Tomás Ó Flatharta

Looking at Things from the Left

British State Trying to Shoot a Birmingham Six Messenger Chris Mullin – Journalist in the Old Bailey Dock – Charged under 2000 ‘Terrorism Act” because he is protecting his sources

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This Duncan Campbell story comes from the British Guardian Newspaper. The journalist and former Labour MP (Sunderland South) Chris Mullin is protecting his sources. He bravely confronted a monstrous British State frame-up of Six Irish political hostages, jailed for 16 years for a crime they did not commit. These men were known all over the world as The Birmingham Six.

March 14 1991 – Johnny Walker, Paddy Hill, Hugh O’Callaghan, Chris Mullin, Gerry Hunter, Richard McIlkenny, Billy Power outside London’s Old Bailey Court – the Birmingham Six Free At Last

It is a memorable photograph. Outside the Old Bailey on 14 March 1991 stand the Birmingham Six, free at last after 16 years in prison for a mass murder in which they played no part. At the centre of this happy band, scarf askew and beaming with pleasure and pride, is the man whose diligence as an investigative journalist and later MP has led to their victory in the court of appeal. Now, more than 30 years later, that same man, Chris Mullin, will himself be back at the Old Bailey on 23 February facing an action brought against him under the Terrorism Act of 2000 to make him reveal the sources of his information all those years ago.

The Birmingham Six were jailed for life in 1975 for an IRA bomb attack on two pubs the previous year, which killed 21 people and injured more than 200. It was a grim, unforgivable crime and understandably the police were anxious to nail those responsible. They swiftly arrested five men on their way to Ireland for a funeral and a sixth the following day. After days of brutal interrogation, four “confessed”, admissions that were immediately retracted once their violent ordeal ended. The government’s forensic scientist claimed that at least two of them had been in touch with the explosivenitroglycerine. That evidence was discredited by the time of the trial – many household products and notably the pack of cards with which the men had been playing on their train journey before their arrest gave similar results – but the Six were convicted and jailed for life.

The late Peter Chippindale, who covered the trial for the Guardian, told his journalist friend Mullin that he felt that the police had got the wrong people. A spark was lit. While working for Granada Television’s World in Action programme, Mullin set about trying to discover the truth by tracking down those really responsible. If it was possible to prove that others had carried out the attack, the Six could be shown to be innocent. Eventually he found the real men involved and interviewed them on the understanding that he would not identify them. In 1986, he published his account, Error of Judgement, and the following year became an MP for Sunderland South and continued to campaign. The Sun noted his persistence thus: “Loony MP backs bomb gang”.

Other Irish cases – the Guildford Four, the Maguire Seven, Judith Ward – were also being exposed as miscarriages of justice. At their appeal on that fateful day in 1991, the Six were cleared. Some of them, Billy Power and Paddy Hill, in particular, have since lent their names and energies to free others wrongly convicted.

Then in 2018, under pressure from relatives of those killed and the organisation Justice 4 the 21, came a decision to reinvestigate the case. The West Midlands police, a very different crew from the disgraced Serious Crime Squad of the 1970s, embarked on a fresh inquiry. Mullin was asked to surrender all his data: notebooks, manuscripts and so on. He provided the notes of his interview with one of the men, Michael Murray, who was the bomb-maker and who had died 20 years ago, but declined to provide anything that would break his agreement. The police now seek a court order from a judge to force him to comply or face jail.

There are precedents. In 1963, Reg Foster, the Daily Sketch’s crime reporter and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail were jailed for contempt of court for three and six months respectively for refusing to reveal the sources for stories about John Vassall, who had been convicted the previous year of being a Soviet spy. At the inquiry into the affair Foster delivered an impassioned speech in which he said: “I have been in journalism for 40 years. From the first I was taught always to respect sources of information.” He added that he had lost many Fleet Street colleagues in the second world war and “I would feel guilty of the greatest possible treachery to them if I were to assist … in this matter.”

The Guardian faced its own crisis in the case of the civil servant Sarah Tisdall, who was jailed for six months in 1984 after leaking details to the paper about the arrival of American cruise missiles in Britain. The then editor of the Guardian, the late Peter Preston, was prepared to go to prison to defy a court order to provide material that would identify her, but was advised that it was more likely that an ever-increasing fine would be imposed on the newspaper. He described passing on the information as the “worst day” of his editorship and offered his resignation.

While Mullin has the strong support of the National Union of Journalists and from politicians ranging from Labour’s Jack Straw and Charlie Falconer to the Conservatives’ David Davis, he has been called “scum” by relatives of the victims and asked, “How do you sleep at night?” While one has great sympathy for the bereaved, the betrayal of sources – which in this case would be very unlikely to lead to any convictions – is not the path to be taken in any pursuit of justice.

Journalists already enjoy little public respect. An Ipsos Mori poll in 2020 put the percentage of people who trust journalists to tell the truth at 23%; only politicians rank lower. Mullin is absolutely right to stand firm – especially at a time when attempts are being made to amend the Official Secrets Act to make punishing whistleblowers easier. If journalists routinely betray sources and break their word why should anyone ever trust them and how will scandals like that of the Birmingham Six – the likes of which continue to this day – ever be uncovered?
  • Duncan Campbell is the former crime correspondent of the Guardian


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