As police try to force journalist Suzanne Breen to reveal her IRA sources, Don Anderson recalls the case of the BBC reporter who went to jail in Belfast in defence of press freedom
Suzanne Breen, The Sunday Tribune northern editor, has been asked to give up material linked to articles she wrote about a dissident republican paramilitary organisation. She is refusing to co-operate to protect her sources. I doubt if she will ever comply. It would be the end of her career as a journalist.
These circumstances are not new. In 1971 the BBC sent Bernard Falk to Belfast. Falk was a journalist from the old school, an archetypal old Daily Mirror hand recently migrated to the relative refinements of BBC broadcasting. But he retained his red-top style, energy and showmanship.
During the course of his reports from Northern Ireland, he had interviewed a spokesman for the IRA, silhouetted back to camera to conceal his identity. The authorities had subsequently arrested a man and accused him of membership of the IRA. Part of the police case was that the defendant was the man Falk had interviewed and, therefore, they required evidence from Falk that this was indeed the same man.
However, when it came to that point in the proceedings, Falk said that as a journalist he was refusing to reveal the identity of his sources. His legal team argued that there existed, or ought to exist, a right of journalistic privilege. At the time Falk admitted he thought this argument had little chance of succeeding, but he had little else to argue.
After repeatedly refusing to identify the man in the dock, the magistrates Paddy Maxwell and Wishart Mills, sentenced him to four days imprisonment for contempt of court. It created a sensation at the time. Falk was granted bail pending appeal.
Bernard and his legal team trooped into Paddy Maxwell’s office because, at that time, the bail provision had to be read in the presence of the magistrate. While they were waiting, Paddy Maxwell said that it probably was a good idea to appeal his judgement at various levels. “With a bit of luck you could string this out. It could be a year before anything happens if you play it right,” said Maxwell. Falk’s eyes widened. This was not what he was expecting in the magistrate’s office.
His lawyers replied: “Wasn’t something similar done in connection with the case of Derry City Football Club and the then illegal lottery or bingo they were running, for which they were prosecuted. Appeal after appeal. Loads of adjournments and so on.”
Exhibiting some satisfaction Paddy Maxwell replied:. “Yes, that was me. I was the club’s solicitor.”
And if Falk thought that Paddy Maxwell was an unusual magistrate, the impression was reinforced a thousand-fold with the next interchange. Addressing Falk again he said: “If you do have to go to Crumlin Road prison, ask for my old cell. Very nicely situated. Good views from the window.”
“He was joking, wasn’t he?” Falk asked his lawyers as they left Paddy’s office. “No he wasn’t. During an earlier emergency, he was interned there as a precautionary measure.”
Falk refused to string the process out, opting for prison. When the time came for Falk’s incarceration, it remained on a very civilised basis. The day a prisoner enters prison counted as one day, no matter how little of the day remains.
The police said that the bus for Crumlin Road Prison left about six o’clock and normally the prisoner would have been held in a court cell until then.
“But if your solicitor brings you back for six, that’ll be alright. And so Falk spent the day at large, had a pleasant lunch in the Buttery, finally presenting himself at the appointed hour for the bus. When Falk entered the prison a senior warder declared that Mr Falk was to be taken to the prison hospital.
“Why,” asked a somewhat bewildered Falk. “I’m not sick.”
“You look sick to me,” replied the senior warder. Falk was to learn that the prison was doing him a favour. Hospital was the soft option in prison.
The following day the prison authorities told him that they were going to set him to work in the garden with a specially-selected companion — “a professional man like yourself,” they explained kindly. So he was teamed up with a pleasant mild mannered prisoner — ‘indeed a professional man like myself,’ as Falk remarked afterwards. He was an abortionist.
When Falk emerged from the gates of Crumlin Road prison I met him and took him off for breakfast. He never did reveal his sources, not even privately to me.
A couple of decades later, Pat Finucane’s murder led to yet another legal tussle when a journalist sought to protect his sources.
The journalist was Ed Moloney, the author and another northern editor of the Sunday Tribune newspaper.
A loyalist named William Stobie reportedly confessed to his part in the Finucane murder during a series of interviews with Moloney in 1990. In September 1999, Moloney faced imprisonment for refusing to hand over notes dating back 10 years of interviews with Stobie. Moloney’s dilemma ended the following month when the Belfast High Court overturned the order by the Antrim Crown Court that he should hand over notes. It is an interesting precedent.
Stobie himself was shot dead in north Belfast on December 12, 2001. These issues are serious and will continue to surface.
Free unfettered journalism is a bulwark of our democracy and journalistic privilege needs to be enshrined in law.
Until it is, the courts, however sympathetic, can do little to protect journalists, who can only protect themselves by staying silent.
Don Anderson is a writer and broadcaster who began his journalism at the start of the Troubles. He is a former Head of BBC Radio in Belfast