Contempt claim over RUC collusion story

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The Independent Online
Solicitors acting for Ben Hamilton, the television researcher facing a perjury charge arising from the Channel 4 Dispatches programme on alleged security force collusion with loyalist terrorists, yesterday asked the Attorney General to institute contempt proceedings against two Sunday newspapers which carried reports about the case at the weekend.

A year ago a special Dispatches programme claimed that a secret committee involving leading Protestant figures and senior RUC officers was the guiding hand behind loyalist assassinations of Catholics and republicans.

Twelve months on, the controversy surrounding the programme shows no sign of abating and it has developed into a case which raises fundamental issues of police behaviour and media freedoms.

If even a small proportion of the allegations levelled against the programme are ever substantiated, it could go down in history as one of the worst television programmes ever shown in Britain.

Box Productions, which made the programme, stands accused not just of getting the story wrong, but of complete naivety, misrepresenting interviewees, and even of fiddling expenses.

The latest shot in the campaign against the programme-makers is to suggest they resorted to fabrication. A man who appeared as a former loyalist terrorist was, it is said, actually a Catholic who has admitted he was paid to deliver a prepared statement.

These and most of the other allegations have come from two newspapers, the Sunday Times and Sunday Express, which have on several occasions printed lengthy articles attacking the programme's conclusions, as well as the methods and indeed the characters of its journalists.

Insofar as there can be said to be a consensus about anything in Northern Ireland, the feeling is widespread among public figures and journalists that Dispatches got it wrong. The common view is that, although collusion between members of the security forces and extreme loyalists has been shown to exist, credible evidence has not been found for the highly structured and formalised procedures which Dispatches depicted.

Some of its sources are widely known and have reputations for unreliability. At the same time, the widespread assumption has been that the programme was made in good faith and represents an honest error of judgement caused by lack of local knowledge.

The allegations it made against the RUC were particularly grave and it is natural that any police force should seek to defend itself against them. The RUC has a continuing acceptability problem among nationalists and it has a duty to answer its critics.

But what is striking is the range of weapons the RUC has used against the programme-makers. The force issued statements and took newspaper advertisements to give its point of view. But it also pursued other avenues of attack, one of which has been the press.

The Sunday Times and Sunday Express regularly quote police sources in their attacks on Dispatches and much of the material used gives the appearance of coming from RUC files. Some of this material had actually been passed on to the RUC on a confidential basis by Box Productions.

This led Channel 4 to complain: 'It is scandalous that such sensitive material, handed to the police in strict confidence, should now be in the hands of a newspaper. It makes nonsense of the RUC's claim that Channel 4 should trust it with the name of a source who is afraid for his life.'

The RUC has also used legal avenues. Channel 4 was taken to the High Court in July and was fined pounds 75,000 after being found guilty of contempt of court for refusing to tell the RUC the identity of the programme's main source.

One problem in logic for the RUC, however, is the fact that it had already unequivocally declared that the alleged committee was an invention. The RUC has thus been using the courts to establish the identity of a source whom it has already said it does not believe. Finding the source would therefore seem to be of little or no use to the RUC in its role of fighting terrorism.

In fining Channel 4, Lord Justice Woolf said he intended it to be an overall punishment for all concerned, adding: 'Further proceedings against individuals should not be necessary.' Yet the perjury charge has since been brought against Mr Hamilton.

Defending the RUC's reputation is understandable. The question is whether it is proper to use the courts and whether it is proper for those proceedings to be accompanied by weekly newspaper attacks on those concerned. It seems certain that in future there will be fewer journalists willing to become involved in investigative reporting in Northern Ireland.