The Sunday Times was subsequently to lose an even greater sum of money in the year 2000 onwards
by again defending the reputation of British security force units in Northern Ireland (now widely
accepted as tarnished) after it libelled the journalist and film maker Seán McPhilemy who had
claimed collusion between the security forces and pro-British killer gangs. It is true that McPhilemy
has been successfully challenged in other regards but it is nonetheless remarkable that an English
jury found McPhilemy’s account of RUC terror tactics wholly believable when finding completely
against the Sunday Times. Moreover, in this libel trial too, evidence is now emerging via the Leveson
Inquiry into Newspaper ethics, and elsewhere, that News International has possibly engaged in
improper practices in the context of this trial.
Overall, it is the practice of paying dubious sources, who were very often police narks and/or
security force personnel to source, propagate or concoct stories that has become a notorious
hallmark of Murdoch titles. But there is a crucial difference, as ever, between Ireland and the UK.
In England, we now know that Murdoch newspapers enjoyed a special relationship with the
upper echelons of the security services, police and political classes. Or more accurately, with
the conservative wing of these houses. There News International libels, hacking and smear
stories mainly affected celebrity and sports personalities. But where Ireland and Irish issues were
concerned, this special relationship gave an inevitably political edge to the libelling and smears.
The likes of Carmen Proetta were targeted because of the robustly right wing and “Rule Britannia”
approach of Murdoch newspapers over Irish affairs. But if we hadn’t learned the lessons of the
Carmen Proetta case, we should really have put two and two together by the time the New York
Post, amongst other newspaper brands, smeared George Mitchell’s senior aide at a crucial moment
in the Irish Peace Process in 1996. Indeed Senator George Mitchell himself went so far as to say that
the problem lay not just with UK newspapers but with part of the British administration itself, for
whom the entry of Sinn Féin into government was a step too far:
`What was unique about many of the leaks from the NIO is that they were designed
to undermine the policy of the British government of which they were a part.'
Senator George Mitchell, London Weekend Television, 5th of September 1999
After this extraordinary turn of events, where a senior and highly respected American politician
effectively highlighted a cabal within the British government that was leaking to sections of the
media that were hostile to the peace process, one would have thought that a major inquiry would
have ensued. Instead there was silence. In fact it was worse than silence because there seemed to
be an acceptance that this was just the way government and reporting worked in and about Ireland.
As far as I am aware, apart from the reports filed by Niall O’Dowd and Tim Pat Coogan, no major
journalistic investigation of either the Carmen Proetta, Martha Pope or Seán McPhilemy libel cases
took place in America. But as we shall see, these three instances of libelling and smears are by no
means the exception to Rupert Murdoch’s Irish rule and the question has to be raised as to why
News Corp has never been challenged over the dubious and reckless nature of News International’s
coverage of Irish political affairs – reckless because it not only nearly destroyed the Irish peace
process but also endangered people’s lives.
Right throughout the late 1990s and early 2000s when the Irish peace accord was on a knife edge,
key players in the talks process were talking about the damage that malicious leaks and imprudent
stories from News International titles were causing – principally the Times, the Sunday Times and
the News of the World.
In 1995 British prime minister John Major pleaded with Times newspapers not to leak a “framework”
for peace document that was merely at draft stage and therefore not an accurate reflection of
policy. Major’s pleas fell on deaf ears and “mayhem”, to use Major’s word, ensued. Then in 1997 the
Sunday Times described Belfast Catholic Mary McAleese (the future and most popular President of
Ireland ever ) as a “tribal time bomb” and a “hate figure” for Unionists. In September 1999, the
politician entrusted with creating a new police service for Northern Ireland,. Chris Patten, hit out at
scares and smears regarding abolition of the old RUC. Patten was referring to the fact that stories
were being put about by newspapers, including Times newspapers, that gave the idea that IRA men
would soon be policing their own areas in a kind of “Balkanisation” of the police force. Patten
slammed these reports – “Suggestions that we are intending to Balkanise the police service in
Northern Ireland are a straightforward fabrication”, he said. Patten also said – “Some people have
very clearly been involved in the business of trying to create a very difficult political atmosphere for
our report, and I wholly deplore that”. In 2003, the then Irish foreign affairs minister Brian Cowen
issued a statement directly alluding to media coverage, partly from News International titles, about
British spies in the IRA, saying they were designed to destroy the peace process. By 2006, the
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain, took the unprecedented action of holding a
review of amongst all the covert security force agencies in order to show that senior Sinn Féin peace
talks delegate Martin McGuinness had never been a British spy. A theme pushed by News
International at this time was that Martin McGuinness had led a charmed life; for example by
escaping arrest when his comrades had been captured. Peter Hain’s initiative helped to expose two
key ex security force informants for Murdoch newspapers (Ian Hurst and Peter Keeley) in trying to
pass off a fake intelligence document as proof that Martin McGuinness was a British spy. It
subsequently emerged that it had been the Sunday Times that had given Hurst and Keeley their
pseudonyms – Martin Ingram and Kevin Fulton respectively. Neither Hurst nor Keeley have any
credibility as witnesses and their use by Murdoch newspapers as alleged high grade informants from
1999 to 2004 is questionable to say the least and has still not been properly examined. Perhaps, by
2006 and very late in the day, News International had come to realise that Hurst and Keeley were
not credible witnesses because not even the Sunday Times would publish their bogus MI6 document.
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