IRISH TIMES 18 FEB 1982
Text of talk given in the Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London. 5 February 1983 by Donal Kennedy
On Saturday 9 May 1983 Michael Leapman, New York correspondent of THE TIMES of London, reported on the resignation from The Daily News of New York, of their reporter Michael Daly. The Daily Mail of London had on Friday 8 May carried a two-page article attacking as untrue a report from Belfast by Daly.
On Fri 8 May 1983, THE TIMES carried a report from its Belfast correspondent, Christopher Thomas, on the funeral of Bobby Sands, a hunger-striking republican prisoner elected to Parliament for Fermanagh/South Tyrone one month previously. The first sentence of the report said that Protestants lamented their 2,000 dead from twelve years of terrorism, and the fourth sentence referred to the 2,000 (fatal) victims of Sands’s collaborators.
Not having seen the Daily Mail, I immediately wrote to the editor of THE TIMES, Harold Evans, demanding a retraction of their Belfast correspondent’s untrue assertion, with its implication that only Protestants had suffered and only republicans had inflicted fatal casualties since 1969. I also telephoned the weekly IRISH POST in London, whose editor, Breanan MacLua, mailed me a copy of a letter from Father Raymond Murray of Armagh, dated 1 May 1981, giving a detailed breakdown of casualties during the past twelve years. On Friday 15 May, having received no reply from THE TIMES, I wrote to the Press Council in London complaining of the paper’s mendacity.
On Tuesday 12 May 1981 Christopher Thomas’s despatch from Belfast was headlined “Ulster Bitterness At Conduct Of Media: in THE TIMES. It reported that Northern Ireland Ofifice officials were monitoring the media to challenge and refute untrue stories emanating from Ireland.
On Tuesday 12 May a letter from the editor’s office of THE TIMES was sent to me advising me that their Northern Ireland correspondent had checked his figure and confirmed it from many sources. With your forbearance I’ll suggest what these sources include.
In late April 1981 an Ulster Unionist MP, James Kilfedder, broadcast a story of 2,000 Protestants murdered by the IRA, over London’s LBC Radio. On 30 April 1981 the Morning Star of London quoted Michael Canavan of the SDLP saying that a Unionist claim that the IRA was responsible for 2,000 deaths had not only gone unchallenged in the House of Commons but had been supported by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Father Murray’s letter had said that Mrs Thatcher and Labour’s ex-Secretary for Northern Ireland Merlyn Rees had supported the untruth. Not only were many sources of the untruth available to Christopher Thomas, then a veteran of nearly two years in Belfast, but detailed and substantiated refutations from the Nationalist community were there for the checking.
THE TIMES letter to me was not delivered until Saturday 16 May. Not having and instinct for the jugular vein, I telephoned the editor’s office, saying “Look here, I have in my hand a detailed letter from Father Murray, and when the IRISH POST publishes it you will look silly if you persist with this nonsense. Check the Fleet Street offices of the Dublin papers if you don’t believe me.” The senior TIMES man said he believed Father Murray’s figures seemed substantially right, and he promised he’d ring me back. While awaiting the return call I read an article in that day’s TIMES celebrating the 80th birthday of Sir William Haley, its ex-editor. In his day not only errors of fact, but of grammar, punctuation and spelling were followed within 24 hours by an editorial apology and correction, or so the paper claimed. Sir William is some twenty months older now (Feb 1983) but I still haven’t had that phone call. O Tempora, O Mores!
As no retraction of the story appeared I pursued my complaint with the Press Council. First it reprimanded me for letting the IRISH POST know what I was doing. Then it questioned Father Murray’s credentials and refused to contact other papers in Britain or Ireland to establish the veracity or otherwise of THE TIMES’s story. It wanted “official” figures. But as it was clear from the dossier I supplied them that Prime Minister Thatcher and her ex-Northern Ireland Secretary Merlyn Rees were party to the assertion under complaint, I had to explain that these were unreliable. I wrote to the three daily papers in Dublin and to the Irish News in Belfast, explaining my case and requesting both their breakdown of casualties and their records of the Commons in the last days of April 1981, in order that I might know exactly what Thatcher and Rees had said in support of the Unionist fabrication. I got neither answer nor acknowledgement.
After much correspondence with the Press Council it at last deigned to paraphrase my complaint. My expression “fraudulent assertion” was ruled out of order, as fraud is a criminal matter. Yet Christopher Thomas had described the hunger strikers’ claims as “fraudulent”. More seriously, the Council sought to limit my complain to the claim of 2,000 Protestant deaths. I wrote back that a finding in my favour on those grounds would be as bent and corrupt as THE TIMES’s story, and would imply that the IRA had killed 2,000 persons, not all of them Protestants. The Council framed the mildest. Form of complaint consistent with my objections which, in sheer fatigue, I accepted.
Although the Press Council had advised Times editor Harold Evans of the complaint against his paper on 18 My it was not until 15 September 1981 that it formally presented it to him. On 25 September, TIMES managing editor, John Grant, replied to the Council that the article of 8 May had indeed been incorrect, and that by publishing letter on 23 June from a Mrs McKenna from Belfast, the TIMES had adequately corrected it.
On 25 September whilst Mr Grant was presenting this excuse, THE TIMES, in a piece on Tony Benn, who was standing for the deputy leadership of the Labour Party, falsely claimed he owned a farm in Essex and had money in a tax haven in Bermuda. The very next day, 26 September, THE TIMES prominently displayed Benn’s refutation of the story in its Letters Columns, and immediately underneath published an editorial retraction and an apology. Moreover, Mr Benn’s letter referred to another untrue story about him, published 2 August 1977, followed on 3 August 1977 by his letter refuting it, and an editorial retraction and an apology all prominently displayed in THE TIMES.
I pointed out to the Press Council the discrepancy between Mr John Grant’s excuse and the procedure twice followed with Mr Benn and awaited the Council’s deliberations.
On 21 November 1981 whilst still awaiting these deliberations, I read Christopher Thomas’s latest despatch from Belfast. He said the pattern of who had killed whom was complex, and no official figures were available. (Despite police and intelligence gathering and Northern Ireland civil servants monitoring lying press reports!)
Thomas claimed he’d researched among community leaders. He arrived at figures identical with those on Father Murray’s typewritten letter of 1 May to the IRISH POST, a copy of which I had passed to the Press Council. When the IRISH POST published Father Murray’s letter o n 16 May 1981 it had a minor error in transcription so that the figures didn’t add up. Christopher Thomas seems to have received his new figures from the dossier I’d prepared in support of my complaint.
In early February 1982 the Press Council judged THE TIMES guilty of “a most serious error of fact on a highly sensitive matter which should have been corrected by the newspaper at once and in a more forthright manner.” (Actually THE TIMES has never corrected its story in any manner.)
An embargo on publication was set until Thursday 18 February. So I busied myself visiting or contacting Private Eye, London’s Capital Radio, the Communist Morning Star, and the Catholic Diocesan Press Office in Dublin, and the London editor of the Washington Post. Two Dublin papers got the story from the Catholic Diocesan Press Office, THE TIMES carried the Press Council verdict briefly but not its context.
A young English journalist, Anthony Hayward, interviewed me and prepared a piece for publication in The New Statesman, to coincide with the ending of the embargo. But the new Statesman was doing a special piece for the centenary of the birth of James Joyce and spiked his article.
The IRISH POST in London covered the story in full. That day radio and TV were full of the Press Council. A photograph of a pregnant Princess Diana in a bikini had appeared in two of the tabloids. The photos were neither indecent nor unflattering, but the Press Council was appealed to and rebuked both papers within two weeks.
On the evening of the 18 February 1982 I turned on the TV and witnessed the presentation of the Granada TV award for the Editor of the Year. It went to Harold Evans of THE TIMES.