It is now two weeks since The Irish News published, under Allison Morris’ by-line, the story claiming that an agent in the Ardoyne unit of the IRA, known only as ‘AA’, told his RUC Special Branch handlers of a plan to blow up the leadership of the UDA in the autumn of 1993.
The story claimed the police allowed the plan to go ahead with the result that on October 23rd, 1993, nine people lost their lives – six shoppers, two children and one of the IRA bombers – when the bomb detonated prematurely inside Frizzel’s fishmongers on the Shankill Road, above whose premises the UDA top brass were supposed to be meeting, but who were that fateful afternoon fortuitously absent.
The story, which has had a quite sensational impact, not least on the still unresolved debate on how to deal with the past, was, however, completely unsourced.
It is not unusual for reporters covering the sensitive and dangerous subject of political violence in Northern Ireland to grant their sources, either security forces or paramilitary, anonymity to protect their lives, jobs or freedom.
In such cases readers must rely upon the track record of the reporter when judging the accuracy of the story. But not even that was done with this story.
Instead, The Irish News’s readers were told this, in the January 25th story:
The Irish News has seen documents which show the Ardoyne IRA chief was in contact with his handlers in the run up to the bombing and passed on details of ‘scouting missions’ to the Shankill.
These documents, the paper explained, had been stolen from the Special Branch office at Castlereagh RUC station in March 2002 in a raid widely suspected to have been carried out by the IRA.
On January 27th, the paper published a second story, again saying it ‘had seen’ documents but this time adding the adjective ‘classified’ to describe the papers.
Since then the accused agent ‘AA’ has, through his lawyer, asked that he be allowed sight of these documents, a demand which this blog at least, considers to be a reasonable one given the gravity of the charge leveled against him.
The Irish News has, so far, failed to respond to this request and in fact has not, to my knowledge, said a word about ‘AA’s’ demand, even going so far as to exclude it from a report on his lawyer’s statement.
In the absence of any clarification from The Irish News, observers can be forgiven for focusing on the language used by Allison Morris to describe her access to the vital, incriminating documents.
Ms Morris has twice written that she has ‘seen’ the documents. She has not made any claim to have the papers or copies of them in her possession. Is it possible, then, that The Irish News does not have these documents and that it cannot comply with ‘AA’s’ demand even if it were inclined to so do?
Did The Irish News base this story only on a sight of the documents? And for how long did its reporter have sight? Five minutes? Thirty? An hour? What did the paper do, what could it do in such circumstances, to verify the authenticity of the papers?
And what of The Irish News’ editor, Noel Doran? Did he have sight of these documents? On what consideration did he base his decision to publish the story? When is he going to explain the background to this most important and possibly consequential story?
If there is a satisfactory explanation to all this, he should give it and do so promptly.
This is about journalistic standards, what is acceptable and what is not.