Slugger O’Toole is Northern Ireland’s best known and most widely-read current affairs blog. Set up by Mick Fealty in 2002, it initially concentrated on Northern Ireland matters but has gradually expanded the breadth of its coverage, and its list of contributors, to include most points on the political and geographic compass. But there’s no doubt that it is Slugger’s coverage of Northern Ireland that brings the clicks.
And Northern Ireland politics being what they are, there is no shortage of controversy about the stories that the blog posts, especially in the comments section where insults and abuse abound and often come close to violating the strict libel laws that operate in Ireland and the UK. Policing the comments section, and keeping Slugger O’Toole out of the libel courts, is surely one of Fealty’s more unenviable tasks.
Most of the time the system he put in place in recent years – requiring commenters to register and applying a ‘play the ball, not the man’ policy – seems to work and does so fairly, excluding the more egregious vilification. But like others who have had dealings with Slugger O’Toole, I have come across complaints of inconsistency and even double standards in the application of that policy, that those who are powerful, financially and politically, get a better deal than those who aren’t. Others say there are protected and unprotected species on the site, that is some journalists and public figures about whom criticism is rarely tolerated, much less abuse, and others about whom almost anything can be inferred.
Normally, I would dismiss complaints like this as sour grapes from people who came off second best in debates with opponents. Normally that would be my reaction, except I have personal experience at the hands of Slugger O’Toole and Mick Fealty that gives substance & weight to the complaint.
Back in April/May 2005 I was contacted by a friend in Belfast who suggested I have a look at some of the comments directed at me on one posting placed on the blog towards the end of April. There I read that I was “a sneaky little bully” who had no real republican sources but plenty in the security forces; that I hankered for a return to the days of “bombs and bullets” and that I had acted as adviser/policy developer and “consigliero” (sic) for the IRA leadership.
Now normally I would shrug off such slanderous nonsense. Ever since my book ‘A Secret History of the IRA’ was published I had been on the receiving end of mountains of similar abuse, mostly from Sinn Fein supporters who didn’t like what they had read between its covers. And there I would have left it except as I scanned the site I came across this, a comment posted on April 28th, 2005 by someone calling him or herself ‘Concerned Loyalist’ in response to other comments about a BBC Newsnight report that had named the membership of the IRA’s Army Council:
You said that Newsnight have “put these men’s lives in danger”. How?
Around Christmas I named, on Slugger, the exact same 7 men as IRA Army Council members, but Mick took it off as he felt it could be libellous, which is fair enough……Concerned Loyalist”
I have to say that enraged me. Double standards in the treatment of people always do. Mick Fealty had moved immediately to protect the reputation of people who had directed a campaign of bombing, shooting & death in Ireland for many years yet had done nothing at all when I, a reporter of some standing, was called an IRA “consigliero”.
I am not a person who likes to contemplate suing. I dislike the libel laws which I believe are constructed more to protect the rich & powerful and to hide their excesses from public scrutiny than to prevent malicious commentary about innocent people. I didn’t want to sue in this case but I did write to Mick Fealty asking that the comments about me be removed. My first letter was ignored but eventually a lengthy correspondence ensued. However it wasn’t until the end of July that the matter was brought to an end, admittedly in a less than satisfactory way, and the comments removed. The Army Council got immediate satisfaction; I had to wait nearly three months.
Last week, Mick Fealty removed another posting from his site that concerned myself, but this time most definitely not at my request or wish. I had given an interview to an Irish-American website called TheWildGeese.com about the
ongoing legal and political struggle to prevent the US authorities from confiscating archived interviews with former IRA members, notably Dolours Price, lodged in the archives of Boston College on behalf, we suspect, of the PSNI. But we don’t know for sure who is behind this as the subpoenas have, in echoes of the days of the Star Chamber, been sealed to maintain secrecy.
Those involved in our campaign had been investigating the background to the subpoenas, and particularly how the authorities in Northern Ireland and the US had come to know that Dolours Price had been interviewed by Boston College, whose project to collect paramilitary oral history had been overseen by myself. Over the past months we had worked out the following explanation for events:
♦ while a patient at a psychiatric hospital in Dublin, Dolours Price had been interviewed on tape by Allison Morris of the Irish News paper in Belfast about the background to the disappearance of Jean McConville amongst others. The interview took place at her home when she was on weekend leave from the hospital but technically still under its care;
♦ that during the interview, one of Dolours Price’s sons arrived unexpectedly, realised what was happening and that his mother was in no fit mental state to be interviewed and asked Morris to leave. She didn’t, the son contacted one of his aunts who, by phone also asked her to leave; she again stayed put;
♦ that on learning of the interview the Price family had asked the Irish News not to run the interview because of her distressed & unreliable mental state;
♦ that the editor of the Irish News agreed a compromise with the Price family, that “the juicy bits”, as one family member put it, would be not be used;
♦ that the editor of the Irish News, Noel Doran had kept his side of the deal but his reporter Allison Morris had not and instead had passed her tape of Dolours Price onto a friend, Ciaran Barnes in the Sunday Life tabloid newspaper in what was a blatant betrayal of the arrangement agreed to and honoured by her editor;
♦ that Ciaran Barnes had written a report with all “the juicy bits” most definitely included and wrote his report in such a way that it appeared that he had been given access to Dolours Price’s interview with Boston College and that the details of his subsequent report in the Sunday Life, including her alleged role in the disappearance of Jean McConville and others, had come from that interview;
♦ that Ciaran Barnes most definitely had not been given access to Boston College’s archive and that neither he nor anyone else knew what Dolours Price had said in her interview which was given when she was in a much healthier and rational mental state;
♦ that Dolours Price did not have, and could not have had, a copy of her interviews with Boston College and therefore could not have been the source for any tape recording of herself given to Boston College. The only copies of interviews carried out for the Belfast Project on behalf of Boston College were lodged at the Burns Library on the campus in Boston with access limited to the librarian, Dr Robert K O’Neill;
♦ that Ciaran Barnes’ motive in behaving in this way, to infer or otherwise suggest that he had been given access to Boston College’s tape, was to hide the fact that his information had come instead from Allison Morris’ tape and that Morris’ role in betraying her source Dolours Price, and undermining her editor, would remain hidden.
Be in no doubt about the seriousness of all this. In order to justify the PSNI’s subpoenas against Boston College, the office of the US Attorney in Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz cited the Sunday Life report as a causal factor for her legal action and took Barnes’ inference that he had listened to the Boston College tape to a higher level, saying:
“Ms. Price’s interviews by Boston College were the subject of news reports published in Northern Ireland in 2010, in which Ms. Price admitted her involvement in the murder and ‘disappearances’ of at least four persons whom the IRA targeted: Jean McConville, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee…..Moreover according to one news report, the reporter was permitted to listen to portions of Ms. Price’s Boston College interviews.”
In other words, Ms Ortiz was saying: ‘We are demanding these interviews at Boston College because we have reason to believe, thanks to Mr Barnes’ journalism in the Sunday Life, that they include her confession to the disappearance of Jean McConville and others. Furthermore because Boston College evidently gave Dolours Price’s interviews to Ciaran Barnes or Dolours Price gave them to Barnes, the promise of confidentiality given to all interviewees had been broken and Boston College could no longer claim the protection of that promise. So please hand them over right now!’
Thanks to their deception and trickery Allison Morris and Ciaran Barnes have substantial and direct responsibility for this attempt to raid the archives of Boston College, an effort which has the potential to imperil the future of oral history in the United States, destroy Boston College’s invaluable historical archive and put myself and my researcher Anthony McIntyre in countless difficulties. A straight line can be drawn, in other words, between their behaviour and the subpoenas served on Boston College. Without the former, the latter could and would not have happened.
It was for this reason that in my interview with The Wild Geese website I said that “Boston College is the victim of journalistic ethics that are on a par with Rupert Murdoch’s hacking operations”. Notice, I did not say News International’s criminal behaviour but their ethical behaviour. And what I meant was that the deception of Morris and Barnes and Murdoch’s hacking shared the same disrespect for and mistreatment of sources in the search for headlines, a sensational story and professional advancement.
There is substantial reason to believe that Ciaran Barnes also broke the section of the Press Complaints Council’s code of behaviour which states, inter alia: “The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information…..”, while Allison Morris could be accused of contravening the section which says: “They (reporters) must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on their property when asked to leave and must not follow them…..”
This is a story that asks very hard questions of the Northern Ireland media. There are other reasons why the story is of considerable public interest, or rather questions that arise about the PSNI’s handling of this affair which make it so:
♦ Have the Irish News and/or Sunday Life been subpoena’d by the PSNI to hand over Allison Morris’ taped interview with Dolours Price?
♦ Does the Allison Morris tape still exist or has it been destroyed?
♦ Did the PSNI ever make any effort to discover if there was a tape recording of Dolours Price’s interview separate from those in the Boston College archives and if so, when did they make it? Was it immediately after the reports appeared in the Irish News & Sunday Life or did the PSNI wait, and if so, for how long?
♦ Has the PSNI ever attempted to interview Allison Morris and/or Ciaran Barnes about these matters?
♦ Does the Irish News have any other record or proof of Allison Morris’ interview with Dolours Price? If so, what is it and a) has the newspaper handed it over to the PSNI or b) has the PSNI subpoena’d it or even inquired about it?
♦ Has the PSNI handled this matter in such a way that local media sources remain unaffected and unharmed by their inquiry while the brunt falls upon Boston College?
These are all questions which, as I say, make this a story of overwhelming public interest in Northern Ireland, especially as society there grapples with the vexed problems of how to deal with the past. My interview with The WIld Geese was immediately noticed by Slugger O’Toole contributor Mark McGregor who recognised its significance and wrote it up in a lengthy blog which he posted on the site at 7.24 pm (Belfast time) on Monday, October 11th. It stayed there for three hours or so, after which Mick Fealty removed it.
Mick Fealty has yet, at the time of this posting, to make any reference to this incident on his blog much less explain why he acted in the way he did. I am told that he did this because of a fear of legal action against his site. Perhaps he will now come forward to explain so we can judge whether the threat was a real one or, as often happens with more powerful, influential and affluent parties, it was merely a bluff to kill off the story before it spiraled out of control.
In the meantime here is the post that was removed from Slugger O’Toole. Enjoy.
“Mark McGregor, Mon 10 October 2011, 7:24pm
“When I asked ‘Did local media have a role in the Boston College case?’ I noted how articles by Allison Morris and Ciaran Barnes appeared central to the case being pursued in the US courts by the Attorney General to access oral history archives on behalf of an unknown wing of the British State. Their articles remain Exhibits 1 & 2 in the case.
“Mick later followed up noting a Private Eye article that states:
The subpoenas are based on a false claim that one of the interviews with Price, published in the Sunday Life newspaper in February last year, was based on an interview with the Boston College project
“Now Ed Moloney in an interview with TheWildGeese.com goes much further placing Morris and Barnes central to this case and seemingly with questions to answer:
In February 2010, Dolours was in a psychiatric hospital in Dublin and while there she contacted the Irish News in Belfast and said she had things to tell the paper. That weekend, she was given leave to go home, but she was technically still under psychiatric care from the hospital. The Irish News’ journalist Allison Morris arrived at her home and tape-recorded the interview. Dolours told a story about her involvement in the disappearance of several people in 1972, including Jean McConville. Toward the end of the interview, one of her sons arrived home and realized what was happening. He told Morris that his mother was a psychiatric patient, was taking drugs and was not in a fit state to give anyone an interview, that whatever she said was totally unreliable. He demanded that the interview end and that the tape not be used. Morris refused. He then phoned his aunt, who repeated the demand and was again refused. She then phoned the editor of the Irish News, and, after much discussion, he said that he would use the interview but agreed to keep “the juicy bits” out to minimize the damage to Dolours Price, which he did. We believe that what happened next was that Allison Morris betrayed Dolours Price and reneged on the agreement with her family and passed the tape on to a friend, Ciaran Barnes, who worked in the Sunday Life, a tabloid Belfast newspaper. He wrote up the story with “the juicy bits” very much in, and, in order to disguise the fact that he had got the information from Allison Morris’ tape, wrote the piece in such a way that it appeared that he had gained access to Dolours Price’s taped interviews at Boston College, which needless to say was impossible. It is on the basis of this deception that the subpoenas were served on Boston College, that the information in Barnes’ article came from BC when it didn’t. The information, in fact, came from the Irish News tape, which was passed on, in contravention of an agreement with Dolours Price’s family, to Barnes. Whether the PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) have ever tried to obtain the Irish News tape is a mystery, which no one seems able to solve. But there is no doubt that the subpoenas served on BC are based on a lie, that the admissions Dolours Price allegedly made and which were reported in the Sunday Life came from Boston College. They did not. …
This is what the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney (Carmen M. Ortiz) had to say in her subpoena (see page 4 of link) to justify the demand for Dolours Price’s interviews: “Ms. Price’s interviews by Boston College were the subject of news reports published in Northern Ireland in 2010, in which Ms. Price admitted her involvement in the murder and ‘disappearances’ of at least four persons whom the IRA targeted: Jean McConville, Joe Lynskey, Seamus Wright and Kevin McKee. See Exhibits 1 and 2. Moreover according to one news report, the reporter was permitted to listen to portions of Ms. Price’s Boston College interviews.”
That last sentence is a lie. He (Barnes) was not and never would be permitted access to Boston College’s interviews. Boston College is the victim of journalistic ethics in Belfast that are on a par with Rupert Murdoch’s hacking operations, and you can quote me.”
“Given Moloney’s statements questions may arise at the Society of Editors, Regional Press Awards as they declared Morris DAILY/SUNDAY REPORTER OF THE YEAR based on a three piece portfolio of work including that Price interview.
“I closed my initial blog with – Given the use of these articles to expedite the subpeona, it is surprising these publications and journalists have not been more proactive in examining this issue, their role in its advancement and just how valuable their articles are as a possible central plank for legal action. Moloney’s claim of an integrity issue may go some way to explain the reluctance from both journalists and publications to examine the role they had from the outset.”
Thanks for this. Most interesting.
Surely it is unfair and unrealistic to expect a blog with no income run as a part-time project by a self-employed journalist to take on the role as a guardian of free speech (which can actually be extremely expensive when the lawyers get involved)? Not even well-financed big media with a claimed public interest agenda will take risks like that, so why should a private blogger be expected to take such risks?
Your blog is not in the applicable legal jurisdiction so you are not taking any corresponding risk by posting the allegations that impugn the professional integrity of the two named journalists. If it was, would you think twice without a multinational publisher to pay your costs? I think it more likely you’d wait for a newspaper to pick them up and test the legal waters first.
At the end of the day, Mick Fealty is the one who has to make the decisions about what he can allow on his blog, not Ed Moloney or Mark McGregor who won’t be asked to contribute to Mr Fealty’s costs in the defence of their speech. Remember, it doesn’t matter if the named journalists have a legal defence or not: it only matters that they can pay for one and thereby force you to incur costs in responding to their lawyers.
Also, depending on the political bias of the person making the claim, Slugger O’Toole is either a unionist site or a nationalist site. In reality it is neither. Some contributing bloggers such as Mark McGregor (a former PSF member and activist) and Chris Donnelly are nationalist. Others such as Pete Baker are very critical of PSF, subjecting the party to intense scrutiny. It is simply wrong to claim that Slugger O’Toole ‘protects’ Shinners and PIRA godfathers.
It does have a hidden agenda, however, which is essentially a pro-process agenda. It has other agendas which it has declared, such as the purpose of the Slugger Awards.
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I suspect if you were a family member or loved one of any of the people Dolours is alleged to have been involved in murdering or disappearing that all these technicalities would not matter so much but getting at the truth would. It reminds me of the Catholic church claiming that priests can keep the confessions of the guilty secret and private because they are clergy and that’s their privilege.
How does one sleep at night know such things and not telling?
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I am no defender of the Catholic Church but it is a priests sworn duty not to break the seal of the confessional and not ‘his privilege’. He may refuse absolution if the penitent refuses to go to the authorities if he asks him to do so but he may not reveal the contents of what is confessed to him