A reporter called Ralph Hewitt published an article in The Belfast Telegraph this week about the dissident republican prison hunger strike currently under way in Maghaberry jail which arguably marks a new low in Troubles journalism.
Dissident Republicans had decided to go on the protest in support of Palestinian activist Dr Issam Bassalat who was arrested in the wake of a recent MI5 sting operation aimed at crippling the dissident group and, like all such protests, it has the potential to go horribly wrong for the British government, or indeed for the anti-GFA republicans.
Cue Mr Hewitt who wrote a piece, dated Friday last, featuring an unsourced, anonymous allegation that those on the hunger strike were cheating and were in fact eating toast and sandwiches and food stored in their tuck shop.
This is what he wrote: “‘It’s all talk,’ said the source. ‘They’re refusing meals provided by the prison but they’re using their communal tuck shop that’s been built up plus making sandwiches, toast etc.'”
How does he know this? Well, his anonymous source, identified only as “a Maghaberry insider” told him.
Here is the revelant part of his story:
With an allegation as serious as this I am afraid that is just not good enough, Mr Hewitt. Important questions about your source surround this claim. While nobody expects you to name the person who told you this story, your readers deserve to know some basic facts, like does this source have an axe to grind, does he or she work for a government agency that has a dog in this fight, who would dearly like to discredit the protest. Or does he or she belong to the dissident community, or is the source someone with a genuine wish to end a protest that could end in death and violence.
In other words is the source trustworthy; can your readers believe you? We don’t know because you have chosen to tell us nothing about the source. You could have invented the whole story and your readers would be none the wiser.
I also wonder about standards at The Telegraph when such a story can get published without Mr Hewitt’s bosses asking the same questions.
I have sent Mr Hewitt a tweet asking him these questions. I await his answer with interest.