Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 21 October 2014

Getting the right details is key in covering conflict

Journalists are often accused of giving terrorists oxygen of publicity. But they don't like it when the supply is shut off, says Brian Rowan

There are those who argue that, if there is to be any exploration of the past, then the media should be at the table

They want journalists there along with everyone else; all the relevant others, including republicans, loyalists, security forces, intelligence services, churches, politicians and governments.

And it is right that we should be there to explain the reporting processes during conflict and in the developing peace process.

That would include who we talked to, who we didn’t talk to, how information was gathered and checked and what those reporting processes meant in terms of talking to all sides, or taking sides.

At a recent event, I said that we — the media — need to understand that the ‘wars’ are over.

That does not mean that we stop asking questions, but we need to have good reasons for asking them. And we also have to accept that there are questions for us, too.

What is our thinking when we call a victim to comment on developments within the peace process? Are we calling for information? Or for an easy headline?

I wonder, for instance, how Ann Travers will feel when the media moves beyond her story. Are we, as journalists, helping her? Or, however unintentionally, contributing to her hurt?

The IRA should answer her questions about the ambush in which her father, Tom, was wounded and her sister, Mary, killed.

And finding a process in which that can happen is the real challenge; a process for everyone’s questions and answers. If such a structure is created, then the questions for journalists are not just about how we reported the past, but reporting the here and now.

This week, the UDA denied threatening a journalist, expressing that position clearly and |publicly.

But somebody painted that journalist’s name on a wall, along with his telephone number. The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) also revealed there was a telephone threat.

On Monday, an e-mail dropped into my inbox; a response to an article I wrote in this newspaper a few days ago. It focused on the dissident faction Oglaigh na hEireann (ONH) and information it put into the public domain on a double ambush on police.

ONH claimed to have fired on the patrol before launching a mortar bomb at the vehicle, but the PSNI says there is no evidence that such a device was used. The vehicle has one strike mark from a bullet, but as for the mortar, searches have failed to locate a firing point. Police have also said that footage purporting to be from the attack dates back five years.

I met a leadership figure from ONH to try to fill in the information gaps, but that meeting provided more doubt than detail.

The mortar bomb mystery was far from solved. I quoted a PSNI source on the ONH claim saying: “It didn’t compute and it doesn’t compute.”

Then came the e-mail on Monday with the subject line: Surprised! It read: “Your writings lately make for disturbing reading. People have no need to ‘lie’ to overplay anything in this game.

“I’m sure however in time more details of what happened lately will come to light. At that time many will have a lot of backtracking to do. I will leave it at that for now.”

My reporting, the suggestion of misinformation from dissidents, the possibility that they over-egged the scale of the ambush to exaggerate the threat they pose, is what brought the email. There is no change in the police line. But if, at any stage, they do change their mind, I would have no problem reporting that development. There is no such thing as a perfect reporting record of conflict. How could there be?

Journalists are in a privileged position, able to talk to all sides. But reporting conflict is a huge challenge — and a huge |responsibility.

Carefully constructed working relationships can break down. It happened with the IRA because of my reporting of the break-in at Castlereagh Special Branch offices, the Stormontgate intelligence-gathering operation and the IRA presence in Colombia.

That relationship has since been rebuilt. But there has to be rules. We, as journalists, have to be able to trust information, wherever it comes from. And when that information does not appear to stand up, then we need to say so.

In the specific example I raise, ONH could help. It could identify the firing-point from where it claims to have launched the mortar. It could describe the device; its explosive make-up and launching technology.

It could also respond to the suggestion that the footage is five-years-old and explain why that footage is no longer online.

That information would allow us to further test what has been said — both by ONH and the PSNI.

Almost two years ago, I met representatives of the ONH leadership, interviewed them about structure, attacks, strategy and purpose.

It was a reporting decision which brought criticism from some quarters; including the charge of giving the oxygen of publicity to terrorists.

Would I do it again? Only if I can be persuaded — convinced — that people are being serious and are not playing games.

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