically that other story that the US media, with one or two noble exceptions, failed to investigate or challenge, the story of the non-existent Iraq WMD’s. What links those two failures is the fact that the media of today is essentially a corporate media, owned and controlled by vast industrial and commercial behemoths whose interests in the bottom line erases concern for journalistic truth, which puts profits and market share ahead of integrity and which elevates timidity and mediocrity above principle and courage. In a very important way the Lance Armstrong story is also the story of the decline and disorder that afflicts the American media.

The first thing that the media of thirty or forty years ago would have done, I believe, would have been to show a great deal more scepticism about the defining Lance Armstrong narrative. This was the claim that a man who had just survived a harrowing bout of brain, lung and testicular cancer, whose previous track record as a cyclist suggested an athlete who could at most become a good one-day competitor and whose previous best performance at the Tour before his cancer struck was 35th position, had suddenly, almost overnight, been transformed into the most talented star the Tour de France had ever seen.

Was it really believable that in 1999, within a couple of years of his fight with near terminal cancer, Armstrong not only could win the gruelling 23-day, 2,300 mile Tour de France with its daunting stages through the Alps and Pyrenees  but then go on to repeat that triumph for a further six consecutive years. Really? Just how credible a story could that possibly be? Why weren’t the antennae of American journalists trembling with suspicion, as they most definitely were in Europe? It is actually extraordinary to realise now that America’s media by and large happily and uncritically accepted this nonsense for so long!

The story was just too good to be true and any journalist with integrity would and should have suspected that and at the very least tested it for flaws. But in America in those early Armstrong years, and indeed right up until quite recently, the media attitude was characterised not just by a failure and/or a refusal to do that but chauvinistic hostility towards any who did. That and fear of going near a story that could bring criticism and trouble.

Armstrong’s own advisers were well aware of his limitations, so why weren’t the media. As he recovered from cancer his agent and lawyer Bill Stapleton, nursed appropriately modest ambitions for Armstrong. Stapleton’s goal was an Olympic Gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Games, perfect for a good one-day rider, but with the marketing potential of the Armstrong story nonetheless at the forefront of his mind.

As Stapleton told Sports Illustrated in April 1998: ‘Bristol-Myers Squibb makes the three cancer chemo agents that saved Lance’s life. Imagine the PR hit the company could get from having Lance advertise their products. Right now, it’s an incredible story the guy beat cancer.’

But with a little help from the blood oxygen boosting agent, EPO, Armstrong was to exceed those modest expectations beyond Bill Stapleton’s wildest imagination, although Stapleton was dead right about the marketing potential of the Armstrong cancer narrative.

What Bill Stapleton and Lance Armstrong provided was a Hollywood-scale myth, such a feel-good story about triumph over adversity that to challenge it was, like asking if those pesky WMD’s really were hidden somewhere in the Iraqi desert,  almost un-American. It certainly wasn’t the cycling, a sport that rates alongside Winter Rodeo in popularity; no, it was about Lance Armstrong beating cancer and going on to win. An American story, unique, fabled and brave.

And Bill Stapleton was right. The story was a sponsor’s wet dream come true. The impact of Armstrong’s first Tour victory in 1999 in America was instantaneous and sensational. Three days after crossing the line in Paris, Armstrong’s new sponsors, Nike hired an executive jet to fly him back to New York and he spent the next day giving an endless series of television interviews, starting at 5.45 am on CBS This Morning and ending on the David Letterman show late that night. America was transfixed and enthralled by the Lance Armstrong story. The myth had been born and soon the brand would follow.

Almost immediately some of America’s largest and best known corporations lined up to hire him as their public face. The list of companies that have used Lance Armstrong to sell their products reads like a Who’s Who of American business: Nike Corporation, the US Postal Service, Coca-Cola, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Trek cycles, Subaru, General Motors, The Discovery Channel, Hewlett-Packard, AMD microprocessors, FRS health drinks, 24 Hour Fitness, the Outdoor Living Network, the NHL, Flex Jet, Dicks Sporting Goods, Power Bar and American Century Investments.

It also made Lance Armstrong a multimillionaire celebrity whose fame brought him the friendship of the likes of Presidents Bush (41 and 43) and Clinton. He socialised with stars like Bono, Robin Williams, Matthew McConaughey, Jake Gyllenhaal, Muhammad Ali, Barbara Walters and Nicolas Sarkozy. He became a regular item in tabloid gossip columns as the squire of beautiful starlets like Kate Hudson, Ashley Olson and Sheryl Crow. During the 2008 election campaign both Barack Obama and John McCain taped supportive messages for Armstrong’s cancer charity.

Corporate America drooled over Armstrong. Coca-Cola’s North America’s CMO, Javier Benito had this to say about him: ‘Lance is an incredible inspiration for his spirit and confidence on and off the bike, which is a perfect fit with the active, optimistic personality of the Dasani brand’. (Dasani is a brand of bottled water marketed by Coca-Cola that the company eventually admitted was just tap water, another fraud)

As more victories at the Tour de France piled on top of each other, Lance Armstrong’s commercial value to his sponsors grew while his marketability showed little sign of fading, even after he retired from professional cycling in 2005. By that year his income from endorsements and advertising was over $17 million, the eighth highest amongst American athletes.

His enduring appeal to marketing and advertising executives could be seen from the results of a series of business surveys: a canvass of 213 sports marketing executives in April 2007 placed Armstrong in the ten top athletes alongside ‘Magic’ Johnson, Peyton Manning, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley.

His ‘Q’ scores, a measurement of consumer awareness developed by Market Evaluations Inc in 1963, have grown not shrunk with time, from 72 per cent in 2003, to 79 per cent in 2007 and then to 93 per cent in 2008; in September 2008, Armstrong topped the list of most influential celebrities among executives who decide their companies’ spend on good causes, ahead of Angelina Jolie, Bono, Tiger Woods, Bill Gates, George Clooney and Michael J Fox.

As a professional speaker, Armstrong commanded the same $200,000 fee demanded by the likes of Robin Williams, Jerry Seinfeld, Ellen DeGeneres, Billy Crystal, Donald Trump and Bill Clinton. AllAmericaSpeakers has no doubt where his appeal comes from: ‘If scripted by Hollywood, the story would be dismissed as a trite melodrama. A deadly disease strikes a promising athlete. Despite desperately thin odds, he manages not only to beat the affliction but also to return to the sport and win its top prize. Unbelievable, except it’s true.’ (Except it wasn’t)

In Europe, journalists like David Walsh of the Sunday Times, his colleague Paul Kimmage and French writer, Pierre Ballister of L’Equipe were by the early and mid-2000’s openly questioning the Lance Armstrong narrative and revealing claims of extensive EPO use by Armstrong and his team mates. These were, however, the years of Freedom Fries , ‘Old Europe’ and journalists happily embedding themselves with troops who would soon be setting snarling dogs on piles of naked Iraqi prisoners.

And so in America, Lance Armstrong’s ‘feel-good’ story was scarcely ruffled by David Walsh and his ilk. Typical of much of the media response to their reportage was Sports Illustrated’s take on the claims that Armstrong took EPO: ‘Of all those specimens (blood specimens taken during the Tour de France), how many tested positive for drugs? Zero. O.K., he does admit to having used one banned substance: EPO. But it was part of the cocktail of medications that kept him from dying of cancer. Even after the doping investigation closed this year for lack of a single Q-tip of evidence, French fans still stood at the top of Mont Ventoux in July as Armstrong passed, hollering, “Dope! Dope!” To the French, doping and chemotherapy: la meme chose.’

Or Jon Stewart on The Daily Show after a 2005 story appeared in L’Equipe saying that Armstrong’s urine samples from past Tours, which had been stored untested by the Tour authorities since 1999, had been recently found to show traces of EPO use: ‘I don’t care if you found out that he has a jet engine in his anus. He’s the best that’s ever been. Leave it alone.’ (I wonder will Jon Stewart ever re-run that segment?)

Lance Armstrong had not only become an American myth but a brand as well. And brands make money, lots of it, not just for the owner but all those who link their brands to it, like the Nike’s, the Coca-Cola’s, the Hewlett-Packard’s, the Dicks Sporting Goods and so on. And these are the corporations that buy adverts on the Cable channels and the Networks or the magazines and newspapers that are these days owned by vast corporations whose paramount interest is the bottom line not principled journalism.

And so who in the news and current affairs divisions or sports departments in any of the media outfits owned by these corporations is going to make the career-ending decision to probe Lance Armstrong’s dope-taking practices and threaten all that advertising revenue? Which of them would dare challenge an American myth and incur the wrath of bosses and public alike? The questions answers themselves but I’d bet that with the media of thirty or forty years ago, they’d be different answers.

As America’s journalists parse and analyse Oprah Winfrey’s interview with Lance Armstrong this week, they might also spare some time to put their own conduct under the microscope and ask themselves this question: “How sooner would Lance Armstrong have been brought to book if America’s media had done its job?” The truth is that alongside the Iraq WMD story, the failure to expose Lance Armstrong’s years of taking dope is one of the most shameful chapters in modern American media history.

The Bryson Incident And The Provisional IRA

CORRECTION (January 20th, 11:50 EST)

In the original piece the following uncorrected sentence appeared: “The RGJ account reveals that after a series of security force successes against the IRA in August 1973, the then Belfast commander, Ivor Bell planned a massive re-organization in the city: scrapping the IRAʼs battalion and company structure and replacing it with thirty-two cells or Active Service Units (ASUʼs).”

This should have read:
“The RGJ account reveals that after a series of security force successes against the IRA in August 1973, the then Belfast commander, Ivor Bell planned a massive re-organization in the city: scrapping the IRAʼs battalion and company structure and replacing it with eight cells or Active Service Units (ASUʼs), each with five men meaning that the active strength of the IRA in Belfast was just thrity-two.”

Myself and colleague Bob Mitchell have published this important piece on Politico.ie, a respected and widely-read Irish current affairs website edited by Malachy Browne and Vincent Browne. The piece revises an important part of the Provisional IRA’s own historical narrative and includes an internal British Army account of the killing of one of the IRA’s most famous characters in Belfast, Jim Bryson. It is well worth a read and can be found here.

Ortiz Hubbie Jumps Into Aaron Swartz Row

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Massachusetts ACLU Joins Row Over Ortiz’ Handling Of Aaron Swartz Case

UPDATE, January 15th, 13:35: There is a great piece here on Alternet explaining the security state background to the pursuit of Aaron Swartz. Now this is change you can really believe in!

 

As you can read from this re-posted article from the Boston Globe’s website, the row over the way the prosecuting authorities in Massachusetts handled the case of internet freedom activist Aaron Swartz who committed suicide last weekend shows no sign of abating.

Swartz’s family issued a statement at the weekend effectively blaming US Attorney Carmen Ortiz for persisting in the case despite a plea from the body that was allegedly hacked by Swartz that charges should be dropped. Swartz had used a computer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology to leech millions of academic articles from JSTOR, a subscription only service for universities and research bodies.

Swartz objected to JSTOR’s business model, which charges subscription fees of up to $50,000 p.a. yet pays no compensation to the authors of articles it sells. Swartz apparently meant to distribute the articles free of charge. After he was caught, JSTOR asked that there be no prosecution but once MIT prevaricated, Ortiz’s offices stepped in with charges that could have led to a 30 to 35-year jail term for the 26-year old computer wunderkind.

The affair has put the Obama Justice Department, the Attorney-General Eric Holder and the US Attorney for Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz under a harsh light, not least because the remorseless pursuit of Swartz contrasts sharply with the DoJ’s failure to pursue the banks, hedge fund managers and corporate criminals who were responsible for the 2008 financial crisis.

The Boston.com article, which is co-authored by Kade Crockford, director of the ACLU of Massachusetts Technology for Liberty Project, supports recent calls for an inquiry into the way Carmen Ortiz’ office handled the Aaron Swartz case.

Followers of this site will be aware that Carmen Ortiz has co-operated with elements in the PSNI in their efforts to confiscate IRA interviews archived at Boston College, a move that could have catastrophic consequences for the peace process.

Meanwhile, the Boston Globe has reported that Carmen Ortiz’ name has been raised by Massachusetts outgoing governor Deval Patrick, as a possible candidate for the 2014 gubernatorial race. He raised that possibility, the Globe reported, in a private meeting with local politicians.

In a separate development, the online White House petition seeking the removal of Carmen Ortiz as US Attorney for Massachusetts passed the 25,000 signature threshold overnight. This means that the Obama White House is now obliged to give a response.

Here is the Boston.com article:

boston_com_4a02f7bc

Carmen Ortiz Gets Her Man

Carmen Ortiz, the US Attorney for Massachusetts who is working with the Police Service of Northern Ireland to appropriate IRA interviews archived at Boston College, has been accused by the family of the late Aaron Swartz of helping to drive the celebrated internet freedom activist to suicide.

Aaron Swartz - his suicide has led to calls for Carmen Ortiz' resignation or removal as US Attorney

Aaron Swartz – his suicide has led to calls for Carmen Ortiz’ resignation or removal as US Attorney

Progressive activists throughout America have reacted angrily and with emotion to the news that 26-year old Swartz killed himself by hanging at his apartment in Brooklyn, New York last Friday. He was facing a possible thirty year jail term on charges that he had gained illegal access to a subscription-only service for academic journals. Although the service, known as JSTOR, did not want to bring charges against Swartz, Carmen Ortiz insisted that he should be arraigned and used her powers of prosecutorial discretion to indict him.

Internet activists have launched a White House petition seeking her removal as US Attorney for Massachusetts which can be viewed and signed here by US residents. Once 25,000 people have signed the petition the Obama administration will be obliged to respond. Launched on Saturday the petition is already a quarter of the way to that target which must be met by February 11th.

In their statement, the Swartz family had this to say: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

Using computers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Swartz hacked into JSTOR’s archives and downloaded nearly 5 million academic articles and journals. A firm disciple of free access to information held on the web, Swartz objected to JSTOR’s business model. The company charged universities and other bodies up to $50,000 a year in subscription charges but paid no compensation to the professors and academics who wrote the articles.

When Swartz was caught, he returned the articles he had downloaded while JSTOR indicated it had no wish to see him prosecuted. MIT, however, temporized, allowing Carmen Ortiz to jump in with a series of swingeingly severe criminal charges that could have sent him to federal jail for three decades, even though the alleged crime was victimless.

At the time, this was how Ortz justified her action:

“…..stealing is stealing, whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

Carmen Ortiz - "stealing is stealing" - except when Wall Street is involved.

Carmen Ortiz – “stealing is stealing” – except when Wall Street is involved.

Except, the cynic would quickly add, when the perp is a Wall Street bank or a hedge fund manager. In sharp contrast to the zeal shown in the Swartz case, the Department of Justice, Carmen Ortiz’ employer, is nowhere to be seen when it comes to the pursuit of America’s real criminal class. As ProPublica put it during the height of the Occupy Wall Street campaign: Years after the financial crisis, there have still been no prosecutions of top executives at the major players in the financial crisis. And there won’t be either. But the Aaron Swartz’s of America will be pursued and harried till death.

Aaron Swartz was only 26 when he took his own life, yet he had packed more into those short years than many a person could in two or three lifetimes. The New York Times called him a “wizardly programmer” At age 14 he helped create RSS, the tool that helps blogs function. While still in his teenage years he helped co-found Reddit, possibly the most popular website on the internet. As various commentators have noted, he could have devoted his life to making money but instead committed himself to the cause of internet freedom, lobbying against efforts to censor the internet and subverting Pacer the federal system which charges the public for court documents which their tax dollars have already paid for. The same anger at institutional misbehaviour and greed led him to the fateful confrontation with JSTOR and Carmen Ortiz.

All of which raises this question: what was Ms Ortiz’s motive in her merciless pursuit of Aaron Swartz? Some have suggested revenge for his tilt at Pacer (which at the time brought an FBI investigation), others that his prosecution was part of the Obama administration’s phobic hatred of internet activists, qua Wikileaks. Others that she was doing what all ambitious US Attorneys do, pursue high profile prosecutions to advance their post Department of Justice careers.

Sometimes though it makes more sense to opt for the simple answer, which is that Carmen Ortiz pursued Aaron Swartz because she could. There was no-one to stop her, no-one strong or loud enough to say, ‘Hang on, you should be rifling files at Goldman Sachs’ offices, not harassing Aaron Swartz!. You should be putting Hank Greenberg in jail instead!’

No-one to say that because the cult of Obama worship, the doctrine of no criticism in case you tarnish the gilt around this White House, has made mutes of people who should know and do better. When, for example, the people who should protest, refuse to cry to the heavens when Obama’s drones blow Afghan, Yemeni or Pakistani children to bits, then the Aaron Swartz’s of this world have no chance. And neither do any of us.

The De Silva Report On Pat Finucane – Some Considered Thoughts, Part One

I have been meaning to sit down and deliver some thoughts on the report written by Sir Desmond De Silva into the Pat Finucane assassination and but for the draining interruption of a bout of New York-style flu, would have done so long before this.

The De Silva report has been slated in many quarters largely because of what it is not, that is the public sworn, Saville-type inquiry that was urged by Judge Cory and promised by Tony Blair (although in classic forked tongue, New Labour ways, Blair no sooner had made the promise than he rendered it meaningless by neutering future public tribunals of this sort).

Sir Desmond De Silva with his report into the Pat Finucane killing

Sir Desmond De Silva with his report into the Pat Finucane killing

So De Silva saw the light of day with the audience already imbued with secpticism, or at least that part of the audience which would like to see the truth told about this as well as other dark chapters in our recent history. The Finucane family dissed the report as did most Nationalists, noting, perceptively, that the distinguished jurist had singled out for blame mostly people who were dead and could not answer back or organisations that were now defunct and had no-one to defend them anymore (ranging from Sir John Hermon to the RUC Special Branch).

The British government deplored the evidence of collusion between Loyalist paramilitaries and the forces of law and order but took great comfort in De Silva’s key conclusion that there was not, as he put it, “an over-arching State conspiracy to murder Patrick Finucane”. (We’ll come back to that later).

While the outcome left the Finucane family and their friends less than happy and wondering what their next step would or even could be, I was conscious, even at a distance of 3,000 miles, of a sense amongst my erstwhile media colleagues in Belfast of a story biting the dust. That was it, nothing more to be said about Pat Finucane, no more can be done, time to move on.

Which is a great pity. There is an enormous amount of information buried in the twenty-five chapters that constitute the core of the De Silva report, some of which raise more questions than they answer. There are issues revealed of intimate concern to the media in Northern Ireland yet, and I beg forgiveness should I be proved wrong, I have not seen them at all raised in the local newspapers or electronic media.

And there are flaws, quite obvious flaws, in De Silva’s reasoning and procedures at key points, questions about the behaviour of policemen like Sir John Stevens and Sir Hugh Orde that spring out at the reader and such is the feeling of dissatisfaction at the end, like a detective thriller with an unconvincing final chapter, that you would rather have liked to have seen some of these troubling questions put to the relevant people in a public forum by someone else. In a sentence then, the De Silva report is itself an argument for a public tribunal into the Pat Finucane killing.

Pat Finucane's family, led by his widow Geraldine

Pat Finucane’s family, led by his widow Geraldine

MI5’s PROPAGANDA OFFENSIVE AGAINST LAWYERS

It has been part of the accepted narrative of British policy in Northern Ireland that black propaganda stopped when Colin Wallace was chased out of Thiepval barracks in the mid to late 1970’s and sent to jail for murdering a woman taking part on a “It’s a Knockout” TV show in his new home in Sussex. Wallace, we were told, was almost personally responsible for the damaging “Lisburn Lie Machine” tag that was attached to British Army HQ public relations during that time and so abused and misused his position in the press set up for his own nefarious ends, that it was all brought to a shuddering halt when he was caught out. Since then there has not been a hint of black propaganda about British public relations operations in Northern Ireland.

Except, it’s not true. Black propaganda continued in Northern Ireland and, on one reading of De Silva, probably still does. Except these days it is delivered (what is the correct verb for black propaganda? Deliver, invent, manufacture, churn out?) by MI5, the British Security Service which has a brand new headquarters on the outskirts of Hollywood, Co Down, constructed to back up the London HQ. And how do we know that? Well, there is a whole chapter on MI5 propaganda in the De Silva report and it makes fascinating reading.

He doesn’t call it black propaganda. His chapter carries the title “Security Service propaganda initiatives”. MI5 doesn’t call it black propaganda either but “Counter Action”. But black propaganda is what it was. The Mirriam-Webster online dictionary defines propaganda as “the spreading of ideas, information, or rumor for the purpose of helping or injuring an institution, a cause, or a person”. Black propaganda happens when the source is hidden or made to appear the opposite of the real source. For example the most effective MI5 propaganda against the IRA would that which seems as if it originated within the IRA; the most ineffective would be clearly labeled MI5.

"Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter' - the entrance to MI5's London headquarters

“Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter’ – the entrance to MI5’s London headquarters

To be sure, De Silva doesn’t say whether MI5 propaganda was of this sort – in fact he doesn’t go into any of that type of detail at all – but it is strongly implied. For instance, one objective of the MI5 exercise was to unnerve IRA members who had resisted efforts to recruit them as agents by planting damaging information about them. The aim was to persuade them to change their minds by poisoning the air between them and their comrades. Clearly if the target believes the source is one of his own, that he or she has enemies in their own camp then that creates a mindset where switching sides becomes thinkable. So by definition virtually all of this sort of propaganda is the black variety; it has to be to work.

The chapter on all this in De Silva is quite lengthy so I will try to summarise. In the 1980’s, precisely when it not revealed, pressure grew within MI5 for a propaganda offensive, a “wholesale, deliberate and continued” campaign in Northern Ireland but for unexplained reasons it did not go ahead. Instead a series of limited initiatives aimed exclusively against the IRA were launched.

It branched out beyond the IRA’s ranks to embrace individuals such as Pat Finucane and other lawyers like Oliver Kelly and Paddy McGrory to link them directly and falsely to the activities of their clients, i.e. to smear them as IRA members or sympathisers and was aimed at what De Silva mysteriously calls “the broader loyalist community”.

While MI5 claimed that their campaign was not aimed at putting the lawyers’ lives in danger (one spook actually told De Silva that since the UDA had already made Finucane a target the propaganda made no difference!), De Silva concludes pretty unambiguously that this was the result. But he falls short of stating the obvious: that if MI5 did not know propaganda of this sort would have the effect of making Finucane a Loyalist target then there’s a lucrative job opening up heading the Jimmy Saville rehabilitation campaign which the people who run MI5 might be interested in.

The Union Is Firm - MI5's brand new Belfast headquarters, available should Al Qaeda nuke its London offices.

The Union Is Firm – MI5’s brand new Belfast headquarters, available should Al Qaeda nuke its London offices.

As De Silva put it in paragraph 15.32: “The information relating to Patrick Finucane that was being circulated effectively involved fanning the rumours and speculation linking him to the IRA. The effect of the propaganda would certainly have been, in my view, to associate Patrick Finucane with the activities of his clients.” The propaganda offensive continued until September 1989 after which it was made subject to political control, hitherto absent entirely.

That is the broad brush picture. The detail, or rather the absence of detail is where the questions arise.

The first question is one that should be a huge concern to the media in Northern and it is why I find the apparent absence of any comment by my colleagues there in the wake of this report’s publication such a cause for dismay.

De Silva refuses to say how the MI5 propaganda campaign was organised, or what its methods and channels were. He writes in paragraph 15.3: “The precise methods used by the Security Service as part of their propaganda initiatives remain sensitive. I accept that many of the technical details of such operations cannot be publicly disclosed in view of the normal requirements relating to the protection of this type of information.”

Or this, in paragraph 15.13: “The Security Service used a variety of methods and conduits through which to disseminate the propaganda. The nature of the propaganda being disseminated varied. Some of the propaganda involved, for example, highlighted the damaging effect of PIRA murders and attacks. In other instances, the propaganda was targeted more directly at discrediting specific PIRA figures.”

Well, I do not know of a propaganda initiative in the history of modern human society that has not employed the mass media in some way. I am not saying that it was entirely reliant on the media but I’d bet the mortgage that the media played a significant role. De Silva himself acknowledges that by saying that MI5 was inspired in this venture by the IRA’s own media success and even the UDA had skills in this direction: “…..paramilitary leaders such as Thomas ‘Tucker’ Lyttle regularly engaged with journalists and would often deliberate over how and whether to ‘claim’ loyalist murders based on their perceptions of the likely media and public reaction.”

So this is one area that I, as a journalist who worked in Northern Ireland for such a long time, would like to see clarified, although I acknowledge that there are more urgent issues facing the search for truth in the Pat Finucane case. Were media outlets used and abused by MI5 to peddle lies about lawyers or indeed other people considered nuisances by the Security Service? Was the media manipulated to assist in or to facilitate murder? Are individual journalists on the MI5 payroll? Do we have, can we ever have a guarantee that such activity has completely ceased and will not be and is not being repeated. Do we not have the right to see and hear such grave issues debated, probed and questioned at a public tribunal?

On one reading, it is quite possible to conclude that such propaganda continues and the clue there lies in De Silva’s narrative concerning the winding up of the propaganda campaign. It will come as no surprise to any observer of events in Northern Ireland that pressure to end this propaganda campaign began to build up in the summer of 1989. Pat Finucane was shot dead in February 1989 and it cannot be a coincidence that as revelations about the extent of security force collusion with the UDA grew in the Spring and early Summer months, so the pressure to scale back the black propaganda intensified.

According to De Silva, the campaign in so far as it affected the like of lawyers ended in September 1989, which just happens to be the same month that Sir John Stevens was appointed to investigate the collusion allegation, an inquiry that led, inter alia to the arrest of Brian Nelson.

De Silva notes approvingly the on record reservations about the campaign expressed by senior MI5 officers, such as Sir John Deverill who rejoices in the acronym HAG (Head of Assessment Group). For example, paragraph 15.23: “(MI5 has an)obligation to do nothing that intentionally or deliberately exacerbates religious sectarian tensions.” or the admission in paragraph 15.25 that the propaganda exercise had been “on dangerous ground“.

But when were these comments made? Before or after the Finucane assassination? We do not know because De Silva declines to date them in his footnotes? Why? Was that on the orders of MI5? What issue of national security is raised by such an issue? None that I can think of. But I can think of a reason why MI5 would wish to hide the date if it was post February 1989.

Or this even more definitive statement in paragraph 15:28: “It is one thing to use CA [Counter-Action] to get across the Government’s message or to expose paramilitaries’ hypocrisy. But we cannot agree that it would be right to engage in activity that could be interpreted as incitement, issuing threats to groups or individuals or [disseminating] targeting material. We could not credibly put any such scheme to the NIO.”

This comment at least is dated, 1989 sometime but clearly given the context, in the wake of the ending of the project. What makes this comment so important is that it is in part a response to a rival memo, originating from an operational section of MI5 – i.e. the guys who debrief the agents – whose intent appears, on one reading, to blow the whistle on the bosses by revealing the true purpose of the propaganda exercise, i.e to make IRA suspects and their friends Loyalist targets.

It reads, paragraph 15.27:’…..one officer expressed the view that there was nevertheless a continuing need for a project: “… which challenges republican assertions, which makes republican players feel that they, too, are as exposed as the members of the security forces who live daily under threat of the assassin’s bomb or bullet.“‘

Translation: “It is all right for the bosses sitting on their fat arses at Stormont Castle to disown all this now that the shit is hitting the fan and to try to pretend this was all about exposing Gerry Adams as a hypocrite. But they knew what the real game was and they knew that when we started this that it could get wet and messy. And they gave it the thumbs up, especially when we got results. But now it’s CYA time and if anyone gets it in the neck it will be us, the poor slobs who work the streets.”

So has MI5 abandoned the black propaganda business? Well, it certainly seems as if there is now some political input or control over its activities in this regard but it is far from clear that such activity has been left behind. Consider this sentence in De Silva, paragraph 15.48:

“The documentary records suggest that processes were subsequently devised to ensure that political clearance was sought for such initiatives. In September 1989, the Targeting Policy Committee agreed that future ‘Counter-Action’ activity would be subject to “full consultation and political clearance” and would be led by the cross-agency Information Strategy Group rather than the intelligence agencies. By this stage, however, the Security Service initiatives of interest to my Review were being wound up.”

It is the last sentence that jumps out at me. By September 1989, “the Security Service initiatives of interest to my Review were being wound up”. De Silva’s Review was confined to the Pat Finucane assassination and the way that he has constructed this sentence suggests or implies that that there are or were MI5 propaganda initiatives unconnected to the Finucane case that carried on.

As I said at the start, read De Silva and you end up with more questions than answers.

More to come soon.