Belfast Telegraph

Jim McDowell: Imagine getting a threat to your life just for doing your job... in 45 years reporting, I got 21 of them

As the UDA threatens a Belfast journalist, the veteran newspaperman Jim McDowell assesses the cost of a free Press

It's when the knock comes to the door. Not the door of your office. Not when the police phone and ask you to come to the station door and knock there. It's when the police come to your own door, the door of your own home, and they knock that. With your family there. And you ask them inside.

And they tell you they have "information from an intelligence source". And that "information" indicates that some paramilitary godfather ogre has ordered an attack on you. Perhaps physically. Maybe fatally.

You swallow. Hard. No matter how many times it happens. And your wife/partner, whoever you share your life with, who's with you at that moment, doesn't say anything. Not yet.

And then one of the police officers sent to your home hands you a form to sign. In my day, it was called a PM1. It officially informs you that police have obtained information that loyalist/republican paramilitaries intend to carry out an attack on your person.

I've had 21 of them delivered to me in my workplace, in a police station, or in my home. The "officially" is important. Who delivers it is also important. Almost always, a uniformed officer. It may have been detectives, either CID or Special Branch, who picked up the "intelligence". But ask about the veracity, or source, of such intelligence and the uniformed officers will tell you, truthfully, that they don't know.

The reason is simple. The plain clothes police want to - need to - protect their sources, in case they compromise them. So, you "officially" sign the "official" police warning. And, therefore, acknowledge that the police have done their duty by informing you of what they have picked up from... well... an informant.

And then the police leave, maybe having handed you a little crimson booklet, offering advice about your "personal security". I've got a bookshelf full of those. Well-meaning. Well-intentioned. But hugely impractical, if you've got to get the kids to the school gate the next day.

Hugely impractical, if you've got to go to work each day, in the same place, parking your car in the same street, or designated parking lot, each day: or worse, each night in the dark. Probably driving the same routes, day or night. And having, or choosing, to live in the same house.

But all of these are peripheral to the impact, not so much on yourself, but on your family. You're a journalist - just like the latest journalist visited by the police this week. And told he was under threat. Told, in his own home, that they had information that a UDA attack on him was "imminent".

But, professionally, you think: "That's my job. That's what I do - expose the terrorists, gangsters, drugs dealers poisoning our kids, no matter which paramilitary mob they purport to represent." And then you sit down at the kitchen table, the sound of the TV still turned off from when the police came in. And, in the silence, you begin to talk.

To your wife/partner. To your children, if they're old enough to understand and not be traumatised by the threat to their Da, or Ma.

And the police form is lying on the kitchen table. Indelible. In stark black and white: staring straight up at you. Sometimes handwritten. Sometimes typed. With two signatures. That of the delivering officer. And yours. Acknowledging the threat. And, as a veil of silence descends again, the significance sinks in. Not just for you. But for your family.

I talked to the journalist who is the subject of the latest threat shortly after it was made public yesterday. He is the classiest of class acts. A 24-carat award-winning reporter, who digs deeper than most to perform a sterling - and necessary - role. Not just for his newspaper. But for this community.

Exposing, courageously and relentlessly, the criminal bully-boys who are still trying to put their fascist jackboots on the backs of all our necks with their also relentless bloodsucking and, at times, blood-curdling gangsterism.

It's not the first time he has been threatened. It won't be the last. He will, as usual, refuse to buckle and bend the knee to the bogeymen of the UDA, or any other increasingly irrelevant paramilitary rabble.

But crucially, and understandably, he wants, at the moment, to remain anonymous. Not for the sake of himself. But for the sake, and safety, of his family.

Dwell on that, please, the next time you hear of a journalist being threatened. And imagine, if it was your door, the door of your own home, that the police came knocking on.

Jim McDowell spent 45 years as a journalist - 25 of them as northern editor of the Sunday World. His autobiography, The Good Fight: From Bullets to By-lines, is published by Gill Books, priced £14.99

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