By Jack Holland
The current prosecution — some would say persecution — of Ed Moloney, the Northern editor of the Dublin Sunday Tribune, is the latest twist in what is becoming the increasingly bizarre story behind the murder of Patrick Finucane, the Catholic solicitor shot dead at his home in 1989 by the UDA. The court has ordered Moloney, a veteran reporter of Northern Irish affairs, to hand over notes about a suspect in the case, UDA member William Skobie, who Moloney interviewed in 1990 and who confessed to supplying the weapon that was used in the killing. The court is threatening the journalist with a fine and imprisonment unless he obeys. Apparently, his notes contain the initials of the those actually involved in the shooting and the police are saying it will help them corroborate information they have about the identity of the killers.
Surely there is an easier way than that to find out who the murderers might be. Why not ask Skobie, who was, after all, a police informer? As the man who supplied the hit squad with the guns he would be able to provide enough detail about the operation to the RUC without them having to go through Moloney. However, in regards to the Finucane case, nothing is that simple, it seems. Moloney revealed that the police have known of Skobie’s involvement in the assassination for years. He raised the question as to why they have taken so long to charge him? Their reticence in this regard is in marked contrast to the alacrity with which they threatened the Sunday Tribune editor with legal action. The court action has only served to further increase the already deep suspicions among many in the North concerning the circumstances surrounding the Finucane murder. First, there was revelation that Brian Nelson, the UDA’s intelligence officer at the time, was also working for British army intelligence in Belfast. Nelson said he had warned his handlers of the upcoming assassination but that the forces of law and order had not acted on his information. A decade later, we learn, thanks to Moloney, that Skobie, the UDA quartermaster at the time, was also an informer — this time working for the RUC Special Branch. So out of a terrorist team of around six, one-third were working for the security forces as informers. Interesting statistic, but not a really surprising one, given the level of security forces’ penetration of the paramilitary organizations in Belfast in the late 1980s.
However, no police officer, it seems, is keen to pursue this aspect of the mystery. Hence is launched what looks increasingly like a diversionary operation against a reporter.
Last week, Moloney was quoted in this paper as saying: "This move against me is an effective attempt to deprive me of my livelihood but it also has serious negative implications for journalists everywhere in Ireland. If this attempt to force me to cross the divide between reporting and evidence gathering for the police is successful, then no journalist is safe."
To try to force a reporter to betray his source is in effect an attack on serious investigative reporting. In Northern Ireland, such reporting (scarce as it is) has often involved cultivating contacts in paramilitary organizations, and building up a certain amount of trust between the reporter and his paramilitary source without which no really useful information about what is really going on will ever be acquired. If these sources come to believe that any time they tell a reporter the inside story about some paramilitary action the reporter is liable to be forced to divulge their identity, then it is easy to see a future when journalists will be able to do nothing other than rely on the propaganda handouts from UDA, UVF and IRA press officers.
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The authorities argue that getting a good story is a secondary matter compared with solving a serious crime and that if a journalist has information about such a crime, then he is no different from any other citizen in his obligation to help the police solve it. This is a specious argument. Reporters in Northern Ireland sometimes do come into possession of information about serious crimes. But since this is nearly always based on what they have been told by an individual, whom they trust as being reliable, in legal terms it would be of little use to the authorities and the police who, in any case, are almost always much better informed than the reporter.
It is usually classifiable as ‘hearsay" evidence. Unsubstantiated by forensic or other evidence, it might be good enough for a newspaper, but it would not constitute evidence in a court of law.
There is, of course, a dilemma at the heart of this, but it is one that is not addressed by the kind of action taken against Moloney. If society wants to be kept informed about the nature of the paramilitary organizations in its midst, then reporters have to talk to those involved in sometimes brutal and callous acts. In actual fact, of course, few reporters in the North have access to this kind of information.
Understandably, people are generally wary of revealing material about crimes they may have committed. The only reason that they do occasionally "confess" to a journalist is because the violence of the Northern Irish situation is not the product of ordinary criminals. UDA, UVF and IRA members do not see themselves as criminals, but as activists in a struggle with political aims that are supported by a section of the community.
The methods they have used to advance those aims have traditionally been violent. But in their eyes, the violence is legitimate. This makes them more ready to talk to journalists than normal criminals are, partly because they feel a need to justify their acts as part of their "struggle" and partly because they want them to receive the publicity they feel they deserve.
It has been argued that a journalist’s need to protect his sources is not an absolute one and that there are times when the public interest should override it. It would not be difficult to come up with instances to support this contention. However, the Moloney case is not one of them.
The police know better than any one of the need to protect sources. They cultivate informers in all the paramilitary groups, people who are frequently involved in serious crimes. That is, they have information about crimes upon which they decide not to act — in the public interest of course.