By Ray O’Hanlon
With a Belfast judge this week deciding the fate of journalist Ed Moloney, the great and the good on this side of the Atlantic have been rushing to bolster the Sunday Tribune Northern editor in his stance on behalf of journalistic conscience taken against the peelers from New Scotland Yard and their comrades in bottle green from the wee North’s constabulary.
Pete Hamill, Jim Dwyer, Nat Hentoff, Sydney Schanberg, Juan Gonzalez, Jimmy Breslin and Alexander Cockburn are but some of the heavy hitting hacks who have added their names to a letter of protest mailed to John Stevens, the British police investigator who has been leading a renewed investigation into the 1989 murder of Belfast solicitor Pat Finucane.
Readers will recall that investigators are demanding that Moloney turn over notes from an interview he conducted nine years ago with William Stobie, a loyalist and self-proclaimed police informer who, at the time, asked Moloney not to publicly reveal details of the interview.
Stobie changed his mind after being recently arrested and charged in connection with Finucane’s death. Moloney believes that the arrest is an attempt to smother the Finucane case under sub judice laws, thus preventing further public investigation of the many unanswered questions in the case, not least the key one of possible collusion between the security forces and loyalist assassins.
The letter from the U.S. writers underlines the paramount importance of journalists being allowed protect confidential sources. It is not the only correspondence winging its way across the pond. The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, in a letter of its own, urges Stevens to "abandon all efforts" to compel Moloney to reveal his confidential sources.
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"As an organization of journalists dedicated to the defense of press freedom around the world, we believe that all laws that compel journalists to reveal their sources are incompatible with the functioning of a free press. We also feel that democratic countries should not jail journalists for carrying out their professional responsibilities," the Committee stated in its letter to Stevens.
"For Great Britain to do so now would not only have a chilling effect on the British press, but would send a terrible message to repressive governments throughout Europe that use laws guarding "state secrets" or "national security" to silence journalists and suppress investigations."
The "chilling effect" theme is highlighted again in letters to British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Northern Secretary Mo Mowlam penned by Human Rights Watch. The U.S. rights group argues that the implications of the disclosure order facing Moloney "suggests that a journalist who sought evidence of government wrongdoing has become the target of government harassment." This, the letter stated, could be read as a signal that independent journalists and those they interview might face "not only the threat of extralegal violence but official acts that increase their exposure to such violence."
New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi also pitched in with a letter to Prime Minister Blair.
Hevesi wrote in part: "It would seem to me that, instead of pursuing the reporter who has brought dark secrets to the light of day, the police investigating this 10-year-old murder should be more interested in Mr. Stobie’s handlers in the RUC Special Branch who are alleged to have been warned about Mr. Finucane’s planned assassination. In addition, the officials in Northern Ireland’s Office of Public Prosecutions who are alleged to have affected the outcome of Mr. Stobie’s criminal case on illegal arms possession charges in order to keep him quiet about the Finucane murder would be a better focus of attention."
Moloney faces possible seizure of assets and up to five years in prison for his stance. He has stated that he will not turn over details of the Stobie interview because this would constitute a violation of journalistic principles. The problem here is that journalistic principles are not the law of the land as far as the courts in Northern Ireland, Britain or the Republic of Ireland are concerned. Sweden, by contrast, is one country where journalists can probe secret corners with relative impunity and the European Court on Human Rights has ruled in favor of journalists being allowed to protect sources. But when you’re standing in a Belfast dock, as Ed Moloney did this week, Strasbourg seems a very long way away.
Straws in the wind
All those Irish flags on the Clinton holiday island of Nantucket last weekend were a reminder to the visiting press that the wee sod still looms large in the eye of the present White House-occupying family. But "IF" had the sense, admittedly from downwind and afar, that the opulent setting — the New York Times had much of the island "festooned" with Irish and American flags — harbored just a faint whiff of a 90s Irish version of "Remains of the Day," a fading Irish American Raj sort of thing.
With President Clinton entering that phase of his presidency which the unkind and insensitive associate with limping Mallard or tottering Teal, the political fulcrum is beginning to tilt in the direction of other rather less "I must have some of it darling" fashionable corners of this great land. Iowa is one. The recent GOP straw poll was not the kind of place where great future foreign policy was going to be etched in the corn stubble. No sireee! "IF" listened hard to the ground but failed to detect much in the way of discussion on what to do about Ireland or Irish American concerns. And yet, the next president of the United States might have already emerged from this initial skirmish in the corn. The only one of the GOP hopefuls to publicly step into the limelight in an Irish sense so far is Steve Forbes. And hooray for him.
However, "IF" had a sudden attack of stomach acid the other day after setting eyes on a Boston Herald photo of Forbes, post-Iowa, stepping ashore from his yacht with none other than Margaret Thatcher. Hopefully, Forbes steered the conversation into political waters other than Irish during his encounter with the ironclad lady. "IF" reckons he must have because if he had dared mention those sniveling wretches called the Irish, Maggie T. would have had the poor guy walking the plank right off his own tub. Anyway, the voyage complete, Steve and Margaret made land again to continue their chat. The land in question was, of course, Nantucket.