Media: A `Watergate' Not for Printing ; A Spate of Injunctions on National Papers Is Keeping a Controversial Incident in Northern Ireland's Recent History out of the Press. Paul Lashmar Investigates
Lashmar, Paul, The Independent (London, England)
THE MINISTRY of Defence is using an unprecedented campaign of secret gagging orders to stop the press investigating one of the most controversial British Army undercover units to operate in 30 years of the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
At the centre of the scandal is the top secret British Army undercover unit called Forces Research Unit (FRU), which worked in Northern Ireland up to 1991 and is alleged to control loyalist terrorists who assassinated at least 13 people.
Sinn Fein's Republican News has called FRU's operations "the British Watergate" and claims the unit ran a secret "proxy shoot to kill policy" using loyalist terrorists for a decade up to 1990.
Over the past two years the MOD has been fighting a fierce rearguard action to keep information coming out over the Forces Research Unit. Instead of the usual threat of prosecution under the Official Secrets Act, the MOD has refined and extended the use of injunctions. Using public interest immunity certificates signed by a minister, these are sometimes obtained from a duty judge during the night. The accompanying papers have large sections blacked out.
In all cases they contain grave warnings that release of the information will cause loss of life and damage national security. Journalists feel that this extreme claim places judges in a difficult situation and lawyers for the media in an impossible one in contesting the orders.
No one knows how many injunctions have been served. It is known multiple injunctions have been served on newspapers including the Sunday Herald, The Sunday People and The Sunday Times. Former members of the Forces Research Unit have also been the subject of injunctions.
Richard Walker the deputy editor of the Sunday Herald says that the MOD's threats of injunctions have very serious implications for press freedom.
"To a paper on a tight budget like ours injunctions are a problem. We do not have the money to fight each injunction in court," he says.
"One of our principle problems is that the MOD does not have a consistent approach. It gives out different signals about what it considers to be a breach."
Remarkably, in some cases the terms of the injunctions and the fact they even exist are secret and cannot be communicated to anyone else. …