The potential significance of the decision by the English prosecution authorities to arraign for
trial a number of very senior figures of News Corp’s UK division (News International) cannot be
underestimated in terms of company compliance laws in the United States. As the Guardian
newspaper reported on Tuesday, if senior News International executives Andy Coulson and Rebekah
Brooks are found guilty of having made illegal payments to police and public officials, they will have
also have been found to have contravened America’s “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act”.
The fact that this case, which also involves a senior Ministry of Defence employee and other News
International employees, is now set for trial places a restriction on any reference to the defendants,
but it in general terms it has been established beyond doubt that Rupert Murdoch’s News
International subsidiary indulged in corrupt practices involving cell phone and computer hacking and
the payment of bribes for information. The question now is simply how far this went up the chain
of command. There is, however, one huge element of News International’s illegal and unethical
behaviour that has been completely ignored so far and this can be summed up in one word: Ireland.
Why has News International’s reckless and corrupt behaviour in Ireland been forgotten during
all the coverage stateside of the News International bribes and hacking scandal? Have American
commentators forgotten so quickly that Martha Pope, one of the most respected civil servants in the
Senate and senior aide to Senator George Mitchell was smeared in December 1996 via a concocted
story about a love affair with former leading IRA man Gerry Kelly? This story, which the New York
Post ran with the headline “Sex Scandal Perils IRA Truce” almost derailed the peace process and
Senator Mitchell described it as one of the most despicable things he had ever experienced as a
More significantly still, it is clear that the smearing of Martha Pope (and by extension Senator
Mitchell himself) was no aberration; no one off event. For it follows a pattern of Irish smear, libel
and hacking exploits produced by Murdoch titles based in the UK and Ireland that had the overall
effect of casting suspicion on the peace process and those who sought reform of both the security
forces in Northern Ireland and its once staunchly pro-British and anti-Catholic institutions.
Lest we forget, in 1988, a young woman called Carmen Proetta made the mistake of honestly
reporting what she saw from her kitchen window as a unit of Britain’s elite SAS executed 3 unarmed
IRA members on the island of Gibraltar. Ms Proetta’s graphic account of the coup de grace shots
to the head being administered to the already stricken IRA members completely undermined the
official version of events, dutifully asserted by a gung-ho British media - that the SAS had fired
in self-defence. However, News International newspapers then began to question not only Ms
Proetta’s ability to recall these events properly but also her personal character. The tabloid “Sun”
newspaper described Ms Proetta as 'The tart of Gib', but it is more useful to look at the approach
used by the ‘A market’ Sunday Times to besmirch Carmen Proetta’s reputation because this late
1980s style “personality hack” carried important pointers for the future journalistic approach of
News International titles.
Carmen Proetta eventually won a string of libel awards from Murdoch newspapers and other titles
but the use by Times newspapers of a drug criminal and secret service “agent”, Joseph Wilkins to try
and smear Carmen Proetta as an escort agency Madam in its libel trial was not given wide coverage,
partly because Ms Proetta’s libel settlement was not reached until a few years after the initial
traducing of her name and reputation.
The judge in the Carmen Proetta v Sunday Times libel trial, Mr Justice Drake, was scathing about the
attempt by Times Newspapers to use Wilkins as a witness in its defence:
"It is conceded that Wilkins is a man with an appalling record, and it appears from documents
that I have seen that Wilkins asked for payment in return for giving the statement and that the
defendants, after the statement was given, did pay £2,000 to Wilkins's sister at his request,
which they falsely described as a consultancy fee."
In the sake of fairness, it should be pointed out that certain Sunday Times journalists like Rosie
Waterhouse were appalled at the way her newspaper had covered the Gibraltar killings and their
aftermath. Ms Waterhouse resigned her post over the affair after accusing her own paper of
having left itself - “wide open to accusations that we had set out to prove one point of view and
misrepresented and misquoted interviews ...”
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.
As if all the above was not enough, evidence is now emerging that in that very year of 2006, and
at the defining moment in the peace process, News International operatives may possibly have
hacked Hugh Orde, the then Chief of Police in Northern Ireland. The hacking of Orde is still being
investigated but, more significantly, the Metropolitan Police have warned Peter Hain, who was then
the Province’s effective Prime Minister, that he is almost certainly a victim of News International
Apart from some articles in the liberal Guardian and elsewhere, there has been a surprising g lack of
comment on this major development in the Irish hacking story. Instead, and bizarrely, newspapers
and the media have concentrated on the fact that the former long term informant for Times
Newspapers mentioned above, Ian Hurst, was also hacked. Yet there can be no comparison between
the hacking of a former low ranking, and discredited, intelligence operative like Hurst and the
hacking of a secretary of state.
As journalists, we must ask ourselves what the political situation was in 2006 when Secretary of
State Peter Hain was hacked. The answer to this question is that in April of 2006, Hain had warned
the Unionists and their supporters in Whitehall that if they did not sign up to the planned 2007
peace talks at St Andrews in Scotland he would impose joint rule from London and Dublin. This
was the meltdown option for those who see themselves as British in Northern Ireland and it is a
reasonable conclusion, given the above litany of journalistic and political transgressions, that News
International hackers were looking for dirt on Hain and possibly Hugh Orde so as to throw the peace
process into crisis and render Hain’s threat of Dublin Rule redundant. If this is true, these hacking
operations would seem to be a clear breach of US anti corruption laws.
Has there been a single question in the USA about the very recent hacking of one of Ireland’s most
senior statesmen and public officials? If and when these Irish News Corp scandals are fully examined
in America, they may well prove to be the final straws that broke Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp back.
@ Paul Larkin
Former European Journalist of the Year and BBC journalist and film maker.