Stand Up For Real Journalism

Stand Up For Real Journalism
Nick Garbutt
The News Letter
Thursday 12 July 2012

IF you ever wanted conclusive proof of the malaise of journalism it is this.

Today the best paid and most prestigious position on a tabloid newspaper is the showbiz editor.

Tabloids don’t bother with the business of news – they gave up on this a long time ago. This was inevitable, given that technological innovation means that “news” is out there long before a newspaper hits the shelves.

Instead they busied themselves with creating a parallel universe peopled with “celebrities” they themselves created and then they rummaged through their dustbins and hacked their phones to bring them down.

Yet because most of these people are simply famous for being famous there is no possible public interest in publishing details of their drug habits, their sleeping partners or, for revealing, surprise, surprise, famous people are not necessarily nice.

Just check out the Daily Mail any day of the week and you will find endless stories about wardrobe malfunctions, curious facial hair, or paparazzi pictures of actresses going out to the shop without wearing make-up, and consequently don’t look as good as the airbrushed images on the posters.

Real journalists do still exist. One of them is Ed Moloney, who was Northern editor of the Sunday Tribune when I joined that paper back in 1989.

He was ferocious, relentless, a wonderful writer and one of the very best to have come out of Vincent Browne’s extraordinary stable of talent in what was for several years a great newspaper.

He was, and presumably still is, a volatile man and God help the sub-editor who rewrote or cut his copy.

I’ve no idea about his personal politics. I never asked him, and I don’t think it is relevant. The purpose of real journalism is to hold public figures and public bodies to account and to give people an insight into what is really going on. If a story can be justified, publish and be damned.

That process can make a lot of powerful people feel uncomfortable because what emerges is not necessarily what they want to be known. So it has always been with the best reporters.

Many years ago he set out to find out the uncomfortable truth behind many incidents that have shaped our lives in Northern Ireland.

It is, after all, important to know who did what and when and not to allow anyone to airbrush their roles in the conflict, as if they were aspiring actresses posing for a photo-shoot. This, after all, was a bloody, bitter war. The normal rules of engagement for oral history projects, and I know this because I am working on one myself, is to agree at the outset with ex-combatants that they will only talk about incidents for which they have been convicted. It’s the best way to get material published.

But Moloney took a different route by undertaking through the Boston College project to keep matters confidential until the person he interviewed had died. Anybody’s testimony is self-serving, but at least this approach gets further to the truth. And so loyalists and republicans alike who defied the best interrogation techniques the authorities could muster, presumably used this armistice.

Now, because of what has been published in two separate articles in daily newspapers here, the PSNI are close to obtaining one of those transcripts, that of the convicted bomber Dolours Price.

The stories carried in the Irish News and the Sunday Life appear to suggest that she was involved in the appalling kidnap and murder of Jean McConville in December 1972 and that her involvement was on the orders of Gerry Adams.

Ms Price is an alcoholic who has severe mental health problems. Regardless of whatever she may have said to Moloney, they will presumably have to get direct testimony from her in order to secure any kind of conviction.

I’ve no insight into her mental state and I am not a lawyer, but common sense suggests this is unlikely.

So the most obvious repercussion of the PSNI’s success is not to secure justice for Jean’s family, or to lead to a conviction, but instead to make it less and less likely that any future generation will understand who did what and when and for victims to find closure.

I find this sad, and despair for journalists, whatever their persuasion. Ultimately the truth matters, and the most logical consequence of all this is that what really happened will be lost forever and in Northern Irish terms a picture of Christine Bleakley snogging Frank Lampard in a Las Vegas swimming pool is legitimate whereas attempts to get at who did what during the Troubles are not.