Joined: 25 Jul 2005
Location: St. Pauls, Bristol, England
|Posted: Sun Aug 21, 2016 8:35 am Post subject:
|"You find everyone is your closest friend"
A typical day in Gibraltar for journalists would start when the inquest opened at 10 am. Most journalists that I spoke to said that because there was so much going on in the court room, the bulk of their coverage involved simply reporting the court proceedings as they happened. This left many journalists with, as they saw it, little time and little need to speak to other sources to generate stories. But, journalists would routinely use other sources to contribute to pieces, especially if they were doing background pieces at the weekend or looking ahead type pieces for a Monday (a `quiet news day').
The most obvious sources of information for British journalists were the press officers - one from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and another from the Ministry of Defence. One journalist explained what they would consult press officers about: We would always initially go to clear up stuff - stuff that we hadn't fully understood, or just to get clarification of points of evidence that had been given. The second priority was to find out what was the next thing on the schedule and then thirdly probably came under the broad heading of any other news.related that one of the Press Officers was in our hotel, so occasionally, he would come and have a drink. But we tended not to talk too much about the case. We had a general chat, and if there was any buzz, he'd tell you what the buzz was. A number of journalists were very reluctant to discuss who they spoke to. One commented:
I wouldn't tell you any further than contacts. If you were a journalist, you wouldn't either.
One of the press officers. at the inquest told me:
'you're running a demand led operation. They need to know you. Once you're identified ... You find everyone is your closest friend.
Much of this `operation', he commented, 'was off-the-record Rather than on-the-record, things tended to be, by and large, unattributable - A. because there was already so much on the record and - B. because of the risk of contempt . . . All you could do was caution people. You could say things like you know, `Well, OK, you've heard that witness, but, don't draw too many conclusions from that. Because you'll find that tomorrow there will be a lot of evidence which will demonstrate that that witness was mistaken. So don't add too much weight to that particular statement.'
It is perhaps not surprising that some journalists were reluctant to reveal who they routinely talk to, given the relationship that exists between official sources and journalists. One press officer argued that it was in the journalists interests not to disclose their sources.
We establish a relationship with people, and most of what we do is on a basis of trust ... If we brief them unattributably then they're not about to completely cut the ground from beneath our feet, because it's not in their interests to do so. It's (not) in their interests in the sense that they are hoping that you will be as frank as you possibly can be. If you are very frank with them and they land you in it and report what you've said either in an indirect fashion or in a way that sensationalises various unattributable things that you've said to them. Clearly they know that the next time you speak to them you're going to be extremely cautious.
Many journalists claimed not to take official sources at face value. They maintained that they would check official guidance with other sources. One journalist commented:
Well, I think you're always cynical, aren't you? It's a bit different listening to an MoD Press Officer talking about something like this than it is when he's talking about the Duchess of Kent arriving on a parade ground to view the troops.
A key problem for this system of unattributable briefings is the tendency of journalists to get too close to their sources.
Robert Harris has described this tendency as the "NASA syndrome".
'If you are spoon-fed you become dependent. It's rather like being a drug addict. Any group of journalists who become too dependent on any one source of official information end up not writing the truth because, in some subtle way, they end up being drawn into the system . . . For years the space correspondents knew Nasa was sending up space shuttles that weren't safe. But they didn't write about it because to write about it would have been to cut themselves off from their main source of information. They had, in effect, become publicists for the American space programme. It can happen to all forms of journalism . . . especially when you have a government that's been in power for ten years - the tendency will be not to bite the hand that feeds you.'
One broadsheet journalist told me:
It was pointless listening to these chaps telling you what was going to happen next week. Because quite often they were wrong.
Or as Ian Jack puts it, the press officers
'Made themselves, available to brief the press; sometimes as the equivalent of `spin doctors', there to put the best British gloss on the days proceedings, and sometimes (helpfully) as translators of military or legal jargon.'
During and after the inquest, there were many reports based on official sources. The Sunday before the inquest started the Sunday Telegraph claimed that
'Only three of the 7-strong SAS team which killed three IRA terrorists in Gibraltar last March actually fired shots, according to Military sources . . . One (SAS man) stopped in a school playground to ensure the safety of children. His colleague caught up with Savage and killed him. (4.9.8.'
This image of the caring SAS man shielding children from danger rather fell apart when SAS men `C' and `D' themselves testified that they had both shot Savage who received between 16 and 18 wounds.
The day before the inquest started ITN were handed a synopsis of the evidence the SAS men would give in court. According to one journalist, who was involved, it came from "MoD but I wouldn't like to say any nearer than that". It was subsequently passed to the Guardian which carried it on the front page the next day. (6.9.8 ITN reports from Gibraltar that day were dominated by this document. In some cases the similarities between the soldiers' statement and the ITN bulletins are striking.
"Apparently each body had some nine shots." (SAS Statement) "ITN understands that each was shot about nine times." (ITN 2200 5.9.8
"Car was new but it had an old aerial" (SAS statement) "The car was new the radio aerial was old." (ITN 2200 5.9.8 "They tried to arrest them at the top of Casemates Hill - Some-thing happened which prevented the team from doing so". (SAS statement).
"A decision was taken to arrest them here in Casemates Hill. As the SAS were about to move in, something happened and the attempt was aborted." (ITN 1300 5.9.8.
One problem with this account was that part of it was simply inaccurate. When the pathologists came to testify at the inquest they revealed that Sean Savage had been hit by between 16-18 bullets and not nine as the statement had said and ITN had reported. The only attempt that ITN made to `balance' the domination of their bulletins by the Soldiers' story came in the News at Ten. The newscaster commented:
Tonight the solicitor representing the IRA bombers families said he was angry. He said it was a leak to ITN. He said it reinforced his view that the inquest would be extremely unfair. (ITN 2200 5.9.8
But ITN did not reveal that it was a leak or what its source was. (continued.......)
"The maintenance of secrets acts like a psychic poison which alienates the possessor from the community" Carl Jung