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Martin O'Hagan and Veronica Guerin remembered at Belfast conference

30 September 2011

The failure to sufficiently resource newsrooms is a damning indictment of media organisations in Ireland and poses a direct threat to modern journalism, a Belfast conference has been warned.

Séamus Dooley, NUJ Irish Secretary, warned the NUJ Journalist Safety Conference, commemorating the 10th anniversary of the murder of Martin O'Hagan, that the reliance on press releases and briefings from spin doctors was no substitute for independent journalism.

The Irish Secretary said that lack of investment in training posed a threat to the mental health of media workers and urged media organisations to develop a greater awareness of the mental health needs of their staff.

In a workshop reflecting on the murder of Veronica Guerin, Séamus said that the legacy of Veronica Guerin was a more demanding, questioning approach to journalism.

"Were she alive, Veronica would still be seeking the truth. And she would be sticking her nose into white collar crime, exposing corruption at the heart of big business. And she would not be short of material.
"Fifteen years later, she would still, despite the Freedom of Information Acts and the new Defamation Act, be swimming against a tide of secrecy, best illustrated by the cover of darkness under which NAMA is allowed to operate.
"And it is the re-emergence of a culture of secrecy which I think is one of the great threats to journalism.
"We, the citizens, deserve to know how NAMA makes decisions, why NAMA makes decisions and the cost of these decisions. The culture of secrecy which has been the hallmark of the Department of Finance must be ended. Transparent governance is an essential component of regulation and all agencies associated with the financial sector must be open to ongoing scrutiny.
"At the level of State policy, North and South, there is still the belief that the media should be treated like mushrooms – kept away from the centre, in the dark and fed a diet of dung. The more sophisticated approach is to feed journalists a diet of soft information, served by velvet gloved spin doctors well practised in the art of nudge and wink.
"One of the greatest threats to journalism is the over reliance not on contacts or sources whose credentials have been verified but on consultants and press officers whose job it is to paint a pretty picture, to put a gloss on a difficult story.
"And I've no difficulty with that attempt to manage bad news. With the attack of editorial budgets and the decline in resources in newsrooms media organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to interrogate those who seek to mediate the news – indeed news gathering itself is being supplanted by what might be termed news placement.
"But in the context of this conference there is another fundamental issue. Veronica Guerin, poster girl for the Sunday Independent, was a freelance journalist with no staff entitlements. In death, the Sunday Independent met obligation to Veronica's family and cherish the memory of an outstanding journalist. It is a tragedy that this recognition came only in death.
"Today, freelance journalism is under threat as news organisations chip away at editorial rates, making unfair demands on vulnerable workers who, in a crowded market, are not in a position to refuse assignments.
"And in the context of journalist safety it is often freelance journalists who take the great risks.
"The absence of in-service training is a striking aspect of the media industry in Ireland. Journalists still learn as they go along, with scant regard for the health and safety implications – physical and mental, of confronting difficult situations and individuals.
"After the murder of Veronica Guerin there appeared to be an emerging consensus that journalists should work in groups – this was especially true of sensitive crime stories. There was also an emerging consensus around the need to protect individual journalists and to avoid the cult of the celebrity crime hack.
"That did not last long and I remain deeply disturbed by the emphasis on crime coverage as the glamorous end of the market, with top crime writers commanding tranfer fees which would be the envy of international football super stars.
"That tendency reflects the emphasis on market share at the expense of a more reflective approach to crime coverage. And if we adopt this approach to crime coverage is it any wonder that the so called gang land bosses respond in like manner, seeing themselves as celebrities."

Barry McCall, NUJ vice president, closed the Belfast Safety Conference and said:

"We opened the conference this morning by dedicating it to the memory of our murdered friend Martin O'Hagan. At this point, I'd like to welcome Martin's sister Joanne and her husband Padge who joined us for the afternoon sessions.
"I think Martin would have enjoyed and appreciated today's conference. He would have appreciated the fact that it touched on very real issues affecting journalists in Northern Ireland and in conflict zones throughout the world not only in their working lives but in the totality of their lives.
"Jim told us with some feeling and in a deadly serious tone about a former UDR man who had taken to the drink and whose right foot had become infected and become gangrenous as a result of long term alcohol abuse. The man was threatening to cut off his own big toe with a hammer and chisel.
"Some of those listening were wondering just where this story was going; Martin wouldn't have.
"The next words out of Jim's mouth where: 'so I sent out a reporter and a photographer to capture the moment'. And he did and the Sunday World ran it as the offlead on the front page under the headline 'Toe Surrender'.
"That's an example of the humour we use as a defence mechanism to help us get through our daily lives and humour that Martin would certainly have appreciated.
"But he couldn't be here to appreciate it. He was assassinated by Loyalist Volunteer Force gunmen ten years ago this week. He was gunned down by thugs as he walked home from a local pub with his wife Marie. He was murdered because of his campaigning journalism which exposed the criminality of the LVF and others like them.
"But his killers failed in their objective. Not only does Martin's legacy as a campaigning journalist live on, but investigative journalism is alive and well in Northern Ireland.
"But to restate what I said this morning. The continuing tragedy of Martin's death is the fact that his killers still walk the streets. This is not merely a disappointment, this is an outrage. Ten years after his brutal murder justice has still not been done. This only adds further to the loss and hurt felt by his family all who knew and loved him.
"This sends a horrifying message to those who seek to follow in his path. The inability of the PSNI to bring these criminals to justice for the past ten years does little to inspire confidence among journalists of the capability of the police when it comes to protecting them or anyone else.
"But that failing hasn't deterred others from following in that path. The consistent threats against the Editor and staff of the Sunday World have failed to silence Martin's colleagues who continue, as he did, to challenge the consensus and to expose criminality, even when such actions prove uncomfortable for the establishment.
"In conclusion, I want to again salute Martin. The fact that we are here today commemorating not just Martin's death, but his life and work as well is proof that his legacy lives on. Martin's work as a campaigning journalist fighting for equality and justice and shining a light into those corners that others would prefer remained dark continues to inspire us.
"Martin has not been silenced; his colleagues and a new generation of journalists have carried on the campaigning investigative work that is so important to a society like Northern Ireland. And that's what we are commemorating today, the life and work of a great journalist, a great trade unionist and a wonderful man."

Tags: , veronica guerin, martin o'hagan, journalists killed, newspapers, murder, newsgathering, safety, mental health, nama, sunday independent, freelance, investigative journalism, psni