More than one commentator has echoed Vincent Browne’s criticism of the BBC Spotlight special on the killing of IRA double-agent Denis Donaldson, that the story was over-dependent on a single, anonymous source who was not directly involved in the alleged assassination plan.
We don’t know yet what dealings the BBC and its lawyers had with the alleged IRA Special Branch mole known as ‘Martin’ that made the notoriously cautious Spotlight team and the BBC’s top brass confident enough about his story to air the programme.
And while I will believe Gerry Adams’ threat to sue the BBC only when I have heard that he has actually stepped into the witness box in his own defence, there’s no doubt that ‘Martin’ is the weak link in the BBC’s defence. Would he even risk giving evidence, knowing that he will have to reveal his true identity?
We shall see. But in the meantime if we are going to criticise journalists for the use of single, anonymous sources who were themselves not party to the incident under scrutiny, then let us at least be consistent,
In the last couple of days a story has appeared quoting a spokesman for the Real IRA re-iterating that organisation’s claim to have killed Denis Donaldson, and absolving Gerry Adams of any hand or part in the deed.
Maybe, but from what I could read the claim was made by a single, anonymous source who was not him- or herself involved in the killing.
But there hasn’t been the same skepticism expressed about this story’s reliance on a single source as there has been about Spotlight, and upon examination the reason for that is less than satisfactory.
It is that the person who spoke to Suzanne Breen was speaking on behalf of an organisation and that made it, well if not all right then more acceptable than if her source was speaking only for him- or herself.
And that’s because the media bestows more credibility on organisations because they are organisations than they do with someone like ‘Martin’ who has only himself and his memory to back him up (leaving his Special Branch handlers to one side pro tem).
But as the journalistic history of the Troubles shows, organisations are just as capable of lying, dissembling, misleading and being economical with the facts as any individual, and were able to get away with their dishonesty because the media accepted their anonymity.
Not only that, but the media during the Troubles continued to give credibility to organisations even after their anonymous spokespersons were found out lying or tailoring the truth. Just look back at the peace process, or the 1981 hunger strikes, and the boatloads of lies that were told by just about every participant, some more than others to be sure, but most of them told on behalf of organisations.
It has been my experience that individual sources, even when they insist on anonymity, are generally as truthful, if not more so, than organisations, not least because their motivation for speaking out is often more honest and what they do certainly requires considerable more bravery than that shown by anonymous spokespersons for the government, the police, the IRA or the DUP.
When someone takes a risk by speaking out, even anonymously, the reporter is entitled, even obliged to take them more seriously (especially since anonymity can never be guaranteed).
‘Martin’ may or may not be correct in what he says about Adams and Donaldson but I’d wager the mortgage that what he said he heard, he did hear, and what he said had happened to him, did happen.
I have been in the same place as Jennifer O’Leary and the Spotlight team are with ‘Martin’ more than once, when the chance to discover other sources was negligible, as was so often the case with Troubles’ stories, and each time the decision to write and publish was – after all the checking that could be done was done – governed by two factors: judgement of the story and trust in the source.
As I have written elsewhere, I do not know whether the IRA, by itself or using a surrogate, killed Denis Donaldson but I’d be sure that the people in the BBC made what they believed to be the right judgement and had sufficient trust in their source.
In journalism, especially in a place like Northern Ireland, it is sometimes the best you can do.