Suspicions that paedophile doctor Morris Fraser was an MI5 ‘protected species’ have again raised questions about the state’s role in the Kincora sex abuse scandal…
I remember exactly where I was when the death threat against me was issued. My sister and I were sipping coffee in a cafe inside Madrid’s Barajas airport waiting for a flight to London. The mobile rang and it was someone from the police press office back in Belfast who informed me that the Red Hand Defenders had released a statement to the BBC newsroom warning that both myself and my colleague Jim Cusack were in their crosshairs.
The police press officer on the other end of the line advised that I get back home as soon as possible and talk to someone in Castlereagh RUC station about my personal security. Hours later I returned to the house in East Belfast, my children dispatched to their grandparents’ home along with their mother while I waited for detectives to come around to my then home.
There had been threats and warnings before but according to the plain clothes officer assigned to my case this one was extremely serious. At the time the RHD (a cover name for the UDA’s C company in collusion with elements of the Loyalist Volunteer Force) were still very active in the business of murder and intimidation. And despite my many loyalist paramilitary contacts the specific individual(s) behind this threat were not to be moved to lift it.
For almost a decade later I lived in a house with protective steel barriers on reinforced doors, panic alarms, hidden CCTV cameras with constant checks underneath the car and nightly vigils in front of the TV screen to scan the footage from outside and in the garden.
That particular death threat occurred in March 1999 and only two years later killers from the LVF murdered Martin O’Hagan, gunning down the fearless investigative reporter in a Lurgan street in front of his wife.
O’Hagan was an employee of IMN newspapers, the same media group recently targeted in a speech by Gerry Adams in a swanky New York hotel. To chortles and laughter from his well heeled audience (including representatives of a company that employs one of Ireland’s most wanted men: the disgraced former Anglo Irish Bank chief David Drumm!), Adams regaled them with a tale from Irish history. He recalled, inaccurately, that Michael Collins himself had held a gun to the head of an Irish Independent editor because the Big Fellow had objected to the paper’s opposition to violence. In fact the Independent actually backed Collins and his pro-treaty stance in 1921 which drew the wrath of the republican die-hards who later stopped the printing presses at gunpoint in the paper’s old Middle Abbey Street HQ.
However, Adams’ little reminder of what happens to those who cross Irish republican chieftains was a chilling vision of the near future. While quipping that he was only joking, the reference gives us an insight into how a party based around the cult of personality and rigid internal discipline would like to manage the media.
There is no real, state power at Stormont where our locally elected politicians ultimately have to defer to the UK Treasury in all major economic decisions and have delegated security policy to MI5. However those elected to power south of the border can wield real state power including in areas like policing and justice. There have been instances in the recent past in the Republic were politicians abused those powers. Think of Charles J Haughey for instance authorising the bugging of journalists’ phones in the 1980s.
Earlier this year there was another phone tapping/email hacking scandal in the Republic, this one though not exercising state power…well at least not yet. At the height of the Boston College tapes scandal culminating the arrest of Gerry Adams in relation to the Jean McConville murder, a couple at the centre of the storm raised allegations that their phones and emails had been intercepted illegally.
Carrie McIntyre, the wife of ex IRA prisoner, author and key researcher on the Boston College-Belfast Project, found to her horror that private conversations between her and American Embassy officials had been reprinted almost verbatim in a Sunday tabloid. These were wholly private communications with US diplomats that she insisted were never disclosed to anyone else. Her conclusion was this – either someone was bugging the call and hacking the emails at the American Embassy in Dublin – or else her home phone and computer had been compromised. She and her husband Anthony are in no doubt that it was the latter and that a specialist unit set up by a senior ex IRA man was involved. The Garda Síochána are currently investigating their claims which are also to be raised in the Dáil by Fianna Fail.
If they are correct then the McIntyres have been subjected to a dirty tricks operation the likes of which Richard Nixon and his cronies would have been proud of. And if there is any proven link to a secret political unit set up to smear the opponents of Sinn Féin it might end up as an Irish form of ‘Watergate’. For once that over used and abused affix ‘gate’ would have some real meaning in reportage.
The latest hostile anti-INM remarks by the Sinn Féin President have to be seen in that context, one in which any criticism of what the dear leader say over his handling of the Maria Cahill controversy, is portrayed as being either “anti patriotic” or “anti peace process”. Because within the party itself there are no independent voices speaking out against the leadership, no one inside dares even to question it.
Someone somewhere in Siberia, on the other side of the Urals mountain range, probably still has my “Clash” T-shirt secreted in their home. In an act of Irish-Soviet friendship I swapped it for a Red Army tunic with a Siberian in the dormitory of a third level college in Weimar, East Germany in the summer of 1981.
Looking back the exchange was not just an instance of late Cold War détente east-west barter. It was also a means to ward off the sexual advances of an older USSR soldier in his mid 20s who was three sheets to the wind thanks to East German schnapps and Polish vodka; a noxious concoction that smelt and tasted like it should have been fuelling the engine of a MIG fighter jet.
As the big Siberian waved my T-shirt triumphantly in front of his friends from Irkutsk I suddenly realised the reach and influence of a Punk rock band fronted by the son of a former British diplomat and whose bass player was a poor white kid who grew up among the South London black community of Brixton.
Four years earlier the group came to a European city which had its own mini set of Berlin Walls – Belfast. One of the locations they visited on their brief, controversial and now myth-laden tour of the war torn city was the “Henry Taggart” police and army base in West Belfast. It was a photograph taken outside the heavily fortified, rocket protected station on the Springfield Road that later found its way onto that T-shirt, the one that ended up stretched over a Siberian’s torso.
Joe Strummer, Paul Simonon, Mick Jones and Nicky ‘Topper’ Headon also posed for photographs at the top of Royal Avenue, which at the time was secured at both ends by the so called “ring of steel” where civilian searchers flanked by armed troops and police checked the clothing and handbags of shoppers for firebombs. One image of the four of them in biker jackets and zipped bondage trousers, a British Army saracen just to their right, is still a powerful visual reminder of actually how grimly suffocating Belfast was in the mid to late 1970s.
It was out of this stifling atmosphere that a generation of the fed up and the angry emerged just as Punk Rock was exploding across the Irish Sea outraging a nation and prompting London dockers to threaten to put their boots through TV screens over the sight of these spiky haired, foul mouth alien creatures who saw no future in England’s dreaming.
This brief but creative flowering of protest, DIY musical innovation and emergence of some genuine talent is captured poignantly in the critically acclaimed Terri Hooley movie biopic “Good Vibrations.” One of the most important scenes in the film is at the end, which recreates Hooley’s Punk and New Wave music festival in the Ulster Hall in 1980. I can still remember the actual night he stormed up onto the stage to proclaim why the local Punk and New Wave scene had more substance to it than England or America. “New York has the bands, London has the clothes but Belfast has the reason,” Hooley proclaimed. Joe Strummer and The Clash at least always understood this, to them Ulster Punk was for real.
One band that failed to make it onto that stage during this period was The Clash themselves, at least in 1977 because they returned there a few years later. They were scheduled to play a concert at the Ulster Hall in October 1977 but never appeared.
Just like the old saloon bar republicans you used to meet on day trips with your parents to Dublin in the 1970s bragging that they had been ‘out in 1916’, a mythos grew up about the concert-that-never-was and the riot that broke out in Bedford Street as hundreds of young Punks and other Clash fans turned their anger on the police.
I was there partly because I only lived around the corner and also, even though I was just 13, I had a personal guarantee that I could sneak into any concert. My family knew several of the bouncers who worked the door and who later let me in for free to see the likes of Siouxsie and the Banshees (backed up by The Cure) and The Stranglers.
Yet ‘that’ gig that still exercises more power over the memories of the early Ulster Punk generation. This was and is in part due to the myth that grew up that the ’77 riot was the only one during the Troubles that saw Protestant and Catholic kids unite against common enemies. In fact The Clash myth is so enduring that the University of Ulster at the Art College hosted an academic conference in the second last weekend of June 2014 discussing the band’s relationship with Northern Ireland and its youth.
To declare a dog in the fight, this writer was chairing one of the sessions at the symposium although his mind was at times far away, soaring back in space and sound towards the east, wondering where the hell is that T-shirt gathering dust, tucked away somewhere in a wardrobe or drawers in post-communist Irkutsk.
*This is based on an column I wrote for the Belfast Telegraph last month.
**A Riot of Our Own was a weekend of events devoted to one of the most influential and controversial bands ever to have graced a stage. Over two days, a range of academics, journalists and artists gathered in central Belfast to discuss what The Clash meant and continue to mean three decades after their acrimonious and much lamented demise. Keynote speakers at the conference included Caroline Coon (artist, writer and manager The Clash between 1978 and 1980), Professor David Hesmondhalgh (University of Leeds, author of Why Music Matters), Chris Salewicz (author of the acclaimed Joe Strummer biography Redemption Song), Jason Toynbee (Open University), Gavin Martin (Daily Mirror) and Adrian Boot (photographer who took the iconic shots of the band in Belfast).
Being part of The Guardian’s digital revolution has seen a blurring of the old boundaries between the print and the electronic media. Once upon a time, not long ago, the dividing lines between writing for a newspaper and scripting for radio and television were clearly demarcated. Until recently my own career in journalism was a constant to and fro across the ‘No Man’s Land’ between print and broadcasting. The advent of digital media though has wiped out that distinction so that in any given working day I could be writing a 300 to 500 word blog for the on-line edition of Guardian Unlimited; doing a major feature article of more than 1,000 words that could take up to two pages in Saturday’s edition of the newspaper or scripting a 60-second think-piece for broadcast on the Guardian’s audio section.
Blogging, tweeting, podcasting, online/self-generated broadcasting…are all words and phrases becoming increasingly common place for writers. Novels are going straight from the author’s imagination and keyboard to internet delivery systems like eBooks and Kindles, by-passing traditional forms of publishing. The newspaper industry is no different. The Guardian for instance now emphasises the ‘Digital First’ philosophy where news stories, features, opinion pieces, editorials, sports commentary and so on are given their first outing online as opposed to the three-dimensional space of paper.
In terms of media intersection perhaps the most interesting challenge for journalists like myself who have come out of the tradition of two separate media worlds (print and TV/Radio) is to constantly interchange between the two. So for example take this story I worked on back in the summer of 2010 when I went out on a drug interdiction operation with the Irish Naval Service along Ireland’s western seaboard. This was a combination of a relatively long news feature, which not only went online, but also appeared in the paper itself. In addition there was the accompanying film that a Guardian cameraman shot, and I co-produced and scripted. This required not only the ability to convey a fairly dramatic scenario out at sea but also to script to pictures; to be able to write voice-over that was germane to the images and the overall context of the story. This increasingly is my working world!
In terms of combining the written word with the visual the Guardian writer/reporter is now also required to be a broadcaster. One of the popular audio-visual tools to describe a story is the use of the photographic slide show combined with commentary as well as of course a back-up written report. So for instance this unusual story about a man who keeps a museum to the Northern Ireland Troubles in his garden shed is in the usual form. However, accompanying that story which appeared both on Guardian Unlimited and in the actual paper was an audio slide-show.
This was a gallery of pictures taken by our photographer Kim Haughton underneath which ran a recorded, broadcast-quality, interview with the owner guiding us around his private museum. Another example of the multi-dimensional aspect of modern digital journalism in action. This is where the reporter/correspondent/writer can no longer just think in terms of his or her words on a page but also has to be able to script to pictures and sounds.
Of course the corner stones of lucid, honest feature writing, reporting and indeed scripting remain essential. Good prose, to paraphrase George Orwell slightly (still the patron saint of journalists and writers alike) should be like a window pane: clear, devoid of jargon, verbal camouflage and crude propaganda, whether it be through the medium of printed paper or indeed cyberspace.
I’ll be teaching an eight-week course at the Irish Writers’ Centre from 26th April to 14th June. It will focus on new forms of writing and novel ways of delivery in the digital age. As a comprehensive series of classes on various aspects of writing in the digital world, the emphasis will be on practical training and hands-on drills. The weekly itinerary covers blogs, podcasting, tweeting and audio packages. More information is available here and here’s an audio interview on the topic of feature writing.