Journalists in Northern Ireland faced growing lawlessness, while several investigative reporters were the target of arrests, prosecution and searches that routinely threatened the right not to reveal journalistic sources. Relations between the government and the media sharply declined because of the Iraq war.
Working conditions for journalists in Northern Ireland worsened in 2003, with death threats on the increase since the murder of Sunday World reporter Martin O’Hagan, according to the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), which said at the end of the year 17 journalists were being threatened by loyalist paramilitary groups. Sunday World and Andersonstown News group journalists said they had been harassed and threatened.
The enquiry into the killing of O’Hagan on 28 September 2001, as he was investigating supposed ties between the police, military intelligence, armed groups and drug gangs, made no progress. Police denied top security or intelligence officials were blocking it to hide their links with paramilitary groups that might be exposed if O’Hagan’s killers were brought to trial.
Investigative journalists in general were plagued by court cases, summonses and searches that undermined the right to keep journalistic sources confidential. Five journalists - Alex Thomson (Channel 4 TV), Lena Ferguson (BBC), Toby Harnden (Daily Telegraph) and Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnson (Sunday Times) - may still be tried for refusing to reveal their sources to the tribunal looking into the 1972 "Bloody Sunday" shootings in Londonderry (Northern Ireland).
Government-media relations declined during the Iraq war and some ministers and MPs openly accused journalists of being tools of Iraqi propaganda. After the war, a major crisis erupted between the government and the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) over an official report on Iraq’s supposed possession of weapons of mass destruction. Based on anonymous information from weapons expert David Kelly, BBC reporter Andrew Gilligan accused Alastair Campbell, prime minister Tony Blair’s communications chief, of manipulating public opinion by exaggerating the Iraqi weapons threat. The quarrel took a more serious turn when Kelly killed himself after being named as the journalist’s source.
Three journalists arrested
Liam Clarke, Northern Ireland correspondent of the Sunday Times, was arrested on 1 May as part of an enquiry into publication of the content of taped phone calls between Martin McGuinness, a top leader of Sinn Fein (the political arm of the Irish Republican Army, IRA), and British government officials that appeared in a biography of McGuinness written by Clarke and his wife Kathryn Johnson, who was also arrested. Their home in Co. Antrim (Northern Ireland) and the Sunday Times office in Belfast were searched and many documents seized. They were arrested after transcripts of the tapes appeared in the The Times.
Clarke was freed on bail on 2 May after being charged with violating the Official Secrets Act by publishing secret defence material obtained from a former intelligence officer, Peter Adamson. The frequently-adjourned trial is still going on. The Sunday Times protested against the search of its offices, which a court said was illegal because permission for it was only given by a justice of the peace and not a judge, as the law requires.
The threat of prosecution hanging over BBC journalist Mark Daly, who infiltrated a police training centre for nine months as part of an investigation into police racism in the northwestern city of Manchester, was dropped on 19 November for lack of evidence. He had been arrested on 15 August and his home searched before being released the next day. He was questioned about receiving undue payment (during the training) and damage to his police uniform caused by hiding a camera in it. The BBC said his racism enquiry was of public interest and that his police pay had been set aside for reimbursement. His report, "The Secret Policeman," was shown on BBC1 on 21 October and led to the resignation or dismissal of several police trainees who had shown racist attitudes.
A journalist threatened
A photographer from the weekly North Belfast News (part of the Andersonstown News group) received death threats on 12 September 2003 from a loyalist paramilitary organisation. The media group said it was one more example of threats to journalists covering the paramilitaries’ activities.
Harassment and obstruction
Foreign secretary (minister) Jack Straw told a meeting of the Newspaper Society on 1 April 2003 that it would have been hard to maintain morale after the enforced World War II evacuation of Dunkirk if the media had reported live on the technical and military superiority of German troops. Such coverage would have made it more difficult to win the war, he said.
On 2 April, home secretary (interior minister) David Blunkett criticised journalists working "behind enemy lines" in the Iraq war and reporting "blow-by-blow" what was happening for trying to establish "moral equivalence" between the US-British forces and Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s regime. Journalists responded that they had a right to report from Baghdad before the city was taken by the invaders and accused the British government of trying to gag the media.
The next day in the House of Commons (lower house of parliament), Conservative MP Christopher Chope criticised the publicly-funded British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)’s coverage of the war, saying British taxpayers were being forced to subsidise Saddam Hussein’s propaganda machine. The BBC’s World Service is funded by the British Foreign Office (ministry). Chope called on the BBC to pull its journalists out of Baghdad.
In the same parliamentary debate, Labour MP Kevin Hughes denounced journalists who criticised the Iraq war and the US-British forces and implied they were cowards. The same day, defence minister Geoff Hoon attacked the daily paper The Independent and its correspondent in Iraq, Robert Fisk, who he suggested had been fooled by Saddam Hussein and had dubious sources.
Henry McDonald, the Ireland correspondent of the weekly paper The Observer, was questioned by police in May as part of an enquiry into the taping of phone calls between Martin McGuinness, deputy leader of Sinn Fein, and British government officials. They wanted to know if McDonald had received information from former British intelligence officer Peter Adamson, threatened with prosecution for violating the Official Secrets Act and whose autobiography McDonald was helping to write. David Lister, of the daily The Times, was also questioned in the same case.
Police searched the Belfast (Northern Ireland) home of Republican Anthony McIntyre, who writes for the website The Blanket, on 4 July and took away his computer, diskettes and other material, saying they were looking for stolen documents about Belfast prison officers. The previous day, he had reported on a protest by families of Republican detainees in Belfast and criticised prison conditions. His possessions were later returned.