Digging Too Deep? NBC News Seeks ‘Belfast Tapes’
Beat the Press
Fri May 23, 2014
Boston College’s archive on the Irish “Troubles” was supposed to be sealed and be a historical time capsule that future scholars could use to understand years of brutal sectarian conflict. Then the British government cracked the archive open, and now, NBC News wants to make the contents public. But critics are crying foul, saying NBC’s request could make Ireland’s “Troubles” surface yet again.
•Dan Kennedy is a journalism professor at Northeastern University.
•Callie Crossley is the host of WGBH News’ Under the Radar.
•Adam Reilly is a reporter for WGBH News.
•Roy Harris is an author and journalist.
WGBH News Reporter and Programme Host Adam Reilly (AR) files a report on the attempt by NBC News to obtain the material from the Boston College tapes that was sent to the Police Service of Northern Ireland pursuant to subpoenas.
In the report he interviews The Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen (KC) and takes sound bites from Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams’ (GA) address to his supporters after his release from police custody and questioning concerning the 1972 kidnapping, murder and “disappearing” of Jean McConville.
Reilly then goes into the studio for a round table discussion with Northeastern University journalism professor Dan Kennedy (DK), author and journalist Roy Harris (RH) and the host of WGBH News’ Under the Radar Callie Crossley (CC)
AR: Boston College’s oral archive on the Irish “Troubles” was supposed to remained sealed; an historical time capsule on the Irish “Troubles future scholars could use to understand years of brutal sectarian conflict.
But then the British government cracked the archive open and now NBC News is trying to make the contents public.
When Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was questioned recently about the 1972 IRA killing of Jean McConville he was indignant.
GA: …a sustained, malicious, untruthful and sinister campaign…
AR: It was yet another headache for Boston College’s ill-fated Belfast Project, a series of interviews with combatants in Ireland “Troubles”.
Researchers promised to seal the recordings. But after a subpoena from British authorities BC was forced to hand over interviews linking Adams to McConville’s murder.
Adams accuses BC researchers Ed Moloney and Anthony McIntyre of pushing a vendetta.
GA: Both Moloney and McIntyre are opponents of the Sinn Féin leadership.
AR: Now NBC News wants to unseal all Belfast Project material related to the British subpoena.
Critics say NBC is acting acting recklessly. Journalist Niall O’Dowd warns the request could “rip the skin off numerous atrocities” and “catapult the entire Irish peace process in an uncertain direction.”
The Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen agrees that disclosure could bring violence.
KC: Northern Ireland remains a very,very small place – a very byzantine place.
And could I see a circumstance when one of these disclosures could lead somebody
to take retribution against somebody? Absolutely!
AR: But Cullen, who covered The Troubles for years, says that doesn’t mean the media should back off.
KC: Sure I want the peace process to survive and I want it to thrive.
I don’t think that’s our call. And if the peace process is not strong enough to withstand these kinds of disclosures then I don’t think we really have a peace process.
AR: Now police in Northern Ireland are trying to get BC’s archive, too, which could diminish NBC’s chances of success. Still, the network’s move raises a troubling point.
Sometimes full disclosure and the public interest may not go hand-in-hand.
(News report ends and in studio round table discussion begins)
So is NBC News pushing too hard?
Joining me to hash it out are author and journalist Roy Harris, Callie Crossley of WGBH News and Dan Kennedy of Northeastern University.
I am genuinely ambivalent on this one. If Gerry Adams ordered the murder of Jean McConville or anyone else it is most certainly newsworthy.
That being said, the people who spoke with these BC researchers believed that their comments were going to be sealed for their lifetimes.
We as journalists I think take our promises to sources very seriously and here you have NBC News basically looking to upend an agreement that these people made.
So I don’t know how I feel. Dan, what do you think?
DK: I think we’ve really got two competing first amendment interests here.
Just a few weeks ago we were talking about this issue and at that point the first amendment weight seemed to be on the side of the researchers and Boston College which did not want to turn over these documents because essentially these were confidential interviews – there’s journalistic issues involved, there’s academic freedom issues involved and they were forced to turn them over.
Now NBC’s taking the position that because these documents moved through the court system at some point they therefore become public records so they’re claiming a first amendment interest in flushing these out.
AK: And you’re skeptical of their legal rationale, right?
DK: Well, I’m not a lawyer but it seems to me that the original first amendment interest in keeping these interviews confidential ought to take precedence over NBC saying that these documents should become public simply because they passed through the court system.
AR: What do you two think?
RH: Well, I think the judges will make the call on this and that’s very important.
But in this case I’m fascinated to see what NBC can do with this if they get the documents – if they are allowed legally to get the documents.
Why am I constantly being reminded of the Whitey Bulger case with this?
You know going back into those years and seeing Kevin Cullen it reminded me again that there’s something cleansing about figuring out what happened with that murder and to have that somehow sealed in mystery I think is a real concern.
As a reader, as a viewer that’s something I would want to know about once the legal decision’s made.
CC: Yeah, but see we wouldn’t even know about it if this information hadn’t been leaked.
That’s what bothers me is that these people signed on for this for posterity’s sake, for history’s sake but in confidentiality.
And if that was an agreement made with me as a journalist I just would be extremely uncomfortable with that. Everybody knew what the stakes were in having the conversation – the participants.
For me, it needs to be a very, very high road to upend that.
AR: Ray, you use the term “cleansing” to describe the effect that bringing old information like this to light can have.
That makes sense but on the other hand there’s also a genuine risk of violence here.
I mean if material comes out and Person “X” says they killed Person “Y” and then Person “Y” learns of this – it’s new information – and they decide that they’re going to avenge that killing shouldn’t that give journalists pause?
I mean Kevin Cullen argues, I think fairly persuasively, it’s not our job to think about that but shouldn’t we take into account the effects our reporting might have? At least in extreme cases like this.
DK: I mean, we should absolutely. But there’s also the fact that it’s known who was interviewed. The authorities can interview all of these people themselves.
The fact is the only reason these people spoke frankly was because they thought they were operating under the privilege a journalistic and academic inquiry.
So essentially it’s just changing the rules in the middle of the game. Let the authorities question these same people and see what they have to say knowing that they don’t have those protections.
CC: I was just going to say just to take issue with you about the Whitey Bulger thing and that is: there were not a group of people who sat down and said: I’m going to tell you what happened but you can’t release this until afterwards.
There was all kinds of information that had come out in the interim. In that case I’m with the families – all right now, if somebody knows I should know, too because it’s out there in these various other forms.
But this was not the same situation so I don’t quite see the comparison.
RH: Well, the families certainly are the same. You know, the families want to know what happened.
And the cleanest way to do it obviously would be to have kind of a commission that would look into that would have the rights to do that but we haven’t seen that in what? Forty years.
AR: Alright. We’ve got to move on and I think we’ll probably be able to come back to this one for better or worse.