Clifford Peeples is not exactly the sort of person who would be high up on most peoples’ list of possible dinner guests. There doesn’t seem to have been a brand of violent Loyalism that he has not been involved with, no outer limit of wacky, ultra-Protestant evangelism that he has not crossed. And then there were those pipe bomb attacks in the late 1990’s for which he was given a ten-year jail term.
I would not have a problem entertaining him myself but others would. I have spent much of my professional life breaking bread or ingesting stronger substances with greater and more mendacious blackguards than he, and while I have never met Mr Peeples, he strikes me from a distance as an honest type. Loopy almost surely, but probably sincere. Others I have entertained did or ordered worse than he and happily admitted so in my presence but now pretend it never happened. So, who is worse, who is worthy of more respect?
Anyway, these days Peeples wears a different hat, or rather has another hat to wear alongside the others hanging in his wardrobe. I don’t know what he does politically or whether he still preaches in a tin hut somewhere in the desolate wastes of north or east Belfast but currently he also practises as a freelance photographer.
His work is sold through the freelance agency Demotix, which has a distinguished international record of capturing important images in places as far apart as Tehran and Norway. As the pic of a policeman injured during Friday night’s disturbances on Royal Avenue below demonstrates, newspapers like The Guardian consider Peeples’ work good enough to buy and publish.
Purists in my profession would cavil at the notion of a political activist doubling as a journalist but personally I don’t have a problem with it at all. Politics and journalism go together like fish and chips and while I do try to separate my own views from my reporting, I understand it in others – as long as they are upfront and straight about it. In practice I have found the reporters most po-faced on the issue to be the most hypocritical.
What I do mind however is when journalists allow their political differences, or personal animosities fueled by political differences, to spill out in public shows of malevolence and threats of violence, especially when the effect is to stop or obstruct a journalist doing his or her job.
According to Clifford Peeples this is what happened to him in the centre of Belfast last Friday night during Loyalist demonstrations in Royal Avenue against an anti-internment rally being staged by republican dissidents. Eye-witnesses apparently support his story.
Peeples was on assignment for a website called ‘Ulster News’ which seems to be relatively new addition to the internet, given that the only story running on it is about his experience last Friday evening. He was, he says, busy taking photographs of the developing riot when he was verbally assaulted by a fellow journalist and so violent was the onslaught that a policeman on riot duty had to leave the lines to intervene. I don’t know what the source of the anger towards Peeples was, but the chances are that it has its origins in his political activity.
This is how he described the attack:
Screaming that I was a “dirty fat bastard” and continuing with threats of “I’m going to fix you, you Fucking Fat, Fucking Cunt”. This continued as I tried to report on what was taking place. Police officers were being injured and a full riot was now about to engulf Royal Avenue…….I told him to stop screaming obscenities and if he wanted he could talk to me later round the corner. He continued on his obscenity fueled diatribe, making more threats of physical violence towards me. Something that was of concern to those standing around him. One woman was telling him to, “stop behaving like some mad man on drugs”. His disgraceful barrage became too much for one riot control officer, who broke away from keeping public order and publicly reprimanded him, telling him he would be arrested if he were to continue. The officer came to me and told me that he had warned him about his behaviour and that I should stay away from him. The officer then reengaged with the riot control team.
So who was the journalist attacking Peeples? Turns out it was Ciaran Barnes, Sunday Life reporter and the man whose dishonest reporting of Dolours Price’s IRA career touched off the Boston College subpoenas and who, using a false name on the internet, urged me to hand over the interviews so confidential sources could be burned, the worst sin in journalism’s playbook.
The NUJ’s Code of Conduct says nothing about how journalists should disport themselves in public, how they should not engage in violent verbal assaults against colleagues or threaten to use violence against them or behave publicly in such a way to bring disrepute on the profession. Perhaps it’s time it did.