Category Archives: Censorship

Martin McGuinness, Informers, the Media and Why Dissident Republicans Still Kill People

This is one of those weeks when I am glad to be in New York and not Belfast. I’ll explain why further down, but it’s not for the reasons that you think.

Last weekend, dissident republicans, i.e. anti-Provisional ones, killed a young member of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) in Omagh, Co. Tyrone, using a bomb that was a standard IRA weapon when the Troubles were raging. It was nicknamed by those who developed and used the device ‘an up and under’, an appellation derived from the way it was placed.

Dissident IRA bomb killed policeman in Omagh, Co. Tyrone

An “up and under” was a small bomb, usually packed into a Tupperware-style container that was attached to the underside of a car, usually just beneath the driver’s seat, assuming the driver was the target, and designed to explode while the car was in motion.

It was affixed to the bodywork by a strong magnet and detonated by a mercury tilt switch, essentially a small tube partially filled with mercury that would flow from one end of the tube to the other, thereby completing an electrical circuit, whenever the car was driven on to a gradient.

Once it was flowing, the electric current would detonate a fuse which in turn would set off the main charge. It was the easiest device to place and it took just a few furtive moments to begin the process of hurling someone into eternity. All the bomber had to do was crouch down, slip the package underneath the car and then up into the seat well. Hence the nickname.

The Provisional IRA, whose resourceful engineering department devised this and many other weapons during the Troubles, used this sort of bomb repeatedly. Not only was it an effective weapon that invariably killed but it required little in the way of investment: a few ounces of explosive, some basic intelligence work, one person and a getaway car with driver. One additional bonus was that the hardest bit, placing the bomb, could be done in the middle of the night when the risks of being caught were minimal.

It also terrified those who were its potential targets, mainly RUC officers and members of the Ulster Defence Regiment but also politicians, judges, prosecutors and civil servants whose every day would have to begin with an undignified but possibly life-saving search of the underneath of their vehicles. The bomb was the ultimate psychological weapon, a constant reminder from the Provos to the security establishment that there was a war going on which might tomorrow morning claim their lives, or at least their legs.

Most the weapon’s victims were policemen or UDR soldiers killed as they drove to work in the mornings but there were more prominent casualties as well. John McMichael, the talented UDA leader, was one, killed in the driveway of his Lisburn,

John McMichael, the UDA commander killed by an IRA up and under" bomb

Co. Antrim home by an “up and under” device. His killing, it was widely believed at the time, was carried out by the IRA in retaliation for the assassination bid on Gerry Adams, shot as he was being driven through the centre of Belfast after a court appearance in March 1984.

McMichael was the UDA’s military commander at the time and since he was spotted scouting the courthouse a few minutes before Adams was ambushed, it was assumed, not unreasonably, that he had something to do with it. The Provos bided their time and killed McMichael in December 1987 over three years later.

The timing of McMichael’s death may also have had something to do with an internal inquiry he had launched into fellow UDA member Jim Craig who was

Jim Craig, UDA traitor killed by his own people

killed by his own people a year later. Craig was a UDA traitor and as corrupt as they come. He had been passing on information to the IRA and INLA for some time and was believed, for instance, to have told the IRA where they could best kill Lennie Murphy, the leader of the notorious Shankill Butchers gang who was gunned down by an IRA squad in 1982. Revenge for trying to kill Gerry Adams was certainly one motive for blowing McMichael to pieces but so was the desire to preserve a valuable asset in the UDA.

(The Adams’ shooting had an interesting sequel. The late Tommy Little, who some years later succeeded Andy Tyrie as Supreme Commander of the UDA, told

Tommy Little, learned about the 'top men's agreement'.

me that later on the day of the Adams’ shooting an angry Joe Haughey rang the UDA’s headquarters on the Newtownards Road demanding to know what had happened to ‘the top men’s agreement’. Haughey was an IRA leader from the Unity Flats area, incidentally, who was later charged with, but acquitted of killing Mary Travers, the daughter of Belfast magistrate Tom Travers a few weeks after the attempt on Adams’ life. So why was an IRA commander making angry phone calls to the guys who had just tried to kill his boss? How come he even had their number?

Tommy made some inquiries and discovered that ‘the top men’s agreement’ was just that, a deal between the leaders of the IRA, UDA and UVF that while their respective ‘grunts’ were fair game, none of their leaders would ever be touched. It apparently had been struck sometime in the mid-1970‘s when Belfast’s sectarian slaughter was at its height. Such were the ethical rules of Northern Ireland’s dirty little war: kill the other ranks whenever and wherever you can, but we officer-types are off-bounds! Anyway the Adams’ assassination effort marked the end of the ‘top men’s agreement’, although it is remarkable how many of the ‘top men’ nonetheless came through it all with nary a scrape.)

Gerry Adams (centre, wearing glasses) - John McMichael was killed in retaliation for bid on his life

UDA and IRA had 'top men's agreement' to safeguard their leaders from attack

Nor was the IRA the only republican organisation to use “up and under” bombs. Their most famous victim was the Tory MP, Airey Neave who was killed in 1979 when just such a device placed by the INLA exploded under his car as he was driving up the ramp from the underground car park at the House of Commons in Westminster. The bomb blew off both his legs and he died an hour later in hospital from massive

Airey Neave with Margaret Thatcher

shock and loss of blood. Neave had masterminded Margaret Thatcher’s successful bid for the leadership of the British Conservatives and was slated to be her NI Secretary, which would have been good news for Unionists since he was an avid supporter of their cause.

I mention all this to demonstrate that the sort of bomb which killed Ronan Kerr has been around for decades and there is absolutely nothing new or particularly innovative about their use. But what did I read in the following Monday’s Irish Times but this:

British and Irish security and intelligence sources are increasingly concerned at the technical capacity of dissident republican groups following Saturday’s murder of Constable Ronan Kerr in an under-car explosion in Co Tyrone.

They believe the dissidents are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their bomb-making capability, while the PSNI has described as ‘substantial’ the device that killed Constable Kerr, a 25-year-old Catholic, in Omagh.

The PSNI, Garda and MI5 fear the dissidents are using under-car bombs that are miniature and more difficult to detect.

Reading that brought me back with a jolt to the days when it was often my job to write up such incidents. My abiding memory of that time was that the media, both Irish and British, often felt free, some seemed compelled, to write the most exaggerated, loosely sourced nonsense about such events. The effect was to to paint groups like the IRA in the most lurid of colors so as to emphasize how utterly beyond the pale they were.

In more recent times, both pre and post the St Andrews’ Agreement, there has been a small industry working away with energy and skill to do the same sort of thing with the dissidents, except in their case it is to inflate the perceived threat that they represent.

Before the St Andrews’ Agreement it was mostly Sinn Fein who were in this business and from their viewpoint it made sense. The more they could persuade everyone that only they stood between a fragile peace and a return to the bad old days of the Troubles, the easier it was to extract political concessions from the British and Irish governments and the easier it was to persuade the authorities on both sides of the Border to turn a blind eye to their various, uh, money-raising ventures, like armed robberies and tiger kidnappings on the grounds that such things were necessary to keep the hard men happy and on board.

Post the St Andrews’ Agreement a number of groups have had a vested interest in over-egging the dissident pudding. Some, like this bunch of London-based neocons, are in the business worldwide and especially in the Middle East, of exaggerating terrorist threats but is it not hard to work out either that, in these straitened days, both the PSNI and MI5 have much to gain if we are all led to believe that the dissidents are really, really bad news.

The PSNI and MI5 are, in Northern Ireland, primarily in the anti-terrorist business so the more terrorists they make us think there are and the more fearsome they seem to be, the greater the amount of money, manpower, prestige and bureaucratic clout that will come their way. There are also those, in both these two organisations and in the wider political world, who hope that in such ways Sinn Fein might be persuaded to embrace its Four Courts moment and take the offensive against erstwhile comrades, an event that would, like its Dublin counterpart in 1922, finally seal the peace process beyond any doubt or chance of retreat.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not going the other way and minimising the threat posed by dissidents. Clearly they are capable of killing people. It’s just that compared to the Provos and what it was really like during the Troubles, even in the final years, the dissidents are a faint shadow, a mouse beside an elephant in comparison and they just don’t merit the hysterical, exaggeration-laden coverage of the last few days. I’ve seen reports, for instance, that the dissident groups have 600 members between them. In the name of God, that’s more than the Provos had in their ranks in the 1980’s when they nearly wiped our Mrs Thatcher’s entire Cabinet!

Nor am I necessarily getting over-exercised about the behaviour of the PSNI and MI5. It is an immutable law of organisations that they overstate the need for their own existence. In such ways not only do they get to keep their jobs but they get better and bigger ones. I don’t like nor approve of what they do, but neither am I surprised. And as for nudging the Provos to their Four Courts moment, what would you expect?

What really bugs me, and brought me back in this instance with a jolt to the days when I had to report similar events, is that it is no business of the media to indulge these organisations and interests in the way reflected in that Irish Times report. Of course, reporters must give an account of what such people have to say, making clear these are only claims, and balance the report by putting what happened in context. But no more than that.

To highlight what I am trying to say here, that Irish Times report could just as easily have read:

Dissident republicans kill first security force member in two whole years using booby trap bomb technology developed thirty years ago and inherited from Provisional IRA campaign. Security experts believe dissidents have sourced a supply of smaller Tupperware containers. Attack highlights patchy and fitful pattern of violent activity from dissident groups better noted for incompetence, political confusion and propensity to steal money sent from American sympathisers for prisoners’ families.

The reason why reports like the one in the Irish Times that I have just lampooned bug me is that I know that the reporters are fully aware of all this yet it doesn’t stop them. I can’t speak on a first-hand basis for the situation nowadays but when I used to observe this sort of reporting in situ, I was overwhelmingly aware of the real, albeit unspoken reason and I doubt if it has changed that much.

It was as if the journalists were saying:

OK, I strongly suspect we’re being fed mostly bullshit. But if I don’t go along with it I’ll be accused of not taking the threat seriously which means people might think that I secretly sympathise with those responsible because I don’t want to make them look bad. So rather than be labelled ‘a sneakin’ regarder’, I’ll go along with all the hyperbole and that way I’ll keep my job.

That sort of reasoning is part of what I call the Section 31 syndrome, a nasty leftover from the official censorship and its more insidious cousin, self-censorship that was ushered in by the Irish Republic’s broadcasting law of the 1970’s. The law forbad radio and television outlets from broadcasting the voices of members of certain proscribed groups. The IRA and SInn Fein were the principal targets but it had a chilling effect generally on coverage of the Troubles that lasted for many, many years.

The official censorship filtered into the print media and brought Ireland into an ice age of self-censorship that for many reporters was all about professional survival. Journalists were terrified of being labeled a fellow traveler of the IRA while timidity and mediocrity thrived. In my view Section 31 needlessly perpetuated the Troubles because it inhibited real understanding of what was going on. Simple reportage of the “Last night a bomb exploded….” variety almost entirely replaced efforts to explain what persuaded otherwise normal people to do things as extreme as planting the bombs.

The law was repealed at the outset of the peace process but the truth is that by that stage it was unnecessary to do such things by law; the media were perfectly capable of censoring themselves without any urging from the State. They still are and that this sort of behaviour lingers on in the coverage of bombings like that at the weekend is profoundly depressing and for me a reminder of why I was so happy to leave it all behind. And it’s why this week I’m glad I’m here and not there.

On a slightly different tack the killing of Ronan Kerr has brought the Provos a little closer to their Four Courts moment and that’s important because it helps to explain why the dissidents exist and are so intent on keeping a war alive that everyone else regards, correctly, as a lost cause.

The move came from Martin McGuinness who had these words to say to the media in the aftermath of the bomb:

I would say, and I am standing up to be counted, give the information to the police, give it to the Garda in the south if you have it, give it to the PSNI [Police Service of Northern Ireland] in the north.

My message is very, very simple: those who are perpetrating these acts, those who are killing our people, need to be apprehended.

These are people who are pledged to destroy the peace and destroy a peace process that many of us have invested much of our adult lives in trying to bring about.

That’s a step up from McGuinness’ comments when dissidents last killed security force members, two soldiers shot dead in March 2009 at an military barracks in Co. Antrim and a PSNI member shot dead in Co. Armagh. That time he called the perpetrators “traitors”. He was roundly criticized by other, non-Provo republicans, and even by some Provos, for his choice of words and that he has gone a stage further this time and called on people to inform is surely significant. It will also spur the dissidents to more violence.

A measure of how significant his words are can be judged by watching, by way of sharp contrast, this extract from a TV interview that McGuinness gave when he was Northern Commander of the IRA and men and women under his command did a good deal more than plant “up and unders” beneath policemen’s cars. “Death”, he agreed with interviewer Peter Taylor, was the fate reserved for those who betrayed the IRA.

Martin McGuinness knows a thing or two about informers. He was centrally involved in the celebrated, not to say infamous case of the Derry informer Frank Hegarty about which you can read more here. The affair ended with Hegarty’s death and a more than lingering belief amongst some at the IRA’s highest reaches that perhaps the wrong informer had been killed.

He also played a part in the more tragic death of IRA informer Caroline Moreland, a 34 year old woman from West Belfast whose offence was, so I have been told, to betray an arms dump containing a single rifle. (Maybe if she had just said that it was an act of anticipatory decommissioning she would have lived. But she didn’t.)

She was killed in July 1994 just a month before the first peace process, IRA ceasefire was called. When the Army Council met to decide, inter alia, whether to confirm her death sentence, IRA and Sinn Fein leaders were faced with a dilemma. Her offence was relatively minor and the war was about to end, so what the hell, maybe she should be spared. But if the leadership let her live then it would have sowed suspicion in the ranks of those in the IRA who still believed the leadership line that the peace process was merely a tactical device to wrong foot the Brits and not a plot to go constitutional. The dissidents-in-waiting, if you like, would have been needlessly alarmed.

And so poor Caroline Moreland was given the thumbs down by those seven men in a room. There was a brief discussion on how to handle her killing. One person suggested that she be disappeared, that is killed, her body dumped in a secret grave and lies told to her family about what had really happened. Who came up with the idea? Well, put it this way, it wasn’t Gerry Adams.

The idea was dismissed by one figure on the Council, someone who was aware that the whole issue of the disappeared of the 1970’s might well return to haunt him and that it would be foolish to add to that problem. And who was that? Well let’s just say it wasn’t Martin McGuinness.

The point about all this history telling is this. Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness played roles in the development and selling of the peace process that was a little akin to Mutt and Jeff, the good cop, bad cop routine. Adams was the good cop, whose role was to interact with John Hume and be the public face of diplomacy in dealings with governments, the White House and so on. McGuinness’ role, a suitable one since he had the active service record and Adams didn’t, was to be the bad cop, to reassure the IRA grassroots that there would be no sell out while he was running Northern Command and that if Martin backed the peace process then there was nothing to be worried about.

And it worked perfectly, well almost so. Dissident opposition to the Adams-McGuinness strategy did emerge but it came in two waves and because of that the strategy triumphed. The first was led by people like Michael McKevitt, the IRA Quarter-Master General who was close enough to events and the major players to

Micky McKevitt, the first IRA dissident

get suspicious early on about the real deal that was coming down the pike. But his effort to overthrow Adams was frustrated and then when he broke off to form the Real IRA and made common cause with the INLA and the Continuity IRA against the Adams-McGuinness strategy, the venture was torpedoed by the Omagh bomb.

The next wave came many years later and really didn’t gather steam until the Provos agreed to accept and recognise the PSNI in the wake of the St Andrews’ Agreement which brought them into government with Ian Paisley and the DUP. The people involved in this wave were those who had ignored McKevitt’s warnings, and went along with the leadership’s claim that he was just an ambitious malcontent. They chose to stay within the bosom of the Provos, preferring to believe Martin McGuinness’s soothing words rather than the reality unfolding all around them. But when Martin & Co. agreed to back the PSNI they could deny the reality no longer.

Their determination to go back to war appears therefore to be fueled less by any sophisticated plan to destabilize Sinn Fein or the peace deal and more by their anger at being misled and tricked by the Provo leadership, especially the bad cop, Martin McGuinness. They were always wary of Gerry Adams. He was ever the crafty politician, never to be trusted. But Martin was one of their own. How could he lie so treacherously, they cried?

And so their anger at McGuinness is expressed in the killing of Ronan Kerr. Except that’s not the full truth either. The people they’re really angry at are themselves, for being so stupid, except they won’t admit as much. That’s why they’ll keep on planting “up and unders” and why others like Ronan Kerr will die. And it is why they’re not really a threat and why the peace process will likely survive everything they throw at it.

The Death of a Newspaper

The announcement last week that Tony O’Reilly had sent the bailiffs into the Sunday Tribune was a bit like hearing of the death of an old ailing friend; you had been expecting it for a long time but even so, the shock is still intense, the sadness real.

The Sunday Tribune was so much part of my life in Irish journalism that it really does feel like a limb has been chopped off (not that you would notice the difference these days!).

The paper was born out of the old Hibernia weekly magazine that had been run for years out of a Dickensian suite of offices near Dublin’s Custom House by John Mulcahy and his wife Nuala in their uniquely paternal but often inspirational way. They gave me my first proper job in journalism – for which I will always be grateful – and since I was there at the death of Hibernia, I can claim, I think, to have played a small part in the conception, if not birth, of the Tribune.

The Mulcahy’s had the good luck to come into ownership of Hibernia at the start of the Northern Troubles and they made the magazine’s name with a consistent record of investigative journalism on that side of the Border, burrowing into places where the mainstream press did not have the nous nor, as government-imposed and media self-censorship began to bite, the courage to delve. To its eternal credit Hibernia earned the wrath of Conor Cruise O’Brien in the flush of his Section 31 days; he took a hissy fit one day and condemned it as a cross between the good wine guide and Republican News. Mulcahy thought it a wonderful compliment.

Sadly it was the North that also brought Hibernia to its knees. An article by the late, great Jack Holland about the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary alongside Loyalist paramilitaries in the intimidation and forced movement of hundreds of Catholic families from the Rathcoole area of north Belfast in 1972 spelled disaster for the magazine. Jack had named a couple of senior RUC officers as being in charge of the local police, and therefore responsible for what happened during those terrible days but unfortunately he got his information from a Constabulary gazette that was out of date. The cops sued, it was an open and shut case and that was the end of Hibernia.

(In a last desperate effort to get some dirt on the policemen, Mulcahy gave me two weeks off in the early part of 1980 to dig into the story for any evidence that they had been somehow involved. They weren’t, but my burrowing took me to the Twinbrook housing estate on the fringe of West Belfast where many of the Rathcoole refugees had been rehoused. One of the families I interviewed was called Sands and they told me that yes, the RUC had stood idly by watching, while they were forced by armed thugs to flee their home and their eldest boy, who was called Bobby, was so angry that afterwards he had joined the IRA and was now languishing in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We’d soon hear a lot more about him.)

With Hibernia out of business, Mulcahy launched the Sunday Tribune later the same year with Conor Brady (originally editor of the Garda Review and later the Irish Times) as his editor. But then the Midas syndrome, the conviction that some businessmen develop that they can do no wrong or ever fail in commercial matters, intervened. The Tribune was doing well, its journalism was much admired and it was moving towards profitability when one of Mulcahy’s partners, Hugh McLaughlin insisted on launching a new daily paper, the Daily News which was a (deservedly) disastrous flop. When it failed the Sunday Tribune was brought crashing down alongside it.

In stepped Vincent Browne to buy the title and relaunch the paper. Sunday Tribune Mark II, the real Trib, was born.

If there is one man who made me the journalist I later became it was Vincent. By the time I first encountered him, in 1979, he was already a legend. He’d cut his reporting teeth for the Irish Press group and later the Irish Independent covering the North in the very early days of the Troubles. He was the very first to talent spot Gerry Adams, then working his way up through the ranks of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, and he penetrated the strange world of Northern Loyalism, something very few other southern journalists were able or willing to do.

One story, an interview with a youngish Ian Paisley caused a sensation when the Protestant leader effectively (albeit only temporarily) abandoned his Unionist politics and conceded that if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were scrapped (they laid claim on the territory of Northern Ireland), he’d favour closer relations with the South. Changing the constitution in this way thereafter became a priority, even an obsession for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. They finally got their way in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.

By 1968 he had already started one magazine, the monthly Nusight (which propelled that complex being, Kevin Myers into journalism) and then in 1977 he launched Magill magazine which had so many high points over the years  (the Arms Trial issues come to mind) that you couldn’t count them.

Two qualities marked Browne out as a truly exceptional editor and journalist: one was a real love for the skill of reportage, that is the ability to firstly identify where the story was and then to get at it and finally write it up in an attractive, readable yet penetrating fashion, and the second was his gift for spotting other journalistic talent. Some of Ireland’s most talented reporters and writers, from Colm Toibin (former Magill editor) to Paddy Agnew to Gene Kerrigan (Magill columnist) amongst many, many others, got their start with Vincent and I believe it is for this that he should be best remembered. He watered the garden of Irish journalism (often with more than the stuff that comes out of taps) and planted many of its seeds. Inasmuch as the garden has blossomed, it is in no small measure down to Vincent.

Vincent also gave me a start by commissioning a series of articles on the North in 1979. With those pieces in my portfolio I was able to persuade John Mulcahy to give me employment (landing a job with Hibernia was the equivalent then of waking up in Heaven) and the rest is history. I briefly rejoined Magill a couple of years later before moving to D’Olier Street and when the Irish Times and myself fell out in 1986, I was hired by Vincent as the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor. I stayed there until 2001, outlasting him incidentally by nearly a decade. He could be extraordinarily kind and generous – he and his delightful wife Jean, once put me up for weeks in Dublin while I house-searched for my new family – and he always paid well if he was getting good work from you.

Vincent in his heyday

There was however another side to Vincent, as those who had dealings with him knew only too well. He could never make a friend without falling out with them, often in a tirade of angry insults and abuse. He had high standards to be sure and couldn’t abide it when others failed to meet them, as they often did. There’s nothing wrong with that but Vincent could be so unimaginably cruel to people who otherwise worshipped him that these confrontations often ended with the victim in tears, vowing eternal hatred for the man.

His editorial meetings on a Tuesday morning were such exercises in terror that I always found an excuse to skip them. That was the great advantage of working in Belfast, a hundred miles away; there was always a breaking story to cover or the plea that making the journey there and back would lose me a full working day.

I attended only a handful of them and they were truly awful affairs. The staff would filter into Vincent’s office with about as much enthusiasm as a condemned man facing the gallows. The bravest among them would take seats at the big editorial table while the rest hugged the wall as if praying that they would merge with the paintwork and go unnoticed. There was a good reason for that; Vincent would always descend upon one poor soul and rage about how pitiful their story that weekend had been. Even though the humiliation was heart-rending to witness, the rest of us would breathe a sigh of relief, quickly tempered by a horrifying thought: “Would it be my turn next week?”

Being stationed in Belfast meant that our paths rarely crossed and for that reason I probably stayed friends with Vincent longer than most. But inevitably the day of our falling out arrived. We quarreled about many things but at the root of our dispute was a fundamental difference about where the North, and specifically the IRA, was going.

Like most in the Southern media, Vincent had failed to spot the burgeoning peace process and by the early 1990’s he was openly advocating the re-introduction of internment to deal with the Provos. By contrast I was writing about the potentially huge ideological changes, and likely compromises to come, that were happening within the leadership of Sinn Fein and, therefore, the IRA. But as far as Vincent was concerned I might as well have been filing my copy from Mars, so out of touch with reality, so accommodating to the men of violence was my coverage.

We dueled furiously over ersatz issues and finally a fax arrived one summer afternoon. I was being transferred to work in the Dublin office. How quickly could I report for duty, he demanded? I replied ‘Whenever you wish’ and heard nothing more. He had obviously been hoping that I would object and refuse, and that would be a firing offence. In reality he wanted me nowhere near the Dublin office. And so it went on until deus ex machina-like, everything changed.

For that I have to thanks Vincent’s other failing, the fact that he was a lousy businessman. Like Hugh McLaughlin he was infected with the Midas virus and in the early 1990’s, as the Sunday paper was consolidating itself, he started the Dublin Tribune, a giveaway that was meant to form the beginnings of a new daily paper.

Now anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you that you produce freesheets with nothing more ambitious than two men and a dog; anything more and it becomes a sure money loser. But Vincent knew better and before too long there were more reporters working for the giveaway Dublin Tribune than were employed in the money-making parent publication. Admittedly the journalism was great and once again Vincent discovered some great writing talent – it was edited by the lovely Michael Hand and Rory Godson and, inter alia, included amongst its stars Ed O’Loughlin, listed for a Booker prize in 2009 for his novel ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ - but it was a commercial disaster and a drain on the Sunday Tribune.

Finally the board moved against Vincent and, in 1994, he was sacked. The Trib then became part of the Independent stable, bought by Tony O’Reilly we were told, to stave off a broader challenge to his titles from Rupert Murdoch’s empire.The Sunday Tribune never made Tony O’Reilly a penny, as far as I know, and it was always a mystery why he kept it going, especially since the rationale for buying it had long since been undermined by the Sunday Times’ success in Ireland. The only surprise in the move to put the paper into receivership is that it took so long to happen.

I cannot say that I have a word of complaint about O’Reilly’s management of the Sunday Tribune. They stood bravely by me when Scotland Yard attempted to destroy my career and always allowed me a complete free hand in my coverage of the North, especially during the controversial years of the peace process when the Irish media were sharply divided into the (larger) ‘helpful to the process, i.e. ask no questions’ camp and the (much smaller) ‘unhelpful, i.e. ask too many awkward questions’  bunch, of which I am proud to say I was a founder member.

But the Sunday Tribune for me will always be Vincent Browne’s newspaper. I will miss it just as I miss our friendship.

Any takers?

Why can’t I watch Al Jazeera?

Is it too much to hope that one outcome of the convulsions currently gripping the Arab world will be that American cable television viewers can now get to watch Al Jazeera’s coverage of events in that crucial part of the world? Probably, but anticipating disappointment should never deter one from doing the right thing.

So, in that spirit I’d like to endorse Jeff Jarvis’ call on his Buzz Machine blog for American cable companies to add the Qatar-based broadcaster to their channel lineups. Jeff writes:

What the Gulf War was to CNN, the people’s revolutions of the Middle East are to Al Jazeera English. But in the U.S., in a sad vestige of the era of Freedom Fries, hardly anyone can watch the channel on cable TV. Cable companies: Add Al Jazeera English NOW!

It is downright un-American to still refuse to carry it. Vital, world-changing news is occurring in the Middle East and no one–not the xenophobic or celebrity-obsessed or cut-to-the-bone American media–can bring the perspective, insight, and on-the-scene reporting Al Jazeera English can.

The recent momentous events in the region, first in Tunisia and now in Egypt, have served to highlight just how woefully out-of-touch, uninformed and, in too many cases, inherently biased the major US news channels are, stuck in a Bush-era time warp and terrified of airing any image of the Arab world that deviates too far from the jihadist stereotype.

Cairo in turmoil

Phillip Weiss made a similar point in an excellent piece on Salon at the weekend:

I’d thought this is what (Obama) wanted for the Arab world: democracy! But the market dropped, and the cable shows teem with mistrust of the Arab street. The talking heads can’t stop going about the Islamists. Chris Matthews cried out against the Muslim Brotherhood and shouted, Who is our guy here?– as if the U.S. has a role to play on the streets. While his guest Marc Ginsberg, a former ambassador to Morocco whose work seems to be dedicated to finding the few good Arabs out there, said that forces outside Egypt are funding the revolt– an insulting statement, given the homegrown flavor of everything we’ve seen; and when Matthews pressed him, Ginsberg said, Hamas… Iran.

Matthews’s other interpreter was Howard Fineman. Why aren’t there more Arab-Americans on US television?

I suspect Phillip knows the answer only too well,  that the reason there aren’t more Arab-Americans on US television is the same reason none of the cable companies will touch Al Jazeera. Partly it’s to do with the pro-Israel bias of the American media but it is also because by this point the American television-viewing public has a facile notion about the Middle East fixed immovably in its collective mind; Arab equals terrorist.

The media is in large measure responsible for that simplistic thought and having helped to create it, is now imprisoned by it. To challenge the idea by interviewing Arab pundits and treating them as normal, intelligent and even insightful human beings risks the accusation of harboring secret sympathy for terrorism – such journalists in Ireland were called ‘sneaking regarders’ – or at the very least of being soft on it and that prospect is enough to terrify most in the media into acquiescence. That’s how self-censorship works, as I know only too well from my years in Belfast.

The media got their cue from America’s political establishment. The network was labelled an Al Qaeda front by the Bush White House – Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld set the tone by calling it “vicious, inaccurate and inexcusable” after it aired Osama Bin Laden videos – while right-wing commentators have assailed it as ‘Terror TV’ and campaigned to keep it off the cable networks.

America’s political and military leaderships have also given violent, bloody form to their hatred of the station. In November 2001, just after the American invasion of Afghanistan, a US missile strike destroyed Al Jazeera’s Kabul office. Eighteen months or so later, Al Jazeera reporter Tareq Ayyoub was killed by an American missile as he reported from the rooftop of the station’s office even though, as a protective measure, the network had, as it had done with its Kabul office, provided the State Department with its co-ordinates some time before.

In November 2005 the Daily Mirror in Britain reported that George Bush and Tony Blair had discussed bombing Al Jazeera’s headquarters in Doha, Qatar the year before during a major offensive by US Marines on the Iraqi city of Fallujah. The paper said it had a leaked memo from 10 Downing Street laying out the discussion but the account was denied by the White House. The story got little play in the US media.

Between them, rhetorical and physical hostility to Al Jazeera have been enough to ensure that the network has become a media ‘untouchable’ in America. According to a superb piece about the network in the online magazine Guernica, posted in 2008, around 120 million people “from Jerusalem to Jakarta to Germany” can tune in to the network’s English language service but unless you live in Burlington, Vermont or Northeast Ohio – both places with significant Arab populations – you cannot get Al Jazeera in America. According to Guernica:

Comcast, Charter, Time Warner, Dish Network and DirecTV (were offered the network but) all passed.

None would say why, but it is not hard to imagine that the same fear that keeps Arab-Americans off the major networks was and still is at work in the minds of the cable companies. Right now, the only way to get Al Jazeera, aside from YouTube videos, is to log on to their English language live stream on the internet but when a big story is happening, as in the past few days or so, and demand is high the service can be very hard to get.

Which is a great pity because the US networks are making a pretty poor fist of explaining what has been happening in Egypt. As Phillip Weiss noted, they keep tripping up over their preconceptions and prejudices about the Arab world. One recurrent theme, and not just on Fox News, has been that a) the Muslim Brotherhood could well seize power if Mubarak falls, (b) the Muslim Brotherhood are Eqypt’s Al Qaeda and therefore (c) what is happening in Egypt might well be a very bad thing.

Blogger and Nation reporter, James North said it well:

All of a sudden, middle-aged American men in suits who couldn’t find their way, unaided, from Cairo’s Ramses Station down Talaat Harb to Midan Tahrir, are posing as experts, appearing on U.S. television to insinuate that the Muslim Brotherhood is violent and extremist.

Fortunately, the Brothers have an English-language website.  Scroll down it to the lower left and you will see the feature: “MB vs. Qaeda.”  This segment is one more sign of the organization’s decades-long commitment to nonviolence, even though over the years the Mubarak regime has arrested and tortured thousands of its members.

If you go to the Muslim Brotherhood’s website (you need to scroll down) you can read this in a report on the recent attacks on Christians in Egypt by Muslim extremists of the Al Qaeda variety:

In a statement the Muslim Brotherhood vehemently opposed both the attack and threat calling on all Muslims to unite and protect the holy places of all the monotheistic religions, stressing it was a religious duty. It emphasized that Islam was a religion which promoted only peace and tolerance. The MB described the attack as criminal and heinous.

Hardly the words of jihadist terrorists or sentiments of which Osama bin Laden would approve yet this crucial part of the story, that the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is actually quite a moderate force within its spectrum, has flown right over the heads of the major networks, albeit with one or two notable exceptions like PBS’ NewsHour.

There is an irony in all of this and it is that Al Jazeera’s name for radical, anti-western coverage has been inflated beyond reason. The network is really the Middle East’s version of something that lies between the BBC and CNN – many of whose veteran reporters and producers not coincidentally provide a large slice of its staff – and can be every bit as mainstream, tedious and boring. In this regard it is salutary to recall that in its early, pre-9/11 days, Al Jazeera was often accused of being the voice of America in the Arab world. But it happens to do a very good job of reporting the story in its part of the world, a far better one than the US networks. That’s why we should be allowed to watch it.