The recent arrest of investigative journalists in Northern Ireland shows what is really meant by the “free press” under capitalism.
Considerable anger has been expressed over the disgraceful arrest in Belfast by Durham and Northern Irish Police (PSNI) of two investigative journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.
The arrest was made in connection with their documentary “No Stone Unturned”, which dealt with the brutal murder of six people at The Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co. Down, in 1994.
The documentary not only examined the involvement of Loyalist paramilitaries – such as the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) – in the massacre, but it also raised serious questions about the way the police investigation was carried out.
The documentary noted that the Police Ombudsman had stated as recently as 2016 that there had been clear collusion between the police and the UVF group, with a view to protecting certain people.
Rather than now properly investigating the concerns raised by the documentary, the police have just gone and arrested the journalists instead. The authorities are alleging that the two men were in some way involved in a robbery from the offices of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
After being arrested in Belfast early on 31 August, they were held at Musgrave police station for several hours before being released that night on bail. Barry McCaffrey told reporters outside the station: “It’s an attack on the press, everybody should realise. It’s us today; tomorrow it could be you.”
Séamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, has been quoted as saying:
“These arrests have caused grave concern. The manner of the arrests and the priority given to investigating leaks rather than the fundamental issues raised by the documentary has outraged not just media workers but many people in the UK, Ireland and across the world.”
A rally was also held last Friday in Loughinisland itself, with support being expressed by various media figures, including actor Stephen Rea.
Although McCaffrey and Birney are both free for now, their offices have been searched and computers seized. No doubt the police want to find out who were the reporters’ sources.
This clearly represents yet another attack on journalists by the state and vested interests. They are using this case to send a message to other investigative reporters: attack us and we will come for you!
Around the world, journalists continue to be targeted.
In Myanmar, two reporters have just been jailed for seven years under the Official Secrets Act (drawn up in 1923 by the British imperialists) for reporting on the massacre in September 2017 of Rohingyan men and women.
In Bangladesh, photojournalist Shahidul Alam has been arrested by the state for reporting on student protests. His home was smashed up and he was dragged away by police thugs.
Many other journalists have been targeted in the region over the same period in a clear attempt at intimidation.
Even in America, where freedom of the press is supposed to be enshrined in the constitution, journalists have been targeted and even attacked by Trump supporters, whipped up by the President’s constant rantings about “fake news” regarding the reporting of the endless scandals now surrounding Trump and his cronies.
Establishment media untouched
As the political and economic crises develops around the world, in country after country, the establishment are looking for people to blame. Where the press is doing its job for big business and the forces of reaction – such as with the consistently biased reporting relating to anything said or done by Jeremy Corbyn, for example – then they remain untouched.
Indeed the right-wing press and broadcast organisations such as the BBC (who have been pandering to the right for some time now, promoting and importing Tory types into senior positions) have expressed little concern over the arrest of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.
The establishment media were far more worried about the Cliff Richard court ruling earlier this year, as it threatened to impinge on the muckraking that the proprietors demand be a staple diet of their publications – when they are not attacking Labour and the trade unions that is.
It is worth noting that both Birney and McCaffrey have won awards for their reporting, but have had to operate outside of the mainstream media in order to carry out their investigations.
A free press for whom?
This reminds us that a free press is only free for someone who owns it. Indeed, the issue of ownership of the press is never far from the surface in a situation where a handful of billionaires control the media, both in Britain and worldwide.
What passes for investigative journalism in Fleet Street (with some honourable exceptions) is often nothing more than pandering to the whims and prejudices of the proprietors and their tame editors, or a crude attempt at boosting sales revenues. No police raids for them, it seems.
Where journalists are doing serious work reporting on the rotten system we live under, however, then they are seen as easy targets. The establishment do not want a light shined on what they are getting up to.
The increasing number of journalists who are killed or maimed each year just for doing their job shows that this problem is not going away – far from it.
The NUJ has organised a petition and will be protesting outside the High Court in Belfast on Friday 7 September.