With rheumy eyes glowering from behind sinister masks, and their rumpled ‘combat' jackets, the leadership of Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) posed for a photograph that would become a main front page image for the Belfast Telegraph.
In an accompanying interview, the dissident republicans detailed their political and military ‘logic’. The Telegraph splashed the story and spread it across pages 4 and 5, with further colour and analysis on page 6 and two Comment pages.
The story quickly became an agenda-setter: followed up widely by other print, online and broadcasters. However, one theme of the reaction — a minority view, perhaps, but a theme nevertheless — was that the Telegraph provided ONH with the ‘oxygen of publicity’. Among these were DUP MLA Jimmy Spratt and new PUP leader Brian Ervine, who warned the Telegraph’s interview could potentially drive people into the arms of illegal organisations.
So, should newspapers provide platforms for armed gangs that wage war on democracy? And how far should papers go promoting views that, however abhorrent, are clung to by people in a society? The matters to consider include the actual interview, the treatment of the interview, and the context in which the paper displayed the interview.
Journalism in Northern Ireland has a long and mostly honourable tradition of publishing interviews with paramilitary groups. Indeed, as a former security correspondent of this newspaper, I published many myself.
The law makes provision for the holding of opinions however obnoxious to the majority of citizens. And the various freedom of expression clauses in human rights legislation would, surely, provide legal shelter for the publication of such views, even those held by people who seek to undermine constitutions and indeed, democracies through violence.
(The outer edges of these freedoms can be blurred, of course, as YouTube has found with the |controversy over al-Qaida-style videos that urge supporters to murder ‘non-believers' intercut with images of the killings of Western soldiers or hostages.)
It is particularly important in an examination of the Belfast Telegraph's publication of the interview with ONH to consider the context of publication.
Yes, a two page platform was provided for ONH to put across its views. But the paper gave the interviewer Brian Rowan, a hugely experienced security writer, space to put across his personal feelings and to put the organisation and its history into context. The Telegraph also gave a full page to another expert, Liam Clarke, who neatly exposed the flaws, contradictions and absurdities in the ONH position, as did a Telegraph leader on the opposite page.
If the Telegraph had simply handed over its shop window, without context and rigorous analysis, to a bunch of bragging |nihilists, then it might have done itself, its readers and, most |importantly, the victims of ONH a disservice.
But, in my opinion, that was not the case.
This was an important interview in a probing and critical style. It was presented responsibly and in the appropriate context.
The Readers' Editor Paul Connolly explains the newspaper's ethics and actions and, if necessary, investigates concerns and complaints. For more information click here