In his Journal column this week (Tues, 19th June), Eamonn McCann commented on the recent case at Derry Magistrates Court in which a judge asked the press not to publish the addresses of two alleged drug dealers because of fears they would be targeted by vigilante group Republican Action Against Drugs (RAAD).
In his article, Eamonn states that if he had been in been in an editor’s shoes he would have done what the judge asked and not published the defendants’ addresses.
The two local newspapers who had journalists at the court hearing, the Derry News and the Derry Journal, both printed the addresses. Radio Foyle also broadcast the details of the addresses.
The local media’s decision to publish and broadcast the addresses in this case has come in for criticism from some quarters. As editor of the Derry News, I stand over the decision for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the job of a journalist in court is to provide an accurate account of the proceedings. This is an important role played by the media in ensuring that justice is seen to be done.
It is not the journalist’s responsibility to make some sort of moral judgement on what is printed or broadcast.
Journalists operate under strict guidelines as to how they report court cases.
If the court believes information should be kept out of the public domain, then a court order can be issued by a judge banning the publication of that information.
If the media believe an order is unfair, mechanisms are in place through which they can appeal.
Therefore, for a judge to ‘ask’ the media not to publish information places an unfair and unwanted burden on journalists.
It is also wrong to imply that journalists or media outlets are somehow responsible for what an individual or group may do after reading a court report in a newspaper or hearing a news item on radio.
To what extent do we allow groups like RAAD to dictate how society is run?
This organisation has already indicated that their vigilantism now extends beyond drugs to include fights outside pubs and attacks on the PSNI.
In relation to the courts, does this now mean that people charged or convicted of crimes such as assault, burglary or car theft can rightly fear the wrath of RAAD if their details are printed in the papers? Will they now try to secure the same protection as alleged drug dealers?
What about people charged with so-called lesser crimes such as shoplifting, driving without insurance, disorderly behaviour? How do they feel about their details being made public while there are attempts being made to provide a form of protection for people charged with much more serious crimes?
Maybe RAAD could supply the press with a list of crimes in which they are free to publish the defendants’ details.
In the absence of such a list, and direct court orders from the judicial system, it is important for the media to stand by the journalistic principles in place when reporting on court cases.
Eamonn McCann states that if had been an editor, he would have ignored these principles and acceded to the court’s request.
From a journalistic point of view, it’s a good thing that Eamonn wasn’t in such a position.
Editor, Derry News