One newspaper's reporters were pivotal in getting to the bottom of a murderously chaotic Sunday afternoon in Northern Ireland nearly 40 years ago. Harold Evans argues that it proves the value of the kind of investigative journalism we are losing.
When British paratroopers shot dead 13 unarmed civilians and wounded 14 others in Derry’s Bogside, Northern Ireland, in 1972, the event was immediately overlaid by propaganda. Lord Balniel, the Minister of State for Defence, rushed into Parliament to exonerate the soldiers, asserting they’d been defending themselves from missiles. And among Bogsiders the conviction was rapidly retailed that the dead had been victims of a planned massacre.
Lord Saville’s official inquiry, reporting on Tuesday, considered the allegations from some of the families of the victims and others that the British political and military authorities set out not simply to arrest leaders of the civil-rights marches but to deploy the paratroopers with lethal intent. He finds the allegations unsustainable, but he comes down heavily against the official glosses of 1972. The paratroopers went into the Bogside as the result of an order that should not have been given. There was “a serious and widespread loss of fire discipline," in which soldiers were “losing their self-control” and “forgetting or ignoring their instructions and training.” "On balance," he concludes, the British soldiers fired first, on unarmed civilians, gave no warning, were not firing in response to attacks by nail bombs or petrol bombs, and some "knowingly put forward false accounts in order to seek to justify their firing." On Tuesday, the new prime minister, David Cameron, rose in Parliament to close a dishonorable episode with honorable candor. The killings were “ unjustified and unjustifiable.”
Nobody in the army, press, television, rioters, politicians, could offer a single perspective on a kaleidoscope of images in which a second of life was an eternity. We laid out what we knew, made clear what we didn't know.
To reach his devastating conclusion, Saville had to acquire and sift a mass of passionate conflicting testimony of a fast-moving series of events occurring more or less simultaneously nearly 40 years ago. Pivotal to his whole inquiry was the unique, original first-hand reporting done over an intense 11 weeks in 1972 by a team of reporters of the Sunday Times Insight Team. Cardboard boxes of the reporters’ notes and memos, long stored at the Sunday Times, were seized by Saville in 1998 and provided the bedrock of evidence enabling his inquiry to test the veracity of witnesses in Derry, many of whom had forgotten or misremembered the testimony they gave freshly to the reporters in 1972 and some had died. No other press or television organization had attempted that detailed of a narrative reconstruction at the time. Saville, with judicial powers, had access to official records the Sunday Times did not. Even so, his extraordinarily inquiry required 435 days of public testimony, 2,500 statements, 900 witnesses, and 30 million words. It cost a staggering $350 million; an Insight reporter wryly notes that the inquiry paid $15 million to a law firm to interview civilian witnesses, most of whom Insight had seen in 1972: “We’d found them by trudging around the Bogside. Now they were brought into the law office by bus.”
Notwithstanding the official denial at the time that anything had gone wrong in Derry, Prime Minister Ted Heath appointed Lord Chief Justice Widgery to investigate urgently. The appointment of a judicial inquiry placed the press in an awkward position. Widgery made it clear that any press reports until he had completed his inquiry would be punishable as contempt of court, which is even more rigorously enforced in Britain than the United States. The Sunday Times refrained anyway from giving credence to the first wild statements that the operation was planned from the start as a killing operation, but the paper risked publishing the damning photographs by Gilles Peress of the fatal shooting of an unarmed wounded man.
We could not leave it at that and sit back and wait for Widgery. As the editor of the paper, I asked the full Insight investigative team of John Barry, Peter Pringle, Phil Jacobson, and Parin Janmohamed to leave at once for Northern Ireland and set in train our own parallel inquiry to Widgery so that we’d be ready to test his conclusions.
“It was the most intense period of our lives,” remembers its leader, John Barry. The team camped out at Derry’s City Hotel fleapit (later blown up by the IRA) and worked day and night to interview 250 witnesses, including members of the IRA. It was essential to hear what they had to say; those who assert you can never “talk to the enemy” are more interested in party-line propaganda than the difficult business of weighing evidence. Pringle recalls, “We saw Bogsiders, young and old, write carefully and purposely in long hand on lined notepaper about the horrific scenes they’d witnessed that day.” Barry had an uncomfortable evening in the Paratroopers’ officers’ mess: “I have attended no other dinner where it was so evident that beneath the veneer of good manners, everyone present despised me. They argued to me that they had done the job they had been set to do—"cleaning house" was a phrase—and professed themselves bewildered by the uproar.” Colonel Wilford, who is sharply criticized by Saville for letting his paratroopers loose, was, says Barry, a man in denial. “His officers had apparently persuaded themselves they were the true victims of the day, being pilloried by a press they saw as hand in glove with the IRA. They insisted their men had faced an IRA ambush and that everyone shot had been a gunman or bomber.”
Lord Chief Justice Widgery issued his report in April, three months after the shootings. He basically exonerated the army of any premeditated plot to kill. But Widgery was not quite the whitewash that the members of the Catholic community immediately said it was—and which a number of this week’s media reports get wrong, too. Northern Ireland was perennially plagued by superficial partisan reporting, when it was reported at all. The Widgery report itself—not the widely quoted conclusions—found that one of the 13 people killed was an unarmed man hit from behind while crawling or crouching; that shots were fired without justification, that grounds for identifying targets were flimsy and nebulous; that an excessive number of rounds were fired; and that all this happened in a battalion operation not clearly authorized at brigade level, discountenanced by the police, and launched at a time when other methods of keeping order seemed to be succeeding.
Even so, the Insight team was ready to go much further than Widgery in condemning what had happened. They had amassed 500 photographs from all the sources that day, laboriously sorted these into sequence, and from them identified the witnesses who had been present at critical moments. Then they had tracked these people down and questioned them. Thanks to the intensive Sunday Times reporting over the years, Bogsiders apparently felt they could trust the paper. Insight also a ham radio recording of army messages during the fatal afternoon.
Insight’s four-page report did not try to create a seamless narrative when there wasn’t one. Nobody in the army, press, television, rioters, politicians, could offer a single perspective on a kaleidoscope of image in which a second of life was an eternity. We laid out what we knew, made clear what we didn't know, but its findings differed from those of Widgery, his critics and his admirers.
The major difference with Widgery was his certainty that the paratroopers did not fire until fired on by the IRA. Insight found the paratroopers fired first and (and recklessly). It also concluded that the operation to arrest leading troublemakers had been authorized in the knowledge that it risked civilian casualties. But Insight did not endorse Bogside statements that not a single shot had been fired by the IRA. “The Provisionals admit to a burst of machine gun fire from the area of the Bogside Inn, which is recorded by the army after 4:40 p.m. It is certain that they fired other shots.” The assaults of the more reckless rioters were acknowledged, but the government was sharply faulted for authorizing an attempt to scoop them up using heavily armed paratroopers. We added the rider that while the paratroopers' response was out of all proportion, it had to be remembered that of the 100-odd involved, the vast majority of soldiers, under great stress and already enraged by IRA murders of their comrades, did not fire, let alone kill anyone.
Regardless of that qualification, Insight’s report, now so thoroughly vindicated by Saville, was bitterly resented by the British authorities in 1972 and grossly misrepresented by partisan groups both sides. This was the pattern in the years after 1967, when the paper decided the developing crisis demanded continuous coverage. Reporters took grave risks; we had to smuggle out two of them marked for death (by IRA and loyalist paramilitaries). It was this solid shoe-leather reporting that convinced the paper that the internment urged by conservative press and politics would be a disaster (it was); that there was altogether too much reliance on military force; and that a political initiative was long overdue. It was reporting, checked and rechecked, that enabled the paper to expose the notorious ill treatment of unconvicted internees by hooding and deprivation of sleep. That practice, initially denied, was later ended by Prime Minister Heath, but not before a group of Tory MPs had come angrily to my office to say that what I’d done in publishing was close to treason. When I entered a reception one evening, the Home Secretary called out, “Here comes the editor of the IRA Gazette!” This was rich. A Sunday Times reporter had proved that an earlier IRA torture story, swallowed by all the press, was a hoax. Yet subsequently the press failed to correct those false reports. We never ceased to denounce the unspeakable cruelties of which the IRA were daily guilty, the way American dollar contributions were being used to blow up innocent people, and the skewed presentation in the U.S. of Britain as an “occupying force.” But daily contact with people on the streets convinced the reporters, and our political commentators, that the original necessary military intervention in 1969 to save Catholic lives from Loyalist violence was no substitute for a political initiative.
The team journalism that assembled the essential facts on Bloody Sunday, and the coverage altogether, was possible only because of the skill and integrity of reporters willing to suborn their individual egos in a collective effort to present as truthful an accounting as they could, informed by narrative energy but untainted by preconception.
As for the much exaggerated cost of investigative journalism that corporations give as the excuse for its progressive abandonment, compare the cost of sustaining a handful of reporters for three months with the $350 million to complete the Saville report.
There are many lessons to learn from this tragedy, but it demonstrates yet again how indispensable is journalism to civic life—and to history. The kind of unfettered assiduous reporting in the best investigative reporting enables historians—and official inquiries—to recover a level of detail that would otherwise be lost for good.
Harold Evans was editor of The Sunday Times from 1967-1981. Ireland features in his recently published memoir My Paper Chase (Little Brown).