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Unique threats and challenges to Northern Irish media, debate hears

Posted on: December 2, 2020 by Ian Murray

A debate into the future of journalism in Northern Ireland heard of the threats to journalists working in the province as part of the Society of Editors 2020 Virtual Conference.

The debate – Northern Ireland: A Place Apart – heard from a panel of media experts on how the province tackles unique threats and challenges for its media.

The panel heard how it was normal for journalists to have to undergo extreme security measures at their homes to protect them from the threats from paramilitary groups and criminals.

Hosted by Martin Breen, deputy editor in chief of Belfast Telegraph and Sunday Life, the panel were: Noel Doran, Editor of the Irish News; Sam McBride, Political Editor of the News Letter; Mike Nesbitt, Ulster Unionist MLA; Fergal McGoldrick, specialist media litigation solicitor at Carson McDowell and Allison Morris, security correspondent and columnist for the Irish News. 

Martin Breen introduced the panel: “The debate will discuss efforts to implement overdue and meaningful libel reform in Northern Ireland alongside paramilitary threats to journalists, media plurality and privacy injunctions. 

“The scheduling of the debate comes as Belfast’s Sunday Life has seen a convicted money launderer launch a publicly-funded legal bid against the newspaper in an effort to win lifetime anonymity.

“We will explore how the current libel laws in Northern Ireland have a chilling effect on media plurality and freedom of the press in a nation where the setup of governance often means the role of political scrutiny often falls to the media.”

Allison Morris told the debate that her role comes with a recognised degree of threat:

“We have had, and we still have, organised crime … the same people who were involved in paramilitary activity are involved in this.

“I have had numerous paramilitary threats – at the very start of lockdown I had police at the door saying I was under threat – from the IRA – the Real IRA – they said they were going to attack me at my home. The problem though is not just a paramilitary one, it is also a policing one. People may not understand how these threats come – phone calls, intelligence from an informant – overheard a plot of attack on a journalist – they know who is threatening me but that person is never arrested.

“My editor Noel had to put security measures at my homes – those are not unusual they become part of your life – you become desensitised from them – last year there was a lot of disturbance in England – we have had that here for years – I have been threatened with not just violence but also to have my throat cut – stabbing – the police said I should leave rather than arrest the person.

“None of these persons are every prosecuted.”

“The issue is that no one asks how many people have been arrested and prosecuted over threats of this kind in Northern Ireland.”

Former Ulster Unionist leader and MLA Mike Nesbitt also said there was an “open and shut case” for a major overhaul of the north’s existing libel laws as they were so dated.

Mr Nesbitt has brought a private members bill on the issue but said the DUP were “consistently hostile to it”.

However, he revealed there had been significant development in recent days, with support from Finance Minister Conor Murphy.

“It’s sitting with the bills office and everything has been slowed down due to Covid,” he said.

“Mr Murphy contacted me by email last night to say that work has recommenced on it. He told me that although insufficient time remains…to amend the existing legislation here, the work now being undertaken in his department provides a ‘sound evidence base for legislative change under the next mandate'”.

The full debate can be re-watched here.

The debate was able to take place thanks to the sponsorship of Facebook Journalism Project and Camelot.

Camelot has sponsored the Society of Editors since 2001 and a short video from their CEO Nigel Railton played at the beginning of the session. If you would like to discuss anything with Camelot – story ideas, ways to improve working together or anything else – please let the SoE know and we’ll put you in touch with them.

Details of how to catch up on the panel discussions alongside how to book for the final keynote discussion with the Independent’s Christian Broughton can be found here.