Opinion piece on the Ed Moloney case

24 August 1999

WHEN journalist Ed Moloney enters Antrim Crown Court this morning he won't be going into the press box. He will be facing a judge in a battle that could lead him to jail. His crime? Refusing to comply with an order which demands that he break that most sacred of journalistic oaths: thou shalt not compromise your sources. Moloney, northern editor of the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune, has been ordered to hand over to the police notes he made of an interview almost ten years ago with a loyalist paramilitary, an RUC informant who tipped police off about a murder which he is now charged with committing. "I will not do so for three excellent reasons," says Moloney. "First, I would be stepping across the line from doing my job as a newspaper reporter to acting on behalf of the police. That would be unprofessional, a breach of ethics. "Point two: a simple, personal one. I would lose my livelihood. Who would trust me in the future? I wouldn't be able to do my job any longer. "And third, I'd be putting my life in danger. There's always a risk covering this sort of story anyway. If I help the police, that risk would become intolerable."

As so often in the clandestine world of the northern Irish conflict, the details are complicated. But the principle could not be more stark. A reporter in the most delicate and dangerous of situations is being pressured to provide the RUC with evidence. With support mounting for Moloney from journalists and civil rights activists in Britain, Ireland and the USA, his case has every sign of becoming a cause celebre unless the police back down. To understand Moloney's problem, we have to go back to February 12, 1989 when two hooded gunmen burst into the home of Belfast lawyer Pat Finucane and shot him dead. The murder outraged the nationalist community and rumours soon circulated, without any hard evidence, that the RUC had colluded in the killing. About 18 months later, in September 1990, Moloney was approached by another reporter, Neil Mulholland, who was then working for Sunday Life. He had a good story, he said, but his editor wouldn't publish it. A man named Billy Stobie, a quarter-master with the UDA in north Belfast, had contacted the paper in the spring and claimed that he had twice told his RUC handlers that Finucane was about to be assassinated. But the police had done nothing to prevent it happening. According to Moloney, Stobie had agreed with Mulholland that nothing was to be written unless "something bad happened to him." When Moloney met Stobie they made a similar deal. "I said I would never publish a word of his story without his permission," he says. Stobie's concern was obvious. He faced death at the hands of the UDA if it was revealed that he had been an RUC Special Branch informer. He might even face reprisals from the RUC if he gave away his part in its under-cover activities. Mulholland also remained nervous about what Stobie had told him. After taking advice from his immediate Sunday Life boss, he met a senior RUC inspector. Though he didn't mention Stobie by name he inadvertently gave away enough information for the RUC man to realise who he was talking about.

Soon afterwards Stobie was arrested, not for any involvement in Finucane's death, but for possession of firearms, which he claimed was trumped-up charge. After an odd sequence of events - a mistrial, a cancelled hearing and with Stobie threatening to speak in court about the RUC's alleged part in Finucane's murder - the charge was dropped in January 1991. In the following years, there has been growing concern over the mystery surrounding Finucane's death with allegations of collusion from several quarters, including a United Nations official and a group of New York lawyers. Most significant of all was a British-Irish Rights Watch report delivered in February, on the tenth anniversary of Finucane's death, to the British and Irish governments. Citing sensitive security documents, it claimed there was enough evidence to warrant a public inquiry. That was headed off two months later when RUC chief constable Ronnie Flanagan called in Scotland Yard deputy commissioner John Stevens to reinvestigate the murder. It didn't take Stevens long to discover the claims made in 1990 by Mulholland who had since left his reporting job to become a press officer at the Northern Ireland Office, often escorting Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. Mulholland was interviewed again, at length and on the record, providing a 28-page statement detailing his conversations with Stobie. On June 23, Stobie was arrested and charged with murdering Finucane. "Something bad" had happened and he finally decided to free Moloney from his bond. Four days later, drawing on notes made nine years before during several lengthy interviews, Moloney told Stobie's sensational story across the front page and on two inside pages of the Sunday Tribune. It would have been an explosive story at any time. But it was even more significant because it occurred as the clamour for a public inquiry was reaching its crescendo and while the commission of inquiry into the future of the RUC, headed by Chris Patten, was still taking evidence. The implications, and possible ramifications, of Moloney's story were therefore very serious. Stevens moved quickly. Within days, members of his team called at Moloney's Belfast home to ask for all his material connected to the case. When he refused he was served with a court order under the Prevention of Terrorism Act. If he fails to convince a judge today that he should not obey the order he will have seven days more to think about it before he is sentenced. But his mind is made up already. "There is no way I can hand this material over," he says. "I don't want to go to jail because I'm not in the best of health, and jail wouldn't improve it. But I have no alternative." He may be the first journalist to appear before a no-jury court, and faces an unlimited fine and anything between six months and five years in prison. Moloney, 50, is an experienced reporter, having worked in Northern Ireland since 1979. He was formerly northern editor of the Irish Times, contributes to a number of American papers and is a regular broadcaster on radio and TV. He has also written for The Guardian in the past. He is most emphatically not partisan, having written critically about both sides in the conflict. "I can't believe the police are doing this. There have been occasions when the RUC asked me for information. I've always turned them down and the RUC have had common sense not to push it. This is obviously a different agenda."

Sunday Tribune editor Matt Cooper said Moloney has his newspaper's full support. He says: "We're appalled that the RUC should take such action. Even in normal circumstances it would be wrong. In the special circumstances of the north, it is an exceptionally dangerous step. "Ed is an excellent journalist, scrupulously fair and straight down the line. By keeping his word to Stobie over the years he has proved his integrity." Moloney's stance is also backed by the National Union of Journalists. General Secretary John Foster says: "The right of journalists not to disclose their sources had been established in the European Court of Human Rights." Paul Mageean, legal officer of the Belfast-based Committee for the Administration of Justice says: "We believe that the State, in the form of the RUC or Army, has all the information in relation to the Finucane case. It ill behoves them to seek this kind of information from a journalist." A number of US-based human rights organisations have criticised the legal pursuit of Moloney. "Going after a journalist who has information the government already has appears to be diversionary tactics", says Julia Hall of Human Rights Watch. "It is critical that Mr Moloney and people like him have the latitude to get at the truth", says Mike Posner of the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. Nine leading U.S. journalists, including Pete Hamill of the New Yorker, Jo Thomas of the New York Times and Peter Finn of the Washington Post have also registered their concern. In a joint statement, they argue: "The distinction between news reporting and police evidence gathering is central to the work that all journalists do. This crude attempt to undermine that separation is a grave threat to the independence of reporting."