Intrusion?

By Ian Cobain

Author Colm Tóibín once told his creative writing class at Manchester University that “you have to be a terrible monster to write”. You should be prepared to make use of the unguarded comments of others, he said, even if those who uttered them may be identifiable. All that matters, is whether those indiscretions “make a great story”. If they were not prepared to display such ruthlessness, Tóibín told his students, they had no right even to study creative writing. “If there is any way I can help you get into law school then I will,” he told them. “Your morality will be more useful in a courtroom”.[1]

Contemporary history and journalism are intrusive, often necessarily so. Indeed, much published writing can be invasive. The question is: how much intrusion is justified? It is a question that may become acute for those who are examining the ‘Troubles’. Another, related, question may be: what steps can we, those of us writing about the ‘Troubles’, take in order to reduce the chances of inflicting a second wound?

Noel Doran, editor of the Irish News and a former reporter, said: “Visiting the family home of someone who has been caught up in a tragedy is the most difficult responsibility in journalism.”

What is sometimes misrepresented as callous was often of great significance, Doran says: after someone had been killed, police would give only basic details about the victim. “It was left to journalists to try and explain who he or she was, why they mattered … and, at the most basic level, put a face to a name through a photograph”.[2]

In 2019, Queen’s University asked journalist and author Susan McKay, and Cheryl Lawther, a senior lecturer at the university’s School of Law, to draw up a set of guidelines for journalists, their editors, and journalism trainers, on ways in which they might treat victims of the ‘Troubles’ with respect and dignity.

The document that they produced is replete with the basic common sense that comes to many interviewers only with experience, sometimes following years of mistakes: “Explain exactly what you want … don’t make promises you can’t keep … be clear that you may not be able to use all of what they say … give the interviewee a choice about where the interview will take place … be prepared to take no for an answer…”.[3]

Poignantly perhaps, the Queen’s University guidance manual offers this suggestion: “Don’t assume you understand and don’t say you understand. You probably don’t.”

But it does not answer the question: how much intrusion is justified?

The relevant clause of the Code of Conduct of the National Union of Journalists, which organises journalists in the UK and the Republic of Ireland, is quite clear in this area, and might also be instructive to academics and other students of the ‘Troubles’:

“A journalist does nothing to intrude into anybody’s private life, grief or distress unless justified by overriding consideration of the public interest”.[4]

This may involve the weighing of competing interests, for example weighing the disclosure of information in the public interest – for today’s public and for future generations – against the need to protect information in the interests of individuals, families, and communities, some of whom are already damaged. But how to carry out this balancing exercise?

This question – of how much intrusion, by the journalist and contemporary historian, can be justified – is one that I have really struggled with.

I believe that the interests of the reader should generally take priority over the interests of the subject– reordering those priorities can quickly result in work that is painfully compromised – but having reached that conclusion, how do I remain sensitive to the interests of the subject? And how do you give voice to victims of political violence, when they have decided, for entirely understandable reasons, that they do not wish to talk to you? Does special thought need to be given to the victims of political violence when they live in a society where some of those who perpetrated that violence have since been elevated to positions of prominence? Is it better to intrude on private grief than to attempt to deal with individual suffering through sweeping generalisations? What are the privacy rights of those who engaged in political violence?

These acts – shootings, bombings, the taking of lives – were intended to be written and spoken about at the time: they were the propaganda of the deed. But after 40 or 50 years, and sometimes after long prison sentences, do those who carried them out have a right to some privacy?

These are all questions that I have struggled with. They are questions that I believe anyone writing the ‘Troubles’ needs to consider if their work is to be constructive and sensitive and is to avoid needlessly causing further suffering.  I am not sure that I have found all the answers, however, or that I ever shall: some may remain unresolved.

(Image: Bobbie Hanvey Photographic Archive, Burns Library (Boston College))


[1] Daily Telegraph, 25 October 2012.

[2] Reporting the Troubles, ed Deric Henderson and Ivan Little, (Newtownards, Blackstaff Press, 2018), 104-5.

[3] S. McKay and C. Lawther, ‘Treating Victims of the Conflict with Respect and Dignity: Guidelines for Journalists, Editors and Media Educators’ (2019): https://pureadmin.qub.ac.uk/ws/portalfiles/portal/165825743/Guidelines_for_Journalists_Editors_and_Journalism_Educators.pdf.

[4] National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct (2011): https://www.nuj.org.uk/about/nuj-code/.

Ian Cobain is a journalist and author. His work has appeared in the Guardian, Times, Irish Times and Middle East Eye. His micro-history of the Troubles – Anatomy of a Killing: Life and Death on a Divided Island – was published in November 2020 by Granta Books. He tweets at @IanCobain.

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