This weekend a number of news reports claimed that the PSNI has requested that journalistic material from the US broadcaster CBS and the British newspaper, The Sunday Telegraph concerning Dolours Price and the abduction and ‘disappearance’ of Jean McConville be handed over to detectives investigating her death.
The Telegraph interviewed Dolours Price about her alleged role, inter alia, in the disappearance of Jean McConville by the IRA in 1972. It is believed that the paper’s reporters tape-recorded their interviews with her. She said Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams had given her the order for these operations which included the 1973 bombing of London, for which she was arrested and imprisoned. CBS News’ London bureau also interviewed Dolours Price and an item based on the interview was broadcast on national US television and radio. It is likely that the PSNI are seeking film that was not broadcast.
If past practice is a reliable guide, it is likely that the PSNI have requested that this material be handed over voluntarily by these two organisations and if they refuse will then serve them with subpoenas. It remains to be seen what the response is from The Sunday Telegraph and CBS but hopefully a voluntary handover is not on the menu at either organization!. More crucially, what will they do if, having refused to hand over the material voluntarily they then are served with subpoenas? Will they move in the courts to quash them? Not to do so will set an alarming and dangerous precedent because this will entail two of the foremost media concerns in the Western world accepting the unbridled, unchallenged right of the police to use journalistic material in criminal investigations while implicitly accepting that journalists can and even should work alongside police detectives to supplement their work. Where CBS and The Sunday Telegraph go today, others will follow tomorrow.
It is the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. It would end by cementing the police and the Fourth Estate together as partners, the latter collecting information for the former to use, degrading the supposed independence of the media in a most disconcerting way and undermining its ability to hold society and its institutions, including the police, to account and under scrutiny. With the Leveson inquiry due to recommend tighter state oversight of the media, this move by the PSNI holds great destructive potential for a free society in Britain. In the US, CBS’ capitulation would mark another depressing waypoint on a post-911 journey that has seen civil liberties erased and media independence eroded. These are bad days for this to happen.
The nature of the crime under investigation, the “disappearance” of alleged British Army informer, Jean McConville by the IRA some forty years ago may tempt CBS and the Sunday Telegraph to hand over the material, on the grounds that the crime was so monstrous that nobody could stand in the way of bringing the matter to a just end. While not wishing to minimise the sheer wrongness and wickedness of what happened to Jean McConville, it would be unfortunate if that did happen and both institutions should reflect on a number of realities before contemplating that path.
They should remember that there were many, many monstrous crimes committed during the Troubles in Northern Ireland, and quite a few of them were carried out by the state. Those crimes however remain uninvestigated and untouched by the same police force that now seeks to discover what happened to Jean McConville. They were carried out by the PSNI’s predecessors, the RUC, by British Military intelligence and by the Security Service, MI5 – the gory details are well known in Northern Ireland – yet no subpoenas are ever slapped on their desks. And we all know they won’t be. There are double standards at work here.
Secondly, for the most part of the last forty years neither the police nor any other security force agency cared a damn about Jean McConville, to the extent that only recently did they even classify her death as a murder, even though their intelligence files must have been bursting with information about her fate .
If the IRA is telling the truth and she was an informer who was caught but then let go with a warning before resuming her work for the British military, then the Army has some hard questions to answer, not least why they continued to use an agent whose life they must have known was in danger. And is it only coincidence that the state’s new found concern for Jean McConville comes when the Provo leadership has no more peace process cards to play, has disarmed and defanged the IRA and presents a great electoral threat to the Southern establishment parties? When the PSNI embarked on this investigation, with subpoenas served only when Gerry Adams was no longer a member of the British parliament and a potential source of embarrassment for that institution, they knew full well that all paths in their investigation would lead to his door. In these circumstances we are entitled to ask whether the opportunity to wreak revenge against a long-time foe rivals any concern for the death of Jean McConville.
Finally, CBS and The Sunday Telegraph, should bear in mind that no matter the distressing circumstances of Jean McConville’s abduction and death, it is the principle that matters above all, that the media should be and must stay independent. It is this that is at stake in this matter. Today it is Jean McConville but tomorrow it may be opponents of war or people protesting the power of Wall Street or the City of London. The day the media accepts without protest or effort to deny in the courts, a role as an active partner with the police, no matter the justness of the cause, is the day they cease to matter and the rest of us lose a crucial if erratic bulwark of freedom. We are too close to that as it is. If, finally, both outlets must hand over the material it can only be after a fierce fight to protect their independence and to reassure their readers and viewers.
The following is a statement I issued in the wake of the weekend reports:
“I view with great concern and no little alarm this effort by the PSNI to further intrude upon media rights by seeking interview material from CBS News and the Sunday Telegraph. It is clear that in the light of recent court decisions in the United States and Belfast, the police feel encouraged to raid for journalistic material rather than conduct investigations under their own steam, as they had many opportunities to do in this case.
“I sincerely hope and trust that neither CBS nor the Sunday Telegraph will voluntarily hand over material to the PSNI and in the event of a subpoena being served on either organisation they will have my complete and unqualified support in resisting it. It is vital to remember that Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights provides a robust bulwark against incursions into freedom of speech and I trust both organisations will seek its protection against this effort by the PSNI.
“Clearly this case is developing into a major assault on privacy. Not content with assailing academic rights, the PSNI are now set to lay siege to the media as well. Where will this stop? The right and duty of the media to report fully and freely without having to look over their shoulders for prying policemen has to be protected if the media is to perform its role of holding society to account.
“There are a number of points I wish to make about this issue:
“It is clear that the PSNI is substituting the efforts of journalists for basic detective work. I cite one glaring example. In August 2010, Dolours Price, who lives in Dublin, appeared in a Northern Ireland court on a minor charge. The court was full of policemen at the time and the authorities were well aware in advance of her appearance. The PSNI had a perfect opportunity to question her about the allegations in the Irish News and Sunday Life but did not do so. The questions must be asked, why not? And why should media and academic organisations now be asked to pay the price for police incompetence?
“I also wish to point out that notwithstanding a recent decision in the Belfast High Court I am firmly and unalterably of the view that if these interviews from Boston College are handed over, the risk to the life of BC researcher, Anthony McIntyre will be very great indeed. The IRA will view him as someone who encouraged living, fellow former members of the IRA to break their rule of silence in circumstances that could lead to criminal charges against living IRA leaders and members. As someone who has covered IRA matters as a journalist for many years, I know what the penalty for that is. Thankfully, none of the journalists from CBS or the Sunday Telegraph are likely to face the same consequences.
“The speed with which the PSNI have acted against CBS and the Sunday Telegraph is in sharp contrast to its complete inactivity when similar reports surfaced in the Irish News and Sunday Life newspapers in February 2010. One of those reports wrongly claimed that Anthony McIntyre’s interview with Dolours Price contained details about the disappearance of Jean McConville. It did not but that did not stop the PSNI from issuing subpoenas more than a year later against Boston College. Had the PSNI conducted basic due diligence in 2010 those subpoenas would never have been issued.
“In this regard it is worth noting that this move against CBS and the Sunday Telegraph is the first time since this case began that the PSNI has sought to obtain allegedly similar materials through domestic channels.”