I am now even more proud of being a columnist for this honourable newspaper, which revealed last week how and why it had successfully defended itself against an unjustified libel case.
Published: 22 March 2022
“We were determined to fight this case,” wrote editor Ben Lowry, “all the more so given that our reporter Adam Kula was named personally in the writ and the chilling effect that such a move could have on journalism.” (see link below)
It was a tremendously brave decision.
The press in the UK and the Republic of Ireland have never been in such a perilous position.
The libel laws in both parts of Ireland are appallingly restrictive and there seems to be a never-ending supply of people — many but by no means all of them Sinn Féin supporters or fellow-travellers — who can afford to take, or at least threaten to take, cases against newspapers and journalists that could bring them to their knees.
Part of the reason for this vulnerability is that competition from the likes of social media and online outlets have massively reduced the profitability of newspapers.
There are no longer many rich men with a passion for the press and for free speech.
Tony O’Reilly, the proprietor of the Sunday Independent, took a deeply principled line against all paramilitaries and resisted Sinn Féin pressure to silence columnists like Eoghan Harris and me because we question the motivation of the IRA/Sinn Féin when it came to the peace process.
He paid out a fortune in libel damages over the years which contributed to financial problems that ultimately forced him to sell his Independent newspaper empire.
After almost 30 years as a journalist, I can confirm that our freedom to tell the truth has been steadily restricted by lawfare: the remorse weaponising of the law.
These days, editors mostly receive heavy warnings from their managements to take no libel risks.
And standard practice on receiving a threatening letter is to follow legal advice to offer a few thousand quid to get a plaintiff to go away. Which of course encourages others to have a go.
Sinn Féin members seems to have no difficulty in employing lawyers.
My advice if you have done nothing wrong is to stand your ground and mostly they will cave in, as I found recently when threatened by Sinn Féin luminaries like John Finucane, Michelle O’Neill and Gerry Kelly.
There is one case against me outstanding in the Republic, and if it goes to court I will crowdfund. But I freely admit that for people fearful about mortgages and dependants, that may not be an option.
Mind you, bad as they often are for journalists, there are worse things than solicitors’ letters.
Yesterday this newspaper had a supplement marking ‘one of the darkest days in our long history’, when on 20 March 1972, almost without warning, a bomb went off outside its office in Donegall Street (see link below).
It killed three refuse collectors, a French polisher, a van driver, and two police officers and injured 150.
“The IRA failed to silence this newspaper then,” said yesterday’s editorial, “as it was always going to fail, just as it failed in its other terror attacks on other newspapers, including the Belfast Telegraph.”
The supplement included a marvellous recollection of that day by the great journalist Jim McDowell, then a News Letter 22-year-old cub reporter, writing of “this fascist attempt to silence, gag and censor the Press, carried out by terrorists who themselves were operating the ultimate form of censorship. Silencing people, by killing them”.
But instead of being silenced, in the severely damaged building, wrote McDowell, there was “a Herculean and heroic effort” by the proprietor, the editor, “sub-editors, reporters, photographers, printers, delivery van drivers and even the copyboys, delivering pages of copy flowing from typewriters that had survived the heat of the bomb blast that would end up as the first-hand stories hot from the rolling thunder of the huge News Letter Vickers printing presses the next morning”.
One of the reasons, it seems to me, why the News Letter has more backbone than many other newspapers is its institutional memory of almost three centuries of standing up for its principles. Its editors and journalists and many of its readers recollect its history with pride.
It seems a good moment to quote from a striking Sunday Independent article by Belfast-born Eilis O’Hanlon, who has fought such a good fight against the perverted republicanism that dominated her childhood.
Writing this week of how Sinn Féin have removed from their website almost two decades of statements as an attempt “to hide a complete 180-degree shift in attitude and policy” about many issues like their decades-long opposition to the EU, hostility to Nato and sympathy for President Putin.
They haven’t changed their minds, they “simply don’t care at heart about those other issues at all … As everything else falls by the wayside, this obsession with Irish unity is the one thing that will remain, because, without it, Sinn Féin doesn’t really have any principles. In recent years, it’s become possible to see for the first in a long time how dangerous it might be to actually put these single-issue messers in charge of anything that matters”.
That’s been obvious in Northern Ireland for some considerable time.