Belfast Telegraph

Reporters cannot become state evidence-gatherers

Police attempts to compel the media to hand over riot film set a dangerous precedent, says Brian Rowan

The meeting in June was in private. It was organised by the project Healing Through Remembering and chaired by me. Chief Constable Matt Baggott was there. So, too, was his predecessor, Sir Hugh Orde, as well as senior loyalists and republicans and victims' representatives.

On the panel with Baggott and Orde was Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein's spokesman on legacy issues.

And, in one of his contributions to the discussion, he listed those who should be participants in any process here that is about trying to answer the questions on the past. And on his list was the media.

There are questions for journalists about how they cover conflict. Did they talk to one side or all sides? Did they take sides?

It is right that we are asked to explain reporting processes; how information is gathered and tested. I have described that work as a walk along the thinnest of lines.

I also think there is a huge difference between the work of the war correspondent sent to places such as Libya and the work of a journalist living in and reporting on a divided society.

We are not detached. We are stitched into the fabric of this place. Our every word is scrutinised by readers and listeners.

The vast majority of them will not know how the IRA and loyalist organisations communicated with journalists during their 'wars'; will not know about the codewords, or how meetings were organised. So it is right that we are questioned.

But people and the police need to understand what reporting a divided society entails.

Why do we journalists walk the thinnest of lines?

Because, in the way we gather information and report it, we have a duty to protect sources.

So, when the police came looking for access to my telephone records after I reported a UDA statement on a murder, I had to say no. And when MI5 asked to read one of my books before publication, I had to say no.

In reporting this conflict, I did not know in advance what organisations such as the IRA, the UDA and the UVF were planning. Nor would I have wanted to.

But, afterwards, our job is to gather information, test it, and report what we know will stand up to scrutiny.

What happened here in Northern Ireland was not just about loyalists and republicans. There are many dark secrets in the hidden corners of the security and intelligence world.

And this takes us back to those questions. Did we talk to all sides? Did we talk to one side? And did we take sides?

The police need to be careful about not putting us on one side; they need to think about the implications of wanting access to telephone records, exploring archives and demanding film and photographs of riots for use in investigations.

At some point, someone in this dangerous news-gathering environment is going to get hurt because someone is going to get into their heads that we are not gathering news, but evidence for the police.

If people want to read, listen to and watch the news, then they need to understand what gathering that news entails.

That it involves going into dangerous situations. It means protecting sources in order to gather the best information to inform those who are reading, listening and watching.

And if, some day, that news is not there about the riot, the shooting or the bombing, it will be because our work has been made impossible; made too dangerous; made not worth the risk.

We have to think very carefully about what we do and don't do - and so do others.

And, at whatever point down the road some table of explanation is created, it is right that we are there to make our contribution to that process, to explain our reporting - whom we talked to and why we talked to them.

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