Against the Dying of the Light
The Pensive Quill
11 February 2014
The inferences to be drawn from Beth McMurtrie’s lengthy article Secrets From Belfast in the Chronicle for Higher Education show little sign of fading into the distance where they can be conveniently forgotten about by those least enamoured to being reminded. Her substantial investigation has stirred a hornet’s nest which on top of leaving Boston College fuming like a bear with a sore head has helped illuminate a gulf between aspects of investigative journalism in the US and its non-investigative opposite in Ireland. Flying in the face of the type of evidence uncovered by Beth McMurtrie, a lecturer in journalism in Dublin’s Griffith College with a penchant for using a range of monikers has kept himself busy finding that the researchers were to blame – all on their own. Some years earlier the same lecturer found that the same researchers were at fault for believing that the British had penetrated the IRA through the agent Stakeknife. He also concluded that the British spy Freddie Scappaticci was not in fact a British spy.
Such cozy, cover up British perfidy journalism which characterised much reporting from Dublin for decades, contributed hugely to the dissemination of disinformation that blighted public understanding of the Northern conflict and arguably prolonged it. To borrow a Tariq Ali comment in today’s Guardian, it is a journalism ‘where the lies of its apologists are first worn as defensive masks but finally grow into their faces.’ Rather than being allowed to investigate, cover up journalism should itself be investigated for its abdication of journalistic responsibility. Giving the failings of so many in the Dublin moulded Irish media such an endeavour might require an international tribunal of journalists.
The Chronicle for Higher Education article has put to bed any residual confusion over what guarantees of confidentiality were promised and by whom. Both researchers and research participants were never in any doubt, being privy to details that others outside the project understandably were not. Other people however, with a vested interest in tainting the project sought to muddy the waters. While their reputation as unreliable witnesses preceded them, essentially limiting any effect they might have had, it is nevertheless gratifying for the researchers to see our own account validated and effectively established as a matter of record.
When the oral history archive known as the Belfast Project was in its formative stage Boston College took the step of issuing donor consent forms offering research participants ironclad guarantees of confidentiality without ever having ascertained, despite being urged by the project director to do so, if it was in fact permissible.
After Ed Moloney had advised the College librarian, Bob O’Neill, to run any proposed donor consent form by legal counsel, the librarian informed him ‘I am working on the wording of the contract to be signed by the interview[ee], and I’ll run this by Tom [Hachey] and university counsel.’
Yet, as Beth McMurtrie asserts, ‘Mr. O’Neill never did check with a lawyer about the wording.’ It was a failure he never disclosed to the researchers. It was a built-in design flaw from which the project was never to recover.
The sequence of events here is seriously damaging to the College narrative. In drawing up contracts the College first stated that the interviews would be held in conditions to the extent allowed by American law. It then issued donor consent forms which, if consistent with its first statement, outlined what was permissible by that law. If the guarantee given by BC was not permissible by US law then it was incumbent on the college to state this not only to the researchers but also the interviewees in surgically precise language in the consent form. It failed to, and later in a bid to erase its own fingerprints from the scene of the crime, opted to place blame on the researchers.
Since the onset of the subpoenas, having observed the malicious manner in which BC sought so shaft both its researchers and research participants, through lies, obvious lies, explosive lies, I am pushed to the conclusion that the College’s failure to insert what the exceptions to American law actually were, was not the result of oversight or inattention to detail. Rather it was a deliberate attempt to bamboozle participants for the very purpose of obtaining material for the college’s John J Burns Library. As project director Ed Moloney pointed out had BC been honest from the outset:
that project would have been dead … There’s no way myself, Anthony McIntyre, or any of the participants would have had anything to do with it because it would have been a red flag, and we would have immediately have said, ‘What the hell does that mean?’
Rather than lose a valuable addition to the College library, university staff devised a sleight of hand to gain material. It was obtained fraudulently. And the frauds that obtained it sought to abandon the crime scene, place the blame on myself for their unsolicited handing over almost 200 confidential interviews to the federal courts, blame Ed Moloney for everything and anything, label those it abandoned criminals, and ride off into the sunset, royalties in their own pockets.
Thinking the researchers would go gently into the night in the face of their corporate power they didn’t reckon on the people they had sought to shaft opting to, in the words of Welsh poet Dylan Thomas, rage, rage against the dying of the light.