The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Send in the Sandbag

The blackest billingsgate, the most ungentlemanly insolence, the most yahooist brutality, is patently endured, countenanced, propagated, and applauded.
But touch a solemn truth in collision with the dogma of a sect, though capable of the clearest proof, and you will soon find you have disturbed a nest, and the hornets will swarm about your eyes and hand, and fly into your face and eyes. - John Adams

Anthony McIntyre • 25.05.03

Shortly after the Thursday edition of the Andersonstown News hit the streets proclaiming that the Stakeknife story had died in the water, the Belfast Telegraph ran the banner headline ‘I will meet Scappaticci’. The offer came from the mother of the late John Dignam, one of three Portadown men shot dead by the IRA in 1992 for allegedly informing. The same evening the issue featured on BBC’s Let’s Talk where Catriona Ruane seemed to have difficulties parrying questions on the matter. At one point, with no obvious sign of irony, she urged the audience to read An Phoblacht/Republican News’ sister paper, the Andersonstown News. The following day saw even more coverage in the News Letter. And today’s Sundays are pursuing the issue yet again. Despite wish being father to the thought in the Andersonstown News, the old knife remains a stake firmly embedded in the consciousness of Provisional republicanism.

In last Monday’s edition of the West Belfast tabloid, its editor scooped what the paper assured us was a world exclusive: an interview with the man widely alleged to be the British agent Stakeknife. In effect the interview was a poop scoop - crap. It was pursued with the type of investigative rigour that could easily have proved that David Beckham never played for Manchester United.

Andersonstown News: David Beckham do you play for Manchester United?
Beckham: No
Andersonstown News: We asked him the hard question - he gave us the straight answer.

Indeed. Already jokes are doing the rounds amongst republicans that Marty McGartland is seeking an interview with the paper so he too can clear his name. The interview was similar to the gentle questioning a witness would receive from his own defence attorney in a court of law. It was not the grueling cross examination that the one would expect in these circumstances.

This ultimately proved to the detriment of Scappaticci who in fact needed to undergo the test of fire in public if he was to stand any chance of persuading his sceptics of his innocence. The interview demonstrated not that Scappaticci was blameless, but that the Andersonstown News, because of its complicity in a bid to sink the story, effectively denied Scappaticci the opportunity to make a persuasive case on his own behalf. Given that the paper alone had access to the accused man it had a public duty to ask the serious questions. Arguably, the paper was not concerned with defending Scappaticci but with protecting a republican leadership fearful of the consequences of full disclosure. And in this case where no republican leader was prepared to be seen within photo distance of Scappaticci, the ever faithful Robin Livingstone was sent in to mount a damage limitation exercise and act as a sandbag, absorbing flak that might otherwise have struck the leadership. With a genuine commitment to securing the truth coupled with some strategic foresight, the interview could have been vastly different. This would have more seriously firmed up the case that Freddie Scappaticci seeks to make - that he was never an agent of the British. But through employing a political rather than a journalistic agenda, the paper in fact did Scappaticci a disservice. If he is innocent the interview has brought us no closer to knowing it.

Not that the media in general has been exemplary in its handling of this issue. Journalists readily admit that there was much in the way of 'spin and black propaganda.' The Daily Telegraph has reported that ‘the media has been fed a lot of misinformation.’ True, but this does not excuse it for running with what it has been fed. In this regard Vincent Browne has raised some intelligent reservations about inconsistencies in press coverage which should be shared by those genuinely concerned with enhancing public understanding of the matter. However, his gripe about unnamed sources is difficult to comprehend given that many journalists have been dragged before the courts here and elsewhere as a consequence of protecting the anonymity of their sources. Undisclosed sources are essential to public understanding. This has already been proven in the corruption scandals in Dublin. However, the practice of allowing one person to hide in a coward’s corner and throw serious charges at a named person is dubious in the extreme. The public have a right to expect that any journalist bringing into public discourse the allegations of such sources should have tried and tested the source on many previous occasions and found them to be impeccable and their information beyond reproach.

In this case the Andersonstown News has helped matters. Its previous endorsement of Martin Ingram - the FRU operative who has persistently raised concerns about the existence of Stakeknife and who last week expressed his alarm at the identity of Stakeknife becoming public knowledge - has added enormous credibility to those journalists who now rely on the evidence of Ingram and other unidentified sources (Ingram afterall is only a pseudonym and therefore a nameless source).

So devastating is the information he possesses that the British Government has served gagging orders on the Sunday People and Sunday Times to prevent them reporting on his disclosures … According to Ingram, Nelson was 'run' by FRU Commander Col Gordon Kerr - now British military attaché to Beijing - and Captain Margaret Walshaw, now believed to be based at the British Embassy in Athens … Every newspaper in the North of Ireland and Britain, with the exception of the North Belfast News and Andersonstown News, have refused to name Captain Walshaw at the request of British Intelligence. (Andersonstown News 1/3/2001).

So reliable was he presumed to have been that the paper even let him write his own comment piece. And when he said ‘as long as I have a breath in my body, I will take up the cudgel for the truth’ the paper did not call him a faceless securocrat hiding behind a pseudonym.

There is a real fear of publicly accusing someone in the wrong. But the Andersonstown News boasted of naming Captain Margaret Walshaw - and it was right to name her - rather than jump to her defence on the very grounds it employed for Scappaticci. And its chivalry on the matter of not wishing to expose people to risk is only newly found. It was in its own letters page - via a contribution from a non-existent writer at a bogus address - that a named Belfast journalist was maliciously and falsely accused of being a gatherer of information for loyalist terrorists.

Despite all the criticism - much of it justified - leveled at journalists over their handling of the Scappaticci story, would the people of West Belfast be better informed if the Andersonstown News was the only source of our news? Would they be less well informed if the paper did not come out at all? Since making the journey from community paper to the organ of the West Belfast business class has it ever done anything but conform to W. H. Auden's notion that 'the most important truths are likely to be those which...society at that time least wants to hear.'? Ken Livingstone once wrote that 'spontaneous laughter is often more politically revealing than any number of sanctimonious newspaper columns and political debates'. And this week’s laughter at Robin Livingstone's world exclusive reveals that few have been conned.




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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



I have spent
many years of my life
in opposition, and
I rather like the role.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

Index: Current Articles

26 May 2003


Other Articles From This Issue:


Lynch Pins
Eamon McCann


Send in the Sandbag
Anthony McIntyre


Trial By Media

British Irish Rights Watch


We Love the Andytout News Information Minister
Comical Livvy


The Letters page has been updated.


23 May 2003


A Fair Trial
Bernadette McKevitt


Anthony McIntyre


Connolly on Religion, Women and Sex

Liam O Ruairc


Gareth O Connor
Joe Dillon


To the Citizens of Europe
Davy Carlin


A New Morning
Annie Higgins




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