Gutter journalism shames BBC
BY FERN LANE
In its decision to broadcast Monday's programme naming a number of men suspected of involvement in the Omagh bombing, it can be said that Panorama, and by extension the BBC, is not very far removed from the type of felon-setting which the RUC indulged in during the mid and late 1980s. The RUC then handed over security files on republican `suspects' to loyalists to be plastered all over the walls of Belfast, and consequently to invite murderous attacks on the individuals identified. Frustrated by its inability to nail the Omagh bombers, the RUC has made use of the BBC, as it made use of loyalists, in order to circumvent the legal process and publicly name a number of men as `suspects' who `could have been involved' with the bombing, showing both their faces and their homes and thus quite possibly setting them up for loyalist assassination attempts. Further, Panorama and the BBC now occupy the same journalistic territory as the downmarket tabloid, The News of the World, in their attempts to `name and shame' those whom the RUC has identified as suspects. The difference is that in the News of the World's thoroughly discredited campaign to publicly identify paedophiles, which culminated in vigilante mobs attacking the homes of innocent people, it managed to restrict itself, unlike Panorama, to naming those who had been convicted of an actual crime.
All this was paraded as serious investigative journalism when no bone fide investigation was required, since the RUC and the Gardaí clearly provided the programme makers with their information. Ronnie Flanagan appeared on the programme to inform viewers that the force's ``intelligence is very precise''. The very precise intelligence concerning the movement of certain mobile telephones on the day of the bombing and which formed just about the entirety of the `evidence' was, without a doubt, made available by the RUC to the Panorama team. They simply could not have obtained that kind of information from any other source. Even then, all it actually amounted to was that, on the day of the bombing, the telephones in question had been to Omagh and back. The rest was innuendo and speculation. On Monday morning, when Wade was asked on Radio 5 Live whether he had obtained his information from the RUC he was evasive, trying to suggest, without actually quite saying it, that he had obtained it entirely through his own efforts. He did not sound like a man who was telling the truth.
Even David Trimble, who could reasonably be expected to support the naming of `suspects', expressed ``grave doubts'' about the programme, questioning whether it was about sensationalism rather than investigation
In that sense, Monday's programme was as much about Ware as anything else. In a display of journalistic machismo he pitched up at various locations in order to ``confront'' the individuals concerned and was reduced to pacing manfully around outside shouting questions, which he knew perfectly well would not be answered, at brick walls. It viewed like a bad episode of the Cook Report.It all looked very tough and of course, in a world where republican activists are mostly - to the intense irritation of the media - anonymous, publicly identifying people provides a great deal of dramatic frisson and makes for exciting television. Ware also, shamefully, attempted to set himself up as a spokesman for the families, shouting at one of his targets that ``the families of the Omagh victims would like answers to these questions''. One other curious point emerged from these so-called confrontations. After having left one location, Ware reported that the ``local police'' - the Gardaí - had informed him that the `suspect' had summoned a number of friends and relatives to eject the BBC crew from his property. The question which immediately arises is why were the Gardaí there at all? Where they there to protect the film crew?
The broadcasting of the programme was condemned by many of the victims' families and the Human Rights Commission - both of whom brought legal action in an attempt to stop the broadcast - as well as the Irish Government (although Peter Mandelson seemed very pleased indeed with it). Even David Trimble, who could reasonably be expected to support the naming of `suspects', expressed ``grave doubts'' about the programme, questioning whether it was about sensationalism rather than investigation.
He has a point. When one asks what Monday's broadcast was meant to achieve (and surely the makers will not continue with the ludicrous claim that it will help obtain convictions), part of the answer could perhaps be found by examining the internal politics of Panorama and the BBC. The programme, once immensely influential, has suffered from jaded presentation, dwindling audiences, and a reduced budget. There was even at one point a question mark over its very continuance. Monday's programme, like the appointment of more decorous presenters, seems like a desperate attempt to grab attention and save careers.
If the makers of Panorama want to salvage their reputations and carry out some proper investigative journalism, perhaps they should turn their attention to the `naming and shaming' of those within the RUC and British military intelligence establishment who gave the nod to, or organised and facilitated the killings of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson and the many other individuals who died as a result of alleged RUC collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. There is no shortage of evidence. They could also ask themselves why the RUC has been so helpful in naming republicans, when journalists who have sought to expose members of the Crown forces who have been involved in the commissioning and carrying out of killings have so often been harassed, intimidated, censored and silenced.