The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Official Secrets & Official Lies
Journalists under fire
"The freedom of the press is one of the great bulwarks of liberty, and can never be restrained but by despotic governments."
- George Mason, Virginia Bill of Rights, June 12, 1776

Carrie Twomey speaks with Liam Clarke, Ireland Editor of the Sunday Times and Kathryn Johnston, co-author of Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government, after their recent arrest. She also talks with Henry McDonald, Ireland Editor of the Observer, who is to be questioned under caution this week, and with David Lister, journalist with the Times, who was questioned on Friday. May 4, 2003

Martin McGuinness, MP for Mid-Ulster, was first elected in 1997 and re-elected last year. The election that gave McGuinness his MP status was also a Labour victory, and saw Mo Mowlam becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that same year. Mo Mowlam caused a number of controversies with her flamboyant handling of things, including, in 1999, the discovery of an unwieldy bug underneath the car used by Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness as they were to'ed and fro'ed during negotiations. When the bug was first discovered, Blair's government remained "tight-lipped". A Guardian report of the incident claimed, "Mr Blair's spokesman said the security services operate within the law under ministerial control. He dismissed as "Guardian paranoia" suggestions that an unauthorised operation might have occurred as they did under previous Labour governments," noting that "any legitimate use of a listening device needs ministerial approval from either the Northern Ireland office or the home office." Later, Mo Mowlam would admit that she had approved that bugging of the car, saying it had been done to save lives.

It has now emerged that at the same time, Martin McGuinness' phone was also being tapped, as evidenced by the recent release of transcripts from the phone taps in the paperback edition of Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston's biography of McGuinness, From Guns to Government. Tapping the phones of MPs has been out of bounds for 37 years, since Harold Wilson established the rule in 1966. Regardless of whether McGuinness took his seat or not - it has only been since 2002 that Sinn Fein MPs have begun to use their Westminster office facilities - and regardless of his connections to the Republican Movement, he was at the time of the phone tapping an elected Member of Parliament. On Wednesday last, Andrew MacKinlay, according to the Daily Telegraph, "reminded us that Mr Blair had once promised 'to make a statement to the House, exceptionally, if and when any Member of Parliament's phone was tapped. It is not a question of personality. It is a question of principle. Members of Parliament's telephones should not be tapped, and secondly, the Prime Minister is in charge of the security and intelligence services and they have been insubordinate in this case and are not subject to the proper controlled security of this place.'"

Blair's response: "I understand why you raise the issue. I reconfirm the Wilson doctrine but I also say to you I don't and will not comment on any matters related to security." MacKinlay also said, "This goes to the heart of our freedoms - the security services appear to have trespassed over the Wilson rules."

But it goes even further than that: with the arrests of Liam Clarke and Kathryn Johnston, the journalists who published the rogue phone tap transcripts, the security services are trespassing over more than just the Wilson rules.

On Wednesday evening last, the day MacKinlay questioned the Prime Minister, the police arrived at Clarke and Johnston's home, around 8:30pm. 3 men in navy boiler suits and peaked caps from Technical Support Branch, Castlereagh, plus CID from Castlereagh. All armed. They seized around 21 bags of documents and 4 computers. The search lasted around 5 and a half hours, culminating in the arrests of Clarke and Johnston at 2 am. "We were very, very lucky," Kathryn says, "because a neighbour was able to mind our 8 year old daughter. The police did not care that they were leaving her without her mother or without care when they arrested me." Both Liam and Kathryn feel the search and arrest was heavy handed. "They did not need to arrest us; we aren't flight risks. We could have been questioned in the manner afforded David Lister and Henry McDonald." Clarke, 49, had been questioned before over his articles [regarding Martin Ingram]. Because of new Human Rights legislation, Johnston was arrested only to be put in her cell for 9 hours rest, and wasn't even interviewed until 2 or 3 in the afternoon the following day. Kathryn, a 48 year old mother of 3, describes her experience. "[It was] Dreadful conditions. You're held in a cell, which has a toilet in the middle of it, with continuous video and audio monitoring. You are filmed on the toilet if you use it; they say it's pixelated but someone has to be watching to know when to pixelate the picture. Images from video monitoring aren't pixelated until they are processed by computer. When you are changing, you are filmed. You have absolutely no privacy."

She says she faced intensive questioning. "The amount of information taken from our house was massive. The search was supposed to be limited to documentation relating to transcripts, but what they took went well beyond the scope, it was obvious they were on a fishing expedition. None of the documents I was questioned about in the station had anything to do with what was found the house, with the exception of one, which was downloaded from the internet and related to Omagh and was in public domain; it was a Garda report - how could possession of material from another state possibly be a breach of the Official Secrets Act? It had been emailed from the Sunday Times Dublin office after an article about it had appeared in the paper." It was all questions about the [McGuinness] book and sources, which they refused to answer. Both Liam and Kathryn had 4 or 5 police interviews each.

Liam pulls no punches in his description of what he calls a "Heavy handed operation. We were arrested at 2 am and taken to Antrim interrogation centre. It was a rap over the knuckle for disclosing the transcripts. We were held 21 hours in the holding centre. A total of 26 hours. It was very intimidating. We were told we were to be allowed phone calls, but Chief Superintendent Phil Wright denied me all phone calls. Kathy was allowed them for welfare purposes, but warned that they were monitored and if the case was discussed in any way, they would "pull the plug"." He believes it is part of a whole process of intimidation designed to keep people quiet. He points out that whistleblowers in the private sector who expose corruption are protected by law, whereas people who work in the public sector have no such protections, in fact, quite the opposite.

They will throw [unlimited] money and resources at you, and the idea is to make life such a misery - partly for journalists but more for leakers - the message for the civil services is it just is not worth speaking out, because of the hassle, having your life turned upside down. The intention is intimidatory. For example, Martin Ingram [the subject of a previous controversy] was arrested at his sister's home. Her house was torn about. A phone in a house outside of the UK that he used was phone tapped illegally - it sends a message. Lt Col Nigel Wylde, who was accused of being a source in Tony Geraghty's book, The Irish War, his life was ripped apart for 3 years, and he ended up100,000 in debt with legal fees. He has since been found innocent. The idea is to make corruption in government too expensive to write about.

Liam Clarke continued, "the message is very clear. If you talk, it can be discovered. These arrests are meant to weaken confidence in journalists and make people afraid to talk."

Henry McDonald also believes that is the message being sent. "Protection of sources is a fundamental tenet of journalism. Otherwise no one would ever talk. I have absolutely the same attitude towards a source whether they be a republican, a loyalist, a civil servant, a cop, whatever, it doesn't matter. Their protection is paramount."

Clarke and Johnston included the transcripts as illustration of the evolution of McGuinness from young IRA man to an urbane man chummy with the British establishment. It has proven to be illustrative of much more than a personal profile, now that Clarke and Johnston have been arrested, along with a man accused of being the source who supplied them with the transcripts. Two other journalists, David Lister of the Times, and Henry McDonald, the Ireland Editor of the Observer, have been questioned and are to be questioned under caution. One has to question the wisdom of arresting and questioning the Irish Editors of two of the most respected newspapers in the UK on the heels of suspending elections in Northern Ireland, which has the effect of making what seemed hyperbolic comparisons to rogue governments earlier in the week not being very far off the mark.

Henry McDonald, who is to be questioned on Wednesday, is under no illusions that the arrests are anything but "purely political," he says. "Gangs of thugs are roaming the streets of Belfast beating people up, stealing cars, you have armed thugs attacking people...police time is wasted pursuing people like me. An attempt is being made to shut down the culture of people getting scoops and stories that may be detrimental to the establishment. They're trying to change to the entire culture. Journalism under the peace process has become very supine."

David Lister agrees. "They are trying to make an example of the policeman who was arrested, and of Liam [and Kathryn] as well. I do think there is a definite political agenda to this. For a variety of reasons, it's timely for the police and for Downing Street to be looking to make an example of policemen and civil servants who are too close to the media, or of journalists who are doing their jobs."

A number of strands run through the possible motivation for the arrests and questioning of the journalists. First and foremost is the power of Martin McGuinness. "This is screaming to the high heavens for answers," he has been quoted as saying. He suggested, when he compared the leak of the transcripts to information passed to loyalist paramilitaries in order to set republicans up for murder, that the publication of the transcripts could endanger his life. “Disgraceful,” he called the leaks. McGuinness has been against the Clarke and Johnston book from the start, making clear it was written, as many biographies that are not shrines to the subject are, without his co-operation or approval.

Deaglán Ó Donghaile wrote in his review of the book for the Blanket, “The education minister's inability to distinguish between biography and autobiography aside, his statement did point to a much more disturbing feature of political life under Stormont. In trying to stop this book from being written McGuinness appealed to one of the unwritten rules that make politics in the six counties so secretive and so dangerous - he appealed to the old republican policy of secrecy that he and his party have manipulated and transformed into a semi-official political culture that is designed to stop people from criticising "the leadership".”

All of the journalists involved agree that McGuinness stands to benefit from their detentions. McDonald says, “the arrests are designed to plug all the leaks and to placate McGuinness. He can now say, 'Look what I can do,' at the upcoming Sinn Fein Ard Fheis.”

Johnston also points to the Ard Fheis regarding Sinn Fein’s position on the policing board. “It’s a demonstration of power, a taste of what is possible when they endorse and become the police. The message to the IRA is, 'You don’t need punishment squads, [if we join the police] we can do it for you.' It shows, despite the current problems with the suspension of the election, that McGuinness still has power and control within the British government. Because of the arrest, the PSNI now has access to all the documents seized at our home, that’s how he can play it when cajoling the grass roots - he had me arrested, he had a Special Branch man arrested and charged. This is no small thing.”

If the arrests benefit McGuinness, they also benefit Tony Blair and the peace process. It is a way to show Sinn Fein that something can happen if they want it - a carrot at the same time the stick is being applied. But there’s also a downside to the benefits for Downing Street, as MacKinlay’s questions - to be discussed again this week - shows. “If the phone tap on McGuinness was authorized, it shows that Tony Blair misled the House of Commons,” Liam Clarke notes. “This is very serious. If it wasn’t authorized, then there hasn’t been a breach of the Official Secrets Act. Either way it can explain why the heavy hand was applied.” In other words, someone is panicking somewhere. It wasn’t to be known that McGuinness’ phone was tapped, and it wasn’t to be known exactly how chummy McGuinness is with the Brits.

“Only for the arrests,” Liam says, “being unprecedented, for example, they didn’t turn up for Ed Moloney over the Stobie case with 3 police cars and cart him off for 23 hours, it makes you think, why the new departure? And the following up they are doing, going to the publisher [Mainstream Press, publisher of From Guns to Government] - they are really lashing out, really punishing people. They’re saying, ‘we'll wallop you.’ Why? It’s dangerously political.”

The last strand of motivation lay with Hugh Orde, and his public promise to pursue all leaks in the wake of the Castlereagh embarrassment. Ironically, it was in an interview he did with Henry McDonald that his promise not to police politically was made. “In an interview with The Observer to mark the PSNI's first anniversary, Orde said no region and no individual was out of bounds. 'I am different because I am independent, the Secretary of State has never tried to interfere and the day he does is the day I will walk out the door. We will do policing; he will deal with politics.'”

David Lister says, “Post Stevens report, the police have to be whiter than white. They panic at the slightest suggestion of a leak or rogue cop, and they are trying to make an example of the cop involved in this, and of the journalists, too. This is what happens if you talk, this is the kind of heat you will face.”

Given what has come out in the Stevens report, it is absolutely vital that those with knowledge of corruption in the government feel confident in their ability to speak out. The fact that the government is still actively seeking to silence whistleblowers and the journalists who have the courage to report uncomfortable truths should have those concerned with freedom of speech up in arms. These are indeed dangerous times, and the possibilities of what lay ahead, given what has gone before, are frightening.


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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



"We would like to add our thanks for the support and solidarity which has been expressed by family, friends and neighbours; other journalists, writers and broadcasters; politicians from all parties except the DUP and Sinn Fein; and the National Union of Journalists."
- Liam Clarke and
Kathryn Johnston

Index: Current Articles

4 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Official Secrets and Official Lies
Carrie Twomey


Iran's Weblog Quandry

Pedram Moallemian


For A Free Press


Tutored, Managed and Castrated
Anthony McIntyre


Forgetting Eric Honniker
Eoghan O’Suilleabhain


Lukacs After Communism
Liam O Ruairc


How's It Goin'?
Brian Mór


Swept Clean

Annie Higgins


1 May 2003


Northern Ireland's War of Words
Brendan O'Neill


No Respite

Anthony McIntyre


Foreign Investors
Liam O Ruairc


Crowd Control American Style
Caoimhe Butterly


On Cuba
Douglas Hamilton


Hearts and Flowers

Annie Higgins




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