Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Finucane case shows the Troubles with Leveson report

Pat Finucane

With the Pat Finucane saga dominating the headlines in the latter part of the week, perhaps it's time to reflect on how the Troubles would have been covered under Leveson-style restrictions.

Much of the unofficial history of the Troubles - the actual killing and plotting and bombing, as opposed to the political manoeuvring - comes via journalists from two sources: paramilitaries and police officers.

In the post-Leveson world, police officers are likely to be forbidden from speaking to journalists, except in the most tightly-controlled of official briefings.

There are several problems with this. Firstly, we will only get versions that reflect well on the police force and the official version of events.

Even that's not quite accurate: rank-and-file officers will tell you official versions sometimes reflect the position of a force leadership, rather the view from ordinary officers. These sometimes differ.

Secondly, individual police officers will be forbidden from speaking to journalists off the record to fill in the gaps of public knowledge in matters of great public interest, or to use their experience to tease out information that might solve crimes.

Thirdly, they will be instructed that, should they see wrong-doing inside the force, officers are forbidden from mentioning this to journalists and to use official whistle-blowing channels, instead.

Most police are suspicious of these official channels and don't use them (tragically, similar experiences exist in the NHS).

So, with the police avenue closed down, there is a risk of an information gap that will be filled by paramilitaries and others.

Instead of ferreting out information, journalists will be forced to wait for the official briefing - which, I can tell you, will often be less nimble, transparent, fulsome and explanatory than they should be. In 1971, for example, a series of grisly killings was only revealed as a campaign of loyalist sectarian murders after investigative journalists extracted information privately from police sources.

The official story at the time (and I accept that times have changed completely since) was that they were 'unexplained' killings.

Would Finucane have been uncovered? Or John Stalker? No; my contention is that the Troubles could not have been reported properly had these restrictions been in place at the time.

Northern Ireland can be one large rumour-mill and in place of moderately well-informed media reports, rumour and speculation would have blossomed, making a bad situation worse.

Even today, when reporting dissident republican activity and the loyalist paramilitary underworld, journalists need police sources to try to make sense of what is going on. In an information vacuum, the danger is that subversive voices will become needlessly magnified.

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