A lawyer's murder puts freedom of press on trial

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ONE OF Belfast's leading journalists found himself in court yesterday as one of Northern Ireland's long-running security force collusion controversies impinged on the issue of freedom of the press.

Ed Moloney, the northern editor of the Dublin Sunday Tribune newspaper, is adamant that he will not hand over the notes of interviews with a loyalist activist who admitted involvement in the 1989 murder of the Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane.

In taking this stand he risks prosecution under either the Prevention of Terrorism Act or for being in contempt of court. Several dozen journalists showed up at the court yesterday, some of them taking part in a protest picket.

The case touches on particularly sensitive issues, both in the realms of the freedom of the media and in terms of policing. An article written by Mr Moloney following his interviews with a member of the paramilitary Ulster Defence Association produced new allegations of police collusion in the Finucane murder.

Allegations of security force involvement in the killing have persisted throughout the decade since his death.

Earlier this year, more than a thousand legal figures from all over the world signed a petition calling for an independent inquiry into the murder. Following this, the RUC reopened the investigation, calling in the Metropolitan Police deputy commissioner John Stevens to take charge of the inquiry.

In June a loyalist, William Stobie, was charged with the Finucane murder, an action which produced dramatic new information.

The saga began in 1989 when UDA gunmen burst into the north Belfast home of Mr Finucane, a well-known defence solicitor, and shot him dead. This happened only weeks after the Conservative minister Douglas Hogg had told a Commons committee that a number of solicitors were "unduly sympathetic to the cause of the IRA".

While this attracted much attention, there were also allegations of some form of actual official complicity in the killing. Some Belfast solicitors reported that detectives questioning loyalist paramilitants had systematically "bad-mouthed" Mr Finucane and other solicitors. Such claims were dismissed by the authorities, but a new round of allegations emerged in the early Nineties. This followed developments after Mr Stevens was called in on a previous occasion to investigate claims of official collusion in loyalist killings.

New information which emerged at that point included statements from Brian Nelson, a key UDA member who was also a British Army agent, to the effect that he had warned his handlers that the organisation was planning to kill MrFinucane. Although this too was denied by the authorities, the effect of such fresh material was to keep the Finucane case as a live issue in legal and human rights circles.

The recalling of Mr Stevens to Northern Ireland earlier this year was welcomed by some but criticised by others who characterised it as a pre- emptive strike designed to avoid a fuller public inquiry.

Within a few weeks of his appointment, Mr Stevens charged 48-year-old Mr Stobie, a UDA man, with the Finucane murder.

Mr Stobie caused something of a sensation at a remand hearing in June when he said in a statement: "At the time I was a police informer for Special Branch and on the night of the death of Pat Finucane, I informed Special Branch on two occasions by telephone that a person was to be shot."

Mr Stobie's solicitor added: "On at least two occasions he gave police information before this murder that clearly was not acted upon.

"My client has asked me to state that the murky web of deceit and lies spun around this murder does not emanate from him, and he looks forward to the truth coming out at the inevitable trial."

A few days later, Mr Moloney printed a lengthy story detailing how he had interviewed Mr Stobie in 1990, and that the UDA man had told him then of supplying guns to other members of the organisation who were about "to hit a top Provie". The journalist said he made a deal with Mr Stobie that he would not print the story without his permission, and that Mr Stobie had finally agreed that he could do so.

Mr Moloney is a highly respected journalist with long experience of reporting Belfast's security and paramilitary underworlds. He has a reputation as a fiercely independent reporter whose stories have, at different times, caused major annoyance to republicans, loyalists, the security world and the Government alike.

Shortly after his Stobie story appeared, a Stevens inquiry detective arrived at his home asking for his 1990 notes. When he refused to supply them detectives obtained a court order requiring him to hand them over. At the weekend, the journalist wrote: "There are no circumstances in which I can surrender this material", arguing that to do so would mean he would never again be trusted as a journalist, and that his life could be endangered.

Also featuring in this case is a former journalist, Neil Mulholland, who now works as a government press officer. He too spoke to Mr Stobie in 1990, though rather than keep his material secret he relayed it to the RUC. He has recently made and signed a lengthy statement to police which is expected to feature in Mr Stobie's trial.

Mr Stobie himself, it was confirmed in court yesterday, was interviewed by the RUC on 32 occasions in 1990, during which he admitted being the UDA quartermaster who had supplied weaponry for the Finucane killing and later disposed of one of the murder weapons.

Following Mr Stobie's eventual trial, the RUC will clearly be asked to explain why, if it had such information, the Finucane murder could not have been prevented or alternatively why, in its aftermath, Mr Stobie or others were not charged.

Human rights groups and the National Union of Journalists are supporting Mr Moloney's refusal to hand over his notes.

Protecting Their Sources

In 1988, The Independent's City editor, Jeremy Warner, was fined pounds 20,000 for refusing to reveal his source for a story to Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) inspectors. The DTI was investigating a suspected case of insider-dealing involving leaks of price-sensitive information from the DTI and the Monopolies and Mergers Commission. Two stories written by Mr Warner indicated that he had a contact in these organisations. Mr Warner was successful in the High Court, but the House of Lords upheld the inspectors' appeal, ruling that the disclosure of his source was necessary for the prevention of crime. Mr Warner refused and was fined pounds 20,000 for contempt of court. The Independent paid the fine and legal costs.

In 1990 Bill Goodwin was threatened with five months' imprisonment when, as a 23-year-old graduate trainee, he refused to disclose a source for a business story in the Engineer magazine. The story was never published. At the end of protracted litigation which went as far as the House of Lords, he was fined pounds 5,000 for contempt of court. But at the European Court of Human Rights the Government was held to be in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights which guarantees press freedom.

Channel 4 and Box Productions were fined pounds 75,000 in 1992 for contempt of court when they refused to identify an informant who alleged widespread collusion between the RUC and loyalist assassination squads. Lord Justice Woolf urged both companies to reconsider but declined to make a sequestration order against the companies.

In all three cases the sources' names have never been disclosed.