The Blanket

The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent
Trial By Media
Following on from last issue's A Fair Trial by Bernadette McKevitt, we carry this report by BIRW
British Irish Rights Watch Report

1. INTRODUCTION

1.1 British Irish rights watch is an independent non-governmental organisation that monitors the human rights dimension of the conflict and the peace process in Northern Ireland. Our services are available to anyone whose human rights have been affected by the conflict, regardless of religious, political or community affiliations, and we take no position on the eventual constitutional outcome of the peace process.

1.2 This submission to the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion concerns the situation of Bernadette and Michael McKevitt, who have been the subjects of a campaign of vilification by the media in the Republic of Ireland and Britain.

2. BACKGROUND

2.1 Bernadette Sands McKevitt is the Vice-Chairperson of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, which advocates national sovereignty for the island of Ireland, which is made up of thirty two counties. The Committee adheres to Ireland's Declaration of Independence, as declared by Dáil Éireann on 21st January 1919. In April 1998, the Committee made a submission to the United Nations in New York making their case and claiming that the British government was in violation of the Irish people's right to self-determination. The Committee is opposed to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, to which both the Irish and the British governments are party, because they claim it to be a further violation of Irish national sovereignty.

2.2 Bernadette Sands McKevitt 's brother, Bobby Sands, died in prison on 5th May 1981. He was one of ten republican hunger strikers campaigning for special status for republican prisoners, and his act of self-sacrifice earned him the reverence of the republican movement. He was 27 years old at the time of his death, and was an elected member of the Westminster parliament.

2.3 Michael McKevitt has been widely reported as being a former member of the IRA, but he denies any such membership. He has never been charged with or convicted of any terrorist offence. Although he is sympathetic to their stance, he is not a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.

2.4 On Saturday 15th August 1998 a bomb exploded in the Northern Irish town of Omagh, killing 29 people and causing hundreds of injuries. It shocked and outraged the majority of Irish people. The bombing was claimed by a dissident republican group calling itself the Real IRA, which subsequently declared a ceasefire. Media reports have constantly linked the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to the Real IRA, but the Committee denies any such link. On 16th August, the Committee put out the following statement:

"We are deeply saddened and devastated by the terrible tragedy in Omagh Co[unty] Tyrone yesterday (15th August '98).

We share the grief and sorrow of everyone on the island of Ireland and we offer our sincere sympathy to the injured, the bereaved, their families and friends at this moment in time. The killing of innocent people cannot be justified in any circumstances.

We are a political movement and are not a military group. We reject categorically any suggestions that has been publicly made, that our movement was responsible in any way."

2.5 The reaction of both the Irish and the British governments to the Omagh bombing was draconian. Both governments introduced further anti-terrorism laws that infringed suspects' due process rights. Many people were arrested and questioned concerning the bombings. One man, Colm Murphy, has been charged with conspiring to cause the explosion and membership of an illegal organisation.

3. THE MEDIA CAMPAIGN OF VILIFICATION AND ITS CONSEQUENCES

3.1 Despite the 32 County Sovereignty Committee's unambiguous condemnation of the bombing and denial of any involvement in it, numerous newspapers have named Michael McKevitt as a perpetrator, an accusation that he strenuously denies. The police have cast their net very widely in their attempts to identify the bombers; they have interviewed 6,500 people and taken 2,700 statements. Michael McKevitt has never been questioned or arrested by the police in connection with this bombing (he was arrested on 26th May 2000, long after the bombing, and questioned about membership of an illegal organisation, but was released without charge). Nevertheless, the media have run a relentless campaign of vilification against both Bernadette and Michael McKevitt, accusing them of involvement in the bombing and putting their lives at risk in so doing. They have also published their photographs, and photographs of their children and their home, which has further endangered their lives. As a result of this campaign, Bernadette McKevitt has been excluded from her shop in the town centre of Dundalk, and has lost her livelihood. The couple have also received a large quantity of hate mail, including death threats.

3.2 The McKevitts have no effective legal remedy against this campaign. Legal aid is not available for libel actions in the Republic of Ireland, and the costs involved in a libel case are prohibitive. The media campaign has been so vehement that it is highly unlikely that the McKevitts could obtain a fair hearing were they to bring such a case, whether before a judge or a jury. Furthermore, the campaign has been so widespread that the McKevitts would be involved in litigation for years to come were they to prosecute every libel they have suffered. There is no Press Complaints Council in Ireland to which they can complain, and complaints to individual newspapers are more likely to result in further adverse coverage than in any retractions. Similar considerations arise in relation to bringing defamation proceedings in the United Kingdom. Although they do have a Press Complaints Council, Irish citizens are not familiar with its workings and most of the coverage that would form the basis for any complaint is already outside their time limit.

3.3 In Annex A to this submission, we include a cross-section of the coverage that has formed part of this campaign, as follows:

article by an un-named journalist, in the Sunday Mail, 16.8.1998, entitled "The evil godfather of hate… the hands of his men drip with the blood of the innocent", claiming that Michael McKevitt was the man behind the Real IRA. The article included a photograph with a caption claiming that it showed Michael McKevitt and Bernadette McKevitt walking behind the coffin of her brother Bobby Sands in 1981. In fact, the photograph shows another sister, Marcella, not Bernadette, and Michael McKevitt is not in the photograph either.

article by Greg Swift on the front page of the Express, 17.8.1998, under the headline “THIS IS THE MAN BEHIND THE BOMB MANIACS”, illustrated by a photograph of Michael McKevitt with his face obscured. The article says of Bernadette Sands McKevitt, “She is also known to police and shares his extreme views.”

article by John Donlon, The Star, 17.8.1988, carried a photograph of Michael McKevitt with his face blacked out. The article began, “The man suspected of ordering the Omagh bombing atrocity is an out-of-control republican fanatic who is prepared to kill again and again to end the Northern peace process, security experts said last night.”

article by an un-named journalist, in the Daily Telegraph, 18.8.1998, describing Michael McKevitt as "the man behind the real IRA". The article described the location of the McKevitts' home and displayed a photograph of it, together with a picture of them with their children, whose faces were obscured.

article by John Mullin in the Guardian, 18.8.1998, describing the McKevitts’ home and business and carrying photographs of both the McKevitts. This article did report the 32 County Sovereignty Committee's denial of involvement in the bombing, but also included two completely gratuitous references to Bernadette Sands McKevitt’s visits to Belfast to visit her 74-year-old mother, who is named, and to the murder in 1987 of Mary McGlinchey, wife of INLA leader Dominic McGlinchey, while bathing her children at home on a Dundalk housing estate. The inclusion of these two items provided information that might have been useful to people in Northern Ireland who were hostile to her, and also seemed to suggest that she might meet the same fate as Mary McGlinchey.

article by John Kay, deputy political editor Pascoe Watson, and Ted Oliver in the Sun, 18.8.1998, entitled "How would you like it if your kids had been blown to pieces, Mr McKevitt?", describing the 32 County Sovereignty Committee as "the political wing of the Real IRA". The article described the make and colour of Michael McKevitt's car and the name and address of Bernadette McKevitt's shop. It was illustrated by photographs of Michael McKevitt, the couple’s children, their home, and their children's toys in the back garden of the house.

article by Anna Smith and David Thompson in the Daily Record, 18.8.1998, describing Michael McKevitt as the leader of the Real IRA's political wing. The front page carried a picture of Michael McKevitt with the caption "MISSING: Republican hardliner Michael McKevitt has been linked to the bomb". In fact, Michael McKevitt was not “missing”; he had not left his home. In another article by Anna Smith and Ted Oliver, the same claims were repeated. The name and location of Bernadette McKevitt's shop were included, as were the colour and make of Michael McKevitt's car. The article was illustrated by photographs of the McKevitts’ home, Bernadette McKevitt, and the McKevitt family (three of their children's faces were obscured but two older children’s faces were shown).

article in the Daily Sport, 18.8.1998, described Michael McKevitt as a “republican fanatic”, naming him and Bernadette McKevitt as being under death threats from the IRA because of the Omagh bombing, and showed a photograph of the McKevitt family, in which the three youngest children’s faces are obscured but two older children’s faces are clearly shown.

article by Nicola Tallant, Neil Leslie, and Joe Gorrod in the Daily Mirror, 19.8.1998, describing the McKevitts as "renegade republican lovers" and the Real IRA as the "military wing" of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee. The article was accompanied by a photograph of the McKevitts and their children, whose faces were blacked out.

the Mirror of 20.8.1998 carried an article by Neil Leslie that gave Bernadette McKevitt’s reaction to the bombing and her rebuttal of some of the things that had been said about her and Michael McKevitt. However, on the same page it published an article by Don Mackay, which alleged that Michael McKevitt, who was described as “the man who set up the political wing of the IRA”, had sought refuge in Libya barely 48 hours before the Omagh bombing. Following a secret meeting in Amsterdam, it was alleged, Bernadette McKevitt had been invited to a speaking engagement in Tripoli. The source of this story was said to be the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad. The McKevitts say there is not a shred of truth in these allegations.

on the same day, 20.8.1998, the Irish Times also carried an article, by Christine Newman, reported in some detail a radio interview Bernadette McKevitt gave to RTE’s Liveline, thus covering Ms McKevitt’s point of view. However, on the same page, an article by Mark Brennock was devoted to what the paper called “the couple’s pariah status” in their home town of Dundalk. Although some moderate views by townspeople were quoted, including some sympathy for the McKevitts’ children, the article also quoted those who believed the McKevitts should be “run out of town” and that they should be forced to close their shop. While there can be no doubt that strong feelings were being expressed by some people against the McKevitts, publishing such comments at such a time was inflammatory.

on 21.8.1998, the Mirror published an article reporting local people’s calls for the McKevitts to leave Dundalk and reproducing a poster advertising a protest march. Next to the poster was a photograph of Bernadette McKevitt with the caption, “ACCUSED: Bernadette Sands.”

on 23.8.1998 on its comment page, Ireland on Sunday published an article by Liam Hayes aimed at Bernadette McKevitt. The article argued that she deserved no sympathy for her fears for her children’s safety because in a speech given on 24.5.1998 in response to the referendum in which Irish people strongly supported the peace agreement, she had predicted that the failure to secure a united Ireland would lead to more violence. Although the article reported that in the same speech she had made it clear that she personally would have no part in violence, the article clearly implied that she was responsible for the Omagh bombing and had brought her problems on herself.

article by newspaper editor Matt Cooper in the Sunday Tribune, 23.8.1998, saying, "Bernadette Sands and her partner Michael McKevitt must bear some of the moral responsibility for the Omagh bombing, regardless of their condemnation and denial of involvement… Those guilty of last week's murders have taken inspiration from her, if nothing else: she has been a rallying point for dissidents within the republican movement." The article is illustrated by photographs of Bernadette and Michael McKevitt. The article also reports, in a highly critical tone, on attempts by the McKevitts' lawyers to prevent newspapers from making further false and defamatory statements about them.

article by Liam Clarke, Maeve Sheehan, John McManus, and Chris Ryder in the Sunday Times' Focus series, 23.8.1998, claiming that Bernadette McKevitt was a member of the women's IRA and had been involved in firebombing in 1978. The article described the location of the McKevitts’ home and the make and year of Michael McKevitt's car. It also gave the name and address of Bernadette McKevitt's shop, and the name and address of a chip shop where their 22-year-old son works. The article did report Michael McKevitt's denial of any involvement in the Omagh bombing or terrorism, but it also alleged that he attended a meeting of the Real IRA in the aftermath of the bombing.

article by political editor Emily O'Reilly in the Sunday Business Post, 23.8.1998, entitled "Mickey McKevitt: life and times of a quartermaster", alleging that the Taoiseach (first minister) of Ireland, Bertie Ahern, had identified Michael McKevitt as the leader of a dissident republican paramilitary group in April 1998 at a press briefing. The article gives the name and address of Michael McKevitt's elderly mother and the name and address of Bernadette McKevitt's shop. It also gives details of security precautions Michael McKevitt has adopted at his home and the make of his car. Another article by the same journalist published on the same day did raise the question of the media's rush to judgement, and emphasised that there was no evidence of guilt against either of the McKevitts. There would appear to be an element of double standards being applied here.

article by Shane Coleman in the Sunday Tribune, 23.8.1998, dispelling the myth that Dundalk is a safe haven for terrorists. Although the article does not refer to the McKevitts, the only illustration to the article is a photograph of the McKevitts' shop, with the caption "The McKevitt's [sic] Print Junction shop in Dundalk".

article by Hugh Jordan in the Sunday World, 23.8.1998, attributing Michael McKevitt's alleged involvement in the Real IRA to the tragic deaths in a car accident of his first wife, their unborn child, his brother-in-law and his mother-in-law in 1971. The article is illustrated by photographs of Michael McKevitt, his first wife, current family (with his children’s faces blacked out but Bernadette McKevitt's face shown), and - in a gross act of intrusion - a replica of the notice Michael McKevitt posted in a newspaper upon the occasion of his first wife's death.

article by Richard Balls in the Sunday Times, 30.8.1998, claiming that the McKevitts visited the home of the Real IRA member who made the Omagh bomb for a meeting six weeks before the bombing.

article by Warren Hoge, London Bureau chief, in the New York Times, 14.9.1998, and reproduced in the Argus, Dundalk's local newspaper on 25.9.1998, claiming that the police had identified Michael McKevitt as the leader of the Real IRA, and giving the name and location of Bernadette McKevitt's shop and the couple's home. The article quotes a Mr Mulligan as saying that he heard people on a radio phone-in advocating that the McKevitts’ should be burnt out of their home and their children ostracised.

article by Phelim McAleer in the Sunday Times, 27.9.1998, alleging that Michael McKevitt was the leader of the Real IRA and was in talks with another dissident group, the Continuity IRA, who had not called a ceasefire.

article by Martin O'Hagan in the Sunday World, 16.5.1999, describing Michael McKevitt as "suspected of being the leader of the Real IRA" and suggesting that he may have invested in a casino alleged to have been purchased by a former IRA finance officer on the Caribbean island of St Vincent.

articles by Hugh Jordan in the Sunday World, 1.8.1999, claiming that Charles Bennett, allegedly murdered by the IRA on 29.7.1999 for having been an informer, was a nephew of Bobby Sands, and describing Michael McKevitt as being accused of being the leader of the Real IRA. Charles Bennett was not in fact Bobby Sands' nephew, but even after the McKevitts pointed this out to the media, no retraction was published.

article by Catherine Cleary in the Sunday Tribune, 8.8.1999, claiming that Charles Bennett was Bernadette McKevitt's nephew, and describing the 32 County Sovereignty Committee as "the political wing of the Real IRA". The article suggested that Bennett had been killed in order to convey a message to dissident republicans, because of the alleged, but in fact non-existent, relationship to Bernadette McKevitt.

article by Rosa Prince in the Irish Mirror, 9.9.1999 about the McKevitts' forthcoming marriage. The article calls the Real IRA the "military wing" of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee and is illustrated by a photograph of the McKevitt family, with the children's faces obscured. The article also reports the McKevitts' denials of any involvement in the Omagh bombing.

article by Hugh Jordan in the Sunday World, 23.4.2000, suggested that a TV journalist was going to broadcast the names of those responsible for the Omagh bombing. The article named eight men and one woman as having been involved, but stopped short of publishing their surnames, giving their first names only. One of those named was “Michael ******”.

article by Ken Foxe in The Mirror, 27.5.2000, relating to Michael McKevitt’s arrest on 26th May 2000. Although he was arrested for questioning about alleged membership of an illegal organisation, the article links the arrest to an explosives find by the police in Dublin. Under the headline “Real IRA Boss Arrested”, the article goes on to name Michael McKevitt as the “leader of the Real IRA” and describes him as “a founder member of the 32 County Movement”, despite the fact that he has never been a member of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.

an article by John Cassidy in the Sunday Mirror, 28.5.2000, under the headline “Gardai Quiz McKevitt After Explosives Find”. The piece describes Michael McKevitt as the “leader of the Real IRA” and says that he was a founding member of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee.

article by Maeve Sheehan in the Sunday Times, 28.5.2000, names Michael McKevitt as the founder of the Real IRA.

article by Maeve Sheehan in the Sunday Times, 4.6.2000, describes an alleged meeting of the Real IRA, a year after the Omagh bombing, to plan a further campaign of violence. The article claims that Michael McKevitt founded the Real IRA and that he presided over the meeting, which appointed him as chief-of-staff.

an article in the Sunday Mirror by Christine Hart, published on 6.8.2000 reported an extensive briefing by “senior security sources”, which suggested that the instigators of the Omagh bombing did not come form Dundalk but from Omagh itself. The article accused Michael McKevitt of having stolen explosives from IRA dumps in his alleged former capacity as an IRA quartermaster, and describes his present role as “suspected Real IRA chief of staff”.

article by Amelia Hill, The Observer, 8.10.2000, concerning a Panorama documentary in the Omagh bombing, claimed that after 15,000 people picketed their home, the McKevitts moved out and settled in the nearby village of Knockbridge. This is untrue.

3.4 Public reaction to the Omagh bombing was understandably one of grief and revulsion, and radio chat shows naturally reflected that. However, some broadcasters allowed their shows to be used to whip up hatred against the McKevitts, although they were careful not to actually name them. For example, Gerry Ryan of Radio 2FM’s Gerry Ryan Show, broadcast at 9:00 am on 17th August 1998, the Monday after the bombing, speaking to a caller identified only as Marie, himself introduced the possibility that the Real IRA should be killed by IRA members, who would know their identities. The following exchange then took place:

Marie: Would be, honestly, my husband and I have talked about it you know from Saturday and I honestly don’t know because the jails here, as I was saying to your researcher, the jails in Northern Ireland are like hotels so it really isn’t any punishment for them and if you go back to internment it just brings me back to 1971 when it was introduced and things just went from bad to worse and I think it would just put us back twenty, nearly thirty years.
Ryan: So that really leaves you one option, doesn’t it?
Marie: And what would that be, do you think?
Ryan: To send their former masters after them and despatch them.
Marie: Yes, well that’s what they said in the… I read that in the… one of the papers yesterday, that they’re dead meat anyway once they come out onto the street, they’re dead meat.
Ryan: Would that be an acceptable solution to it for you?
Marie: I wouldn’t mind, Gerry, to be quite honest because I think it’s what they deserve. I mean I even said to my husband yesterday, put them in front of a firing squad and for every person that’s died put that amount of bullets into them and deny them any medical attention, that’s how… I’m so bitter about the whole thing, Gerry. I just think it’s… I mean, nearly thirty years on, where do we go from here?”
Two subsequent callers took up the same theme. A woman called Rosaleen said:
“… I just want to say that the perpetrator of this atrocity, nothing is bad enough for them and I think that Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams, they know the names of these people and I think they owe it to the people of Omagh and Ireland to name them and let them be taken in a container to the Glen Of Imall and blown up the way their victims were, that’s the only punishment people like that deserve.”
She was followed by Joe, who said:
“… I would definitely think the best thing of the whole lot would be an electric chair or hanging or the firing squad as that last lady said, because anybody that has been found 100% guilty of doing something like that, they’re only going to be put in jail, let out again and if they don’t do something else again some of their friends will and it will be a good deterrent for anybody if they knew they were going to be hung or shot themselves if they were caught doing anything like that.”

3.5 At 11:00 am the next day, 18th August, on RTE Radio One’s Liveline, host Joe Duffy introduced the idea that people might march on the homes of those responsible for the bombing. People supporting this suggestion began to ring in, and Joe Duffy seemed to be encouraging them to get together and organise a vigil outside the McKevitts’ house. One caller, Shiela, proposed that people should gather the following night in the carpark at Blackrock, outside Dundalk, at 8:00 pm. Joe Duffy repeated these arrangements several times during the broadcast. In fact, a silent vigil did take place in Blackrock on 20th August, although the demonstrators did not march on the McKevitts’ home. The BBC’s internet news service, BBC News Online, described the event as follows:

“Hundreds of people in Ireland have held a silent vigil to protest against suspected bombers in their midst. The vigil took pace in Blackrock, the hometown of Michael McKevitt, who has been strongly linked in the media to the Real IRA, which planted the Omagh bomb.”

3.6 A Channel 4 News broadcast on 1.6.2000 by reporters Lindsey Taylor and Gary Gibbon covered an explosion of a bomb at Hammersmith Bridge in London. The report included a photograph of Michael McKevitt, and referred to him as the leader or the Real IRA.

3.7 An article by Eugene Masterson in Ireland on Sunday on 23.8.1998, analysed the 32 County Sovereignty Committee's stance on violence and contrasted some of Bernadette McKevitt’s comments in the past with those she made immediately after the Omagh bombing. An adjacent article by John Mooney examined Michael McKevitt’s turbulent past. Although much of both these articles contained what could be regarded by most people as “fair comment”, the underlying assumption, particularly when read in conjunction with other coverage elsewhere in the same edition of the paper, was that the McKevitts were at least morally if not actually responsible for Omagh. Perhaps unwittingly, the article by John Mooney summed up their situation with succinct accuracy:

“The media have declared open season on McKevitt and his partner, Bernadette Sands. His picture, coupled with intimate details of his life, including his relationship with Sands, are published daily.”

3.8 There have been very few newspaper articles that have sought to redress the balance. On 26.8.1998, the Irish News did cover the 32 County Sovereignty Committee's attempts to counter the media campaign against its members. A spokesman for the Committee, Joe Dillon, was quoted at some length. He had this to say about the McKevitts:

"Bernadette Sands McKevitt and her husband have been repeatedly named as being responsible [for the bombing]. They have been charged, tried and convicted by the media. Pictures of their children have been published.

There have been orchestrated attempts to incite hatred against them and there have been virtual calls for legal and illegal armed groups to take direct military action against named individuals to assassinate them.

It is virtually ignored that Bernadette Sands McKevitt and Michael have repeatedly denied any knowledge or involvement in the tragedy and that a Garda [police] inspector confirmed that there was no evidence of any involvement by anyone from the Dundalk area."

He went on to say:

"There is a clear effort to undermine the political views of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee by targeting our most prominent members."

Journalist Roy Greenslade, writing in the Sunday Tribune on 23.8.1998, also queried the naming of the alleged perpetrators of the Omagh bombing and suggested that it might encourage vigilantism. On 10.2.1999 the Irish News published an article repeating the 32 County Sovereignty Committee’s denial of responsibility for the Omagh bombing. These three articles, though, are the exception rather than the rule. They are reproduced at Annex B.

3.9 On 9th October 2000, BBC television transmitted a documentary in their respected Panorama series, called Who bombed Omagh? Journalist John Ware named four men suspected by the police of having been responsible for the bombing. Considerable controversy surrounded its transmission. Lawrence Rush, whose wife died in the bombing, attempted unsuccessfully to obtain an injunction to prevent the transmission, on the ground that it might prejudice the right of those named to a fair trial. He was supported in his application by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission. The programme did not name Michael or Bernadette McKevitt.

4. THE ROLE OF THE GOVERNMENT

4.1 The freedom of the press is an important element in a democratic society, and it would not normally be appropriate to hold a government responsible for what is published by the media. The exception, of course, is where what is published emanates from government briefings.

4.2 In April 1998, several months before the Omagh bombing - according to an article by the political editor of the Sunday Business Post, Emily O’Reilly, published on 23.8.1998, about a week after Omagh - the Irish Taoiseach (first minister), Bertie Ahern, held a private briefing for editors attached to the Independent Group of newspapers. The purpose of the briefing was to give the editors the government’s assessment of the Good Friday peace agreement. However, the Taoiseach himself introduced the topic of Michael McKevitt, whom he described as “the head of a splinter IRA organisation”, identified in the article as being the Real IRA. It is obvious from the article that the Taoiseach’s briefing was very detailed and circumstantial. A “government source” is quoted later in the article as attributing responsibility for the Omagh bombing to “McKevitt’s group”. In another article published on the same day by Sean Boyle in the Sunday World, the Taoiseach was again cited as the source for linking the 32 County Sovereignty Committee to the Real IRA. An article by Stephen Rae and Charlie Mallon in the Evening Herald on 21/8/1998 did the same.

4.3 On 16th August 1998, the day after Omagh was bombed, the Irish government held an emergency cabinet meeting to discuss its response. After the meeting, the Taoiseach spoke to journalists. The next day, the Irish News described some of his remarks as follows:

“Mr Ahern said that he had no doubt that the dissidents styling themselves the 32 County Sovereignty Committee of the Real IRA were behind the Omagh bomb. ‘I don’t have any real doubt in my mind that members of what they term themselves the 32 County Sovereignty, the Real IRA or whatever else they call themselves, I believe that this [the bombing] was that group.’ And speaking after a meeting with security chiefs in Dublin he said, ‘Whatever resources are necessary to crush this organisation will be given’…
And in a comment seemingly aimed at Bernadette Sands McKevitt, a sister of dead hunger striker Bobby Sands and a leading member of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee, Mr Ahern said: ‘I’m sure all republicans and all genuine, decent republicans who may have been involved in these things in the past will condemn this. I’m sure people like Bobby Sands would not stand over the horrific events of what happened in Omagh.’”

Of course, the 32 County Sovereignty Committee did put out a statement in such terms, but it was almost lost in the cacaphony engendered by the general rush to judgement.

4.4 The Taoiseach’s remarks were widely reported. For example, on the same day, 17th August 1998, The Star also published the Taoiseach’s comments on page 3. On the front page of the newspaper, under the banner headline “SLAUGHTER MASTER”, the paper published a photograph of Michael McKevitt, with his face blanked out, over the caption, “UNTOUCHABLE: The terrorist mastermind behind the Omagh massacre”. An accompanying article by Neil Chandler reported as if it were fact that Michael McKevitt was behind the bombing, and quoted a security source as calling him a “ruthless bastard”.

4.5 When journalists are given information by the head of government, they are likely to consider it as being well-founded. No doubt the Taoiseach was only repeating briefings that he himself had received from his security staff. However, as the chief minister in the government, he also has a duty to uphold the rule of law and to protect the right to life. By naming Michael McKevitt as leader of the real IRA to journalists, the Taoiseach abandoned one of the founding principles underlying the rule of law, i.e. the presumption of innocence until proven guilty beyond reasonable doubt. He also put Michael McKevitt’s life at risk.

4.6 The recent transmission of the Panorama documentary about the Omagh bombing seemed to have changed the Taoiseach’s stance. According to the Irish Times of 10.10.2000:

“The Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, expressed his strong disapproval last night of the BBC's decision to name four men suspected of carrying out the Omagh bombing in 1998 in a TV documentary.

‘Bandying around names on TV programmes won’t help to convict them,’ Mr Ahern said shortly after the High Court in Belfast dismissed a legal challenge by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which had wanted the Panorama programme shelved because it felt the documentary would prejudice chances of future convictions.”

4.7 However, in a speech given at Bodenstown on 15.10.2000 the Taoiseach had this to say:

“Wolf Tone disassociated himself from atrocities committed on both sides during the 1798 Rebellion. We here in the same spirit repudiate the right of the organisation and members associated with Omagh bombing to cal themselves ‘real’ republicans. They clearly have not the slightest conception of the meaning of words. Otherwise, they would not dare to defy the will of the sovereign Irish people. They will find nothing in the writings or the legacy of Bobby Sands that would justify the barbarity of the Omagh atrocity. The handing of a dossier into some branch of the United Nations by an organisation that has no political standing, and that has no mandate from the Irish people today and therefore tries to pretend it has one from 80 years back, is itself unreal. Since the referendums of 1998, the allegation that the Good Friday Agreement is a denial of the right of self-determination has no political validity, no support in international law, and would not be accepted, still less enforced, by any international court or assembly. Such people will have to accept they have no defence whatever for engaging in illegal armed activity, in breach of their unconditional ceasefire and their solemn word.”

5. THE DAILY MAIL’S CAMPAIGN

5.1 The inquest on those who died in the Omagh bombing was held in September, rekindling private grief and public outrage. The transmission of the Panorama programme Who bombed Omagh? reflected widespread frustration at the failure to bring the bombers to book, but also fuelled that frustration. On 28.10.2000, the Daily Mail launched an appeal to raise money for what it described as “a fighting fund to help the families of Omagh hit back at the terrorists who murdered their children”. The paper carried, and has continued to carry since, harrowing stories about children killed in the bombing. Copies of the coverage are included in Annex C. The newspaper is appealing to members of the public to donate money to cover the potential legal costs of some of the families who want to bring a civil action for compensation against “those claimed to be Real IRA bombers”. Inevitably, they include the four men named by Panorama, but chief reporter David Williams, also claimed:

“Michael McKevitt, said to have formed the splinter group [the Real IRA} three years ago, and his wife Bernadette Sands, are likely to be among those named in the families’ action.”

The article was accompanied by prominent photographs of them both.

5.2 At the time of writing, no legal action has been commenced, and there is considerable doubt about whether the newspaper’s exploit is legal, because it offends against the doctrine of “maintenance”. Traditionally, the courts have frowned on anyone who puts up money in order to provoke litigation. However, were such an action to go ahead, it would put the respondents at severe disadvantage. They would incur considerable legal costs in defending the action, and if they lost the case - which would be decided on the civil standard of the balance of probabilities rather than the criminal standard of proof beyond reasonable doubt - then ruinous damages could be awarded against them. The Daily Mail claims that such a civil action would not prejudice the right of any of the respondents to a fair trial because any criminal trial would take pace in a no-jury Diplock court, but in our view the coverage relating to Michael and Berndatte McKevitt has been so sustained and prejudicial that they could not receive a fair trial in any type of court, were either of them to be charged.

5.3 The Daily Mail repeated its prediction that the McKevitts would be made respondents to a civil claim in their editions of 30th and 31st October. On 31.10.2000 they reported:

Peter Mandelson pledged support for the Daily Mail-backed campaign to bring the Omagh bombers to justice yesterday.

In the town devastated by the Real IRA, the Northern Ireland Secretary said he could not criticise the civil action which is to be taken against the suspected bombers by four families who lost children.

‘When people act against people they suspect, using the law to do so, that is what separates us out as democrats from those who undertook this atrocity in the first place,’ he said.

‘I understand the frustration these families have and they have my profound sympathy. Anything that brings pressure on the bombers and invites people to make available the vital evidence and the vital information that we need to put a prosecution in place, I can’t criticise.”

5.4 British Irish Rights Watch also understands the grief and frustration of the victims of the Omagh bombing, and if they have grounds then of course they are entitled to use any legal means at their disposal in their attempt to find justice. Our concern is that, while such fighting funds may seem justified in such tragic cases, they in fact totally destroy the principle of equality before the law. It is one thing to set up such a fund after the criminal process has failed and once alleged perpetrators are beyond the reach of the criminal law, as happened in the case of the murdered teenager Stephen Lawrence, but to do so in advance of any criminal proceedings, especially when accompanied by so much emotive and prejudicial coverage, negates the presumption of innocence and eliminates the right to a fair trial. Once the media set themselves up as judge and jury, and when politicians exhort and encourage them, then fundamental tenets of fairness that lie at the heart of democratic society go by the board.

6. CONCLUSION

6.1 British Irish rights watch does not condone violence, nor are we in a position to know the truth about the Omagh bombing. However, as a human rights group we support the principles that all persons are equal under the law and that everyone is innocent until proven guilty. We also support the freedom of the press, but it must also be recognised that the media have considerable power and are therefore under a duty to act responsibly and not to abuse their power.

6.2 Guilt by association is an invidious device. In the case of Bernadette and Michael McKevitt, the media have created a situation where almost no-one in Ireland is prepared to countenance the possibility that they may be innocent, notwithstanding the fact that neither of them has even been questioned by the police in connection with the Omagh bombing. They have been utterly demonised. As a result, there can be no doubt that their lives are at risk. Of even greater concern is the way that their children have been included in this campaign of vilification. Yet they have no effective legal remedy at their disposal.

6.3 Even on their own terms, such media campaigns are self-defeating. If the media repeatedly accuse people of crimes without producing any evidence against them, they create such certainty of their guilt in the minds of the public that, if those persons are ever actually charged and tried, they have no hope of obtaining a fair trial. When such trials collapse, the victims of the crime are left without redress. Equally, defendants may be acquitted, but they have lost their good name.

6.4 The political views of the 32 County Sovereignty Committee may not be shared by everyone in Ireland, but they are legitimate opinions that its members are perfectly entitled to hold. It is a vital element of any democracy that those who oppose the majority view should be free to express their opposition without harassment. The media have a crucial role to play in ensuring that freedom of opinion and expression are upheld. Once the media's own opinions and prejudices start to colour their reporting, rather than being reserved for the editorial pages, they start to abuse their power.

6.5 We respectfully request the Special Rapporteur to look into this case and to make recommendations to the National Union of Journalists, the Newspaper Publishers Association, and other relevant bodies for the prevention of campaigns of vilification, demonisation, and witch hunts.

NOVEMBER 2000

 

 

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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

 

Stalinville
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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