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Kate Adie: Why I will never forget the murder under the Christmas tree

Writing in a landmark new book on the Troubles, Kate Adie recalls a Belfast killing


An RUC Land Rover in Belfast during the Troubles

An RUC Land Rover in Belfast during the Troubles

An RUC Land Rover in Belfast during the Troubles

How close do you get to a story? The Troubles were the greatest test. I once reported a story in Belfast, omitting the only witness to a murder, and with no mention of the whereabouts of the body, in the poignant shadow of a twinkling Christmas tree.

I found the city curiously familiar - a declining shipyard industry, rows of neat terraced houses, a Catholic/Protestant divide; like my home town of Sunderland, but all in a 30-year time slip. Shops, restaurants and pubs completely closed on Sundays, and churches thronged with women wearing neat hats and hairstyles, and their children in mini-adult Sunday-best clothes.

The women might have been prominent in the congregations, but were almost invisible in politics. I was addressed as "a wee girl". This was not quite "mainland" Britain - a forbidden phrase, I soon discovered, along with a list of other "provocative" words - Provos, the Irish, Derry, six counties, Eire. And absolutely not civil war.

Along with this verbal minefield, any reporter had to contend with a city that differed from many other journalist hotspots of the times. It wasn't anything like the contemporary tribal conflicts in Angola, Somalia and Ethiopia, the aerial bombing by Russians in Afghanistan, or the Iran/Iraq war, all with battlefields and strategies.

This was "the Troubles" and the greatest danger to a reporter was not physical, but getting the story wrong.

On a Sunday evening, our newsroom was tipped off about a shooting in west Belfast, in a street already known for numerous incidents, and where there were many empty houses. Protestants had once lived there in considerable numbers, but had been gradually forced out by threats and the occasional arson attack.

Driving there with my crew was the familiar routine of slowing down at traffic lights, but not stopping, in case we might find ourselves unwillingly "lending" the vehicle to unknown men. The occasional Army wagon and the grey, lumbering police vans prowled the streets, guns ready.

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The road went up westwards, and looked eerily empty. As journalists, most of us stuck to finding the facts we could see and hear. As "visiting" journalists from London newsrooms, we had the near-impossible task of discovering the finer details of even the smallest incident.

Neighbours, bystanders were circumspect or often silent - and with good reason.

As for the motives behind any explosion, shooting or murder, most of us were left with only the broad picture of sectarian violence. Trying to pinpoint why someone had been singled out for retribution, why a particular building had suddenly gone up in flames, or why a shop was reduced to a pile of glass and bricks, was knowledge that was kept deep within a community. We might speculate, but might add fuel to the fire should we be wrong.

Not that we weren't tolerated, even welcomed. With the odd exception, we were treated as a necessary nuisance and often given tea and kindness. But not information. The BBC tended to be regarded by Protestants as traitors to the unionist cause, Catholics saw us as enemies of republicanism.

Both appeared to have decided years previously that this made for a (sort of) even playing field and as all felt the need to watch the TV news, we were a necessary evil.

"Getting it wrong" is of course always a present danger.

But in Northern Ireland, it felt less forgivable. There was no language barrier to misunderstanding; civil society's rules, the legal process, the political structure were all our own. Our local colleagues were endlessly helpful, but would sometimes shake their heads ruefully when we probed for more information. Everything was too close to home, literally.

They lived, worked, looked out for their families within this society. We were just visitors. Not all of my colleagues from London landed at Aldergrove with enthusiasm. Some of them loathed coming and made no secret of their disdain for their regional counterparts - and for what they considered a grubby, impenetrable, tribal saga.

Though only once did I hear a seasoned Belfast sub-editor turn on a confident young spark from London in front of everyone with "we know you despise us, but kindly keep your opinions for your smart friends in Chelsea".

Matters were complicated by the fact that the TV news bulletins in Northern Ireland had just about everyone watching the two main channels every night. Viewers wanted to know what was happening, however bad or depressing the events. They wanted information, and to know that what was happening around them mattered.

However, the opposite pertained for broadcasts to the "mainland" audience. Several years into the Troubles, there was hard and precise evidence that if the words "in Northern Ireland tonight" led the Nine O'Clock News bulletin, the audience immediately dropped by 20%. Dislike, indifference, bafflement all played their part. As I got out of the car on the Ligoniel Road, I realised that our tip-off had for once got us very early to the scene.

The street was semi-derelict and a little knot of people, two women and an elderly man, were on the pavement outside a terraced house. Army vehicles could be seen creeping down the far end of the road, on the lookout.

The neighbours pointed silently to the dimly-lit hall. I went inside and then into the front room, where a small boy of seven or eight was standing in front of the fireplace. "Me daddy," he said to me. "Me daddy won't get up." A man's body lay awkwardly under the Christmas tree. There was a small bullet hole in the window. A commotion at the door and a young soldier stood in the living-room doorway, staring horrified at the scene. And then asking me, "You'll deal with the lad, will you?"

I felt useless, an intruder, the wrong person - and went to the two women outside and asked them to take the little boy out and look after him. I'm a reporter and I like to get to the heart of the story. But we can all get too near.

Later, I wrote a script, cut to pictures of the house from the road outside, the little hole in the window and the gentle, coloured glow of the Christmas tree. The two women had whispered that the boy's mother was a nurse on night shift, her family the only Protestant in the street. Today's reporting would most likely include the intimate details of the tragedy and the reporter's reaction. I omitted the scene inside, and the boy's words.

In reporting the Troubles, I felt the audience near, a lesson learned. My own emotion was irrelevant and the bare facts of a little boy losing his father in front of him, his mother coming home to this, were enough.

Reporters need objectivity, but need to judge how much detail they give. And when the political and social difficulties are hard to explain, and fear lies at the door of many homes, and motives are shrouded at the heart of a conflict, we cannot speculate.

Simple facts are the best we can offer, unclouded by our own views. A lesson learned from the Troubles.

Kate Adie is a former chief news correspondent for BBC News. Extracted from Reporting the Troubles, a collection of 68 stories by leading journalists, compiled by Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, with a foreword by Senator George J Mitchell, published by Blackstaff Press, priced £14.99

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