A free press needed now more than ever

Posted By: September 22, 2016

“The de Silva report is a fascinating document that shows all but one of the UDA gang [that killed Pat Finucane] were in the pay of the security services. Some worked for Special Branch, others military intelligence.”

Allison Morris. Irish News (Belfast). Thursday, September 22, 2016

Most journalists know the great lengths officialdom will go to in order to prevent the truth being exposed.

The Freedom of Information Act that promised openness and transparency has been bent in such a way as to render it almost useless, you almost have to already know the answer to the question you’re asking to get any information of worth.

There’s been much chat about the appointment of BBC journalist David Gordon as press officer to the first minister and deputy first minister.

No one has questioned the talented and respected journalist’s ability to do the job.

However, it has been asked what Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster need with such an experienced reporter and will his job be to further spin and block any scrutiny of the coalition?

Tony Blair was the first leader to elevate his spin doctor, Alastair Campbell, to a prominent and aggressive public role.

Until then those who used their powers to protect the reputations of the powerful remained more in the background.

The dark arts used to make bad decisions sound like good ones, disasters look like successes and make personal indiscretions disappear, were generally never revealed.

That’s why it’s important to have a free press to keep chipping away, to uncover the truth, see beyond the spin and hold those in power to account.

Ian Cobain, the Guardian reporter and author, does just that in his new book The History Thieves, showing just what lengths the British government have gone to in order to conceal wrongdoing.

Those who work in the legal and victims sector,  along with journalists who have covered historic legacy,  know that trying to get disclosure from secretive government agencies is like trying to scale Everest in flip flops, it’s good to remind the public of this.

We are at a disadvantage from the outset due to the experience of the British state in keeping dirty secrets, a practice dating back to colonial times.

The Official Secrets Act dating back to 1889 turned the disclosure of information into a criminal offence.

The act remains like an electric fence around the truth.

The paper archives amassed during the early days of the Troubles are now digital archives linked to information gathering on people currently deemed to be a risk to the state and the informers who the agencies continue to run.

All fair in love and war you might say, but this secrecy allowed informers such as Mark Haddock, Freddie Scappaticci and the informer-ridden gang that controlled the west Belfast UDA and were responsible for the murder of Pat Finucane, to not only exist and flourish, but – had it not been for those who refused to accept the official version of events – go undetected.

The murder of Pat Finucane, the subsequent attempts to thwart any investigation that would uncover the nest of vipers who planned and carried out the killing, best demonstrates just what lengths the state will go to in order to conceal wrongdoing.

Ian Cobain revisits the investigation by John Stevens into the Finucane murder and the mysterious fire at the offices of investigators.

The inquiry the Finucane family wanted and were promised was blocked at the last minute by former prime minister David Cameron.

Instead respected barrister Desmond de Silva carried out a review of the case.

The de Silva report is a fascinating document that shows all but one of the UDA gang were in the pay of the security services. Some worked for Special Branch, others military intelligence.

The de Silva report was also full of redacted documents, information that you, I and the Finucane family will never be allowed access to.

Think about that for just a minute. A solicitor was murdered by agents of the state and almost 30 years on we still don’t know the entire story.

Chief Constable George Hamilton called the state documents archive ‘the vault’ and rightly pointed out while the government kept documents that leave them exposed to challenge, the IRA did not.

And that is true. The only real information we have of the inner workings of any illegal organisation comes from disgruntled ex-members who more often than not have their own agenda.

But the state are rightly held to higher account, they’re meant to be the upholders of law and order and when it transpires they were not only turning a blind eye to murder but at times directing the killing of its own citizens then that is something journalists should never stop trying to expose regardless of the obstacles placed in our way.

Ian Cobain’s book shines a light on the dark practices used to conceal information from the public, it’s a timely publication and demonstrates perfectly why – at a time when surveillance of citizens is at an all time high – we need a free press who refuse to be intimidated from doing their job.