Deal with Act 2 of the news

"TRAUMA: it doesn't just affect the front line" was the theme of the NUJ safety conference on "the Northern Ireland experience", held in Belfast on 30 September. It opened with a minute's silence and moving tribute commemorating the life and work of Martin O'Hagan, murdered ten years ago because of his journalism.

Jim McDowell, editor of the Sunday World, for which Martin was working when he was killed, said: "Martin O'Hagan was a smashing hack who almost invented the act of 'door stepping,' who excelled in exposing the underbelly, the bogey men of the para-mafia. He was always up for a scrap and always up for the truth."

Martin O'Hagan, killed on 28 September 2001
Martin O'Hagan, as Belfast Branch Secretary, attending the trade union event for May Day 2001. After a decade of NUJ campaigning for an investigation and several arrests in 2008, one person, who cannot be named, faces charges connected with his murder. Photo © 2001 Kevin Cooper

The tenth anniversary of Martin's death "has been a hard week for all of us in Belfast" and McDowell thanked everyone for their support.

Eugene McGlone, president of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, reflected that the situation for journalists in Northern Ireland remains grave: "there needs to be a connection of global solidarity amongst trade unions in campaigning for safety at work, to protect against industrial injury and death - but in the case of journalists you can't protect against the unprotectable.

"All industrial accidents are avoidable, but what measures can be taken," McGlone asked, "against someone taking a pot shot at you, when people are mentally ugly?"

Bruce Shapiro has spent many years working as a crime reporter in the US and is now director of the DART centre for Journalism and Trauma ( He said "Martin O'Hagan was the herald of a decade which has seen the murder and persecution of journalists with impunity. Journalists going from being the reporter to becoming the victim... in part this reflects the power of the internet. People can send a message by killing a journalist.

"The story for the journalist doesn't end when the ceasefire is signed," Shapiro observed: "the survivors go onto struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder, and this is Act two. Journalists have to cover Act two. There are situations in which legal systems can never deliver justice. In the case of atrocities the crime is too big, it has broken the contract too severely. We as journalists can step in when justice fails - and tell the truth."

But, he said: "Journalists have to deal with their trauma. It turns out we are a pretty resilient tribe - but when events are too big for us to process in the normal way then we suffer from disruptions of memory... Trauma is a press freedom issue." The good news, Shapiro said, is that "there are psychological injuries that are preventable, through peer support and solidarity." Journalists at the conference were able to hear shared experiences in private workshop sessions.

And, Shapiro said, "there needs to be responsible news room management. Lessons from Belfast have helped inform DART's approach around the world."

It was extremely valuable to hear from journalists who covered the long years of the Troubles. As a trade union the NUJ now has the opportunity to learn from its members' hard-gained knowledge and to implement processes to guard against and help heal traumas that are the inevitable result of working in a climate of conflict.

Other organisations involved in facilitating the conference and its workshops were the WAVE trauma centre and Healing Through Remembering.

Report by Brian Pelan

In a first for the National Union of Journalists, reporters, broadcasters, photographers and other members of the media in Northern Ireland gathered at the offices in Belfast of the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action (NICVA) to hold a one-day conference, entitled "NUJ Safety Conference: the Northern Ireland Experience".

The conference was dedicated to the memory of NUJ Member of Honour Martin O'Hagan who was murdered on Friday 28 September 2001 in Lurgan by a loyalist death squad.

Organised by a steering committee, led by Belfast photographer, Kevin Cooper, and supported by facilitators, the Dart Centre for Journalism and Trauma (DART), Wave Trauma Centre and Healing Through Remembering, and sponsored by Northern Ireland NUJ branches, the NUJ, the Sunday World and union friends in Dublin and London, the conference focused on the experiences of journalists covering the conflict in Northern Ireland and how to build on health and safety issues.

In front of a hushed room, adorned with images about the NUJ and photographs of the Troubles, Barry McCall, NUJ vice president, opened the conference by speaking eloquently about the memory of Martin O'Hagan:

I want to thank you for giving me the privilege of opening this very important conference and of dedicating it to the memory of our friend and fellow journalist and trade unionist Martin O'Hagan.

In many ways, Martin was the journalist that all of us deep down inside wanted to be when we started out in this great trade. He lived hard, worked hard, played hard, but always delivered the goods when it came to getting the story.

The NUJ expressed its grave concern at the lack of urgency of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI)f investigation into Martin's killing ten years ago and our sense of frustration has only grown with the passing years.

There is a bitter irony that the tenth anniversary of Martin's death coincides with attempts by the PSNI and other police forces in the United Kingdom to undermine further the safety of working journalists by attempting to turn reporters, photographers and videographers into evidence-gatherers on their behalf.

I've also got news for the thugs and cowards responsible for Martin's murder. You have failed. You have failed in your attempt to silence journalists in Northern Ireland or anywhere else.

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.

As a disciple of Larkin, a man intimately connected to this great city of labour, Martin would no doubt invoke Larkin's dictum at the funeral of Joe Hill: "Don't mourn: Organise".

Martin has not been silenced and campaigning investigative journalism is still alive and well in 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.

Barry's poignant remarks were followed by Jim McDowell, the Northern Editor of the Sunday World, who said:

Martin was noticed because he was prepared to do the hard work, the hard slog, what we as reporters do. He almost invented the word 'door-stepping', he almost invented the act of door-stepping.

He never stepped backed from the terrorists, no matter who they were.

Martin's attitude was never look back, never step back, keep on doing the work that you're doing.

Mr McDowell was followed by the President of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, Eugene McGlone, who, in a moving talk, said:

Every man and woman goes out to work to earn a living, some of us are lucky enough to enjoy what we do as a bonus, and to a great or lesser degree, society recognises the work that we do, whether you are a street cleaner or a journalist. What work should never do is cause injury, it certainly shouldn't take our lives.

As well as being the tenth anniversary of Marty's murder, it is also a safety conference so there's a dichotomy: you can't really protect against the unprotectable. I heard a piece on Radio Ulster which mentioned that it was the tenth anniversary of Marty's murder and that 50 credited death threats had been made against the Sunday World and it employees. It's not something that should be dismissed lightly. It shouldn't be dismissed whatsoever.

I'm sure that what you're doing today is the beginnings of the debate and I trust the experiences that you share with each other and share with the rest of the trade union movement and your deliberations will be an encouragement to the rest of us to try to find better solutions to the same problems in society and maybe in ten years' time we won't have the NUJ or some other trade union holding an event that will commemorate the murder of one of its members for daring to stand up for the truth.

The keynote speech at the conference was given by Bruce Shapiro, who is is executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, which encourages innovative reporting on violence, conflict and tragedy worldwide from the Center's headquarters at Columbia University in New York City. An award-winning reporter on human rights, criminal justice and politics, Shapiro is a contributing editor at The Nation and US correspondent for Late Night Live on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation's Radio National.

Mr Shapiro said:

It's an honour to be here on this anniversary of Martin O'Hagan's assassination, who was the first journalist to be killed in the Troubles.

We all have different motives for being here, for all of you whatever age, whatever perspective.

Completely by accident one summer night 1994 I was sitting in a café not far from my home with a couple of friends... when a man... who I'd never seen before, he pulled out a large knife and stabbed seven people in that café including me. None of us died; all of us were seriously or critically injured. This gathered an awful lot of coverage. Also we were all what you might want to call "worthy" victims - university professors, journalists, people who get attention.

It became a front page story... in the New York Times, on CNN International. We got calls from Chile and Europe and elsewhere. The aftermath of what was a pretty devastating physical attack and an emotionally challenging recovery. I ended up suddenly realising that everything I thought I understood about how to cover crime... .about the news, about the experience of victims... was wrong.

I ended up spending quite of bit of time thinking and writing about the experiences of victims... trying to learn from mental health professionals... about the nature of psychological trauma. I also realised I had many experiences with the press, being covered, experiences of me the reporter covering crime and violence to being the victim whose picture, whose family, whose experiences were described, sometimes with great accuracy and sensitivity, but other times in ways or with images that myself or my family found deeply distressing.

At the beginning of the mid-90s, everyone began to take seriously around the world the idea of physical safety and we will talk a lot about physical safety here today.

It began with the deaths of foreign correspondents in Sarajevo and Sierra Leone. It got the attention of the BBC, it got the attention of Reuters and others who began asking: what can we do to help our journalists be safe? Now the idea of physical safety training, while not universal, is pretty commonplace - at least for foreign correspondents - and many of you have been through training in covering civil disorder.

I believe that a journalist who is inveigled by psychological injury, who can no longer concentrate or meet deadlines or can no longer get along in the newsroom... and for whatever reasons seems to have gone off the tracks... that journalist is censored as effectively as if he or she was wrapped up in a jump suit and shipped off to Guantánamo. It is a press freedom issue when journalists of a fine professional capacity are no longer able to do work. It is obviously an issue for trade unions.

There is a lot of speculation why the number of journalists attacked and killed around the world seems to be rising. My own view is that in part it reflects the power of the internet: the people who attack journalists want to send a message of fear throughout society; the very best way to do it is to kill a journalist. It used to be - many of you in this room could testify to this - that even very violent actors needed journalists, they needed us to send messages out of their communications. Some of you in this room certainly understand that... through the Troubles it's one of the things that protected you.

Let me bring it back to Northern Ireland. It seems to me we're really having three conversations today. We are talking much about the past... the crime against the journalism community that happened ten years ago with the same kinds of impunity that happens in the Philippines, in Mexico, Russia and wherever else you can name. We are talking about a civil conflict, and we are talking about The Troubles extending back decades and the experiences that both you and many generations have of covering the fall-out of that.

I hope you think this conversation today is relevant in one other way; and again I'm talking about Martin O'Hagan.

There are events in history for which the legal system may never deliver justice. First of all the nature of atrocity, whether it is the killing of an individual journalist or mass attacks, mass killings on whole religious or ethnic or social groups - it overwhelms not only the individual but the whole system. There may be a way that we hope that the killers of Martin O'Hagan are brought to justice, we hope for justice for all victims of the Troubles.

This is a huge mission. When we talk about the lived experiences of trauma and our relationship to that as journalists, we need to understand that on the one hand we are trying to get richer stories, trying to relate to victims and survivors and witnesses in a way which does them justice and also goes to the very heart of the journalistic mission, difficult times that face this society and other societies going forward.

A key part of organising the conference was the decision to hold a number of workshops where journalists, some with a huge experience of covering the Troubles and some who have just entered the fray, were able to talk privately and freely about traumatic moments in their life as a journalist.

While those discussions must remain private, it was a moving experience to seasoned reporters and photographers talking about the dangers of their work.

Most participants agreed about the dilemma facing journalists. The need to get a "good" story and balancing that with respecting the feelings of the victims of the troubles.

During one of the open sessions to the conference, veteran BBC correspondent Denis Murray said:

I have to say that my first instinct about journalists sitting down and discussing these things was alluded to by someone in our group session this morning who felt that some people might say: "That's for sissies, real men don't need conversations."

But I found today tremendously helpful. One person, this morning, talked about the "Red Letter" that eventually comes in from the "bank", that you had been drawing on for so long.

If I had one lesson learned from 35 years of journalism it is don't get so wrapped up in it. I let the job define me, not my family or my friends.

That's really it: we all work far too hard. During the Rose West trial, reporters would cover it on a rota basis, because no one could take a whole day of it. And later on, reporters would go to the bar afterwards because they to get rid of the awfulness of the day and to talk it through.

I saw some terrible things and we were censored by the government.

But I think this kind of a day is enormously important for people. We need to get more protection from the day your training as a journalist starts. Shorthand is fine and Essential Law for Journalists is fine, but people have to look after themselves as well.

Most participants agreed that the central theme of putting the issue of safety to the forefront was an essential strategy that the NUJ must develop. This theme was picked up by the Irish Secretary of the NUJ Seamus Dooley, who said:

I want to congratulate all involved in what I think will in time be regarded as a very significant event.

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.

The theme of developing health and safety was eagerly addressed during the lunch break as journalists, perhaps for the first time ever, discussed and shared personal memories about covering the Troubles. All those gathered remarked on how relevant the conference was in the wake of the recent shooting of a photographer who was covering the recent riots in east Belfast earlier this year.

London photographer David Hoffman told the conference:

The Committee to Protect Journalists reports that 28 journalists have already been killed this year. More than 500 media workers have been killed in the last ten years. The statistics on that site are chilling. Burma is again, for the 4th year running, in the top five states for imprisoning journalists; 17 are still jailed in Eritrea ten years after they were seized in a government crackdown that banned the independent press. Ethiopia, Ecuador, Mexico, Thailand - the list goes on. Torture, beheadings, disappearances, extended terms of imprisonment, often without charge or access to lawyers. And of course this week in particular we remember Martin O'Hagan.

Coming to Belfast from the relative soft safety of London to talk about threats to journalists is difficult and humbling. On one protest earlier this month a colleague had petrol squirted onto him and was set light to. Another was sexually assaulted. A number of us were harassed, threatened and punched or kicked. Many of you here will have had similar experiences and will know of others that are far worse.

We protected our sources and did not supply unpublished material to the state or to its agents even under considerable pressure. You'll recall the Suzanne Breen case and how she successfully stood up to police pressure to reveal her source. But even this most basic principle of journalism is now being stripped away. Following the recent riots the major broadcasters and publishers have largely turned their unpublished material over to the police without making even the slightest objection, without any fight in the courts, without a thought for the danger this puts all reporters and photographers in.

Mostly we are well aware of these threats, though, and we have developed ways to cope with them, to minimise the risk and to find support and protection from our friends and colleagues. But we are also facing new threats that are less visible, less physical and against which we have not yet found ways to defend ourselves.

It's not an encouraging picture and professional journalism is under more pressure now than at any time in my career - but we are far from powerless. Some threats we can live with. Some threats we can avoid - we can find alternative, safer ways to do what we need to do. And some threats can be defeated just by our by making them public. That's what we do best.

Our strongest defences are our colleagues. This conference today is an important example. We must form our own networks and work with those that already exist ... We are all our brother's (and sisters') keepers.

From the conference platform and from the hall, delegates and speakers added to the vibrant debate, including Hedley Abernethy from Wave, who said: "We need to deal with the past and it is good to be with the NUJ today. Where do journalists go if they need help, if they are suffering trauma? Going to the bar doesn't work. The offices of Wave are open to all those who need help."

Zora Molyneaux of Healing Through Remembering said: "There is a need to address our collective past. Our organisation has a wide membership basis but we need to remember that the ways of dealing with trauma are complex."

Journalist Suzanne Breen spoke about the difference between reporting on the Troubles and coping with one's own personal experience of dealing with death.

Writer Anthony McIntyre raised another important issue at the conference when he talked about censorship and how the media deals with violent images on the conflict.

Petra Tabeling of the Dart Centre Europe said how sad she was that no-one has still been convicted of the murder of Martin O'Hagan:

I first came to Northern Ireland as a German foreign correspondent. A lot of victims would break down in front of me. I let them tell me their stories and I believe that they appreciated it.

I started researching duty and care after two friends of mine were killed in Afghanistan. We set up a Dart network in Germany five years ago. It has been very successful. We run workshops for journalists on how to deal with trauma issues.

Cameraman John Coughlin told the conference:

When Kevin asked me to get involved, I said: "Nothing ever happened to me." And he said: "You were blown up and you were shot" and I said "Oh yeah, apart from being blown up and shot."

I covered over two and a half thousand killings, the same amount of funerals. Funerals were terrible, funerals were terrible, what we do at funerals is unspeakable. I thought it was part of my job to show people the nature of violence and I thought when I showed them the true nature of violence it would help to mitigate violence.

I was covering a funeral once when the coffin came out of the church. A young boy in front of the camera says "Don't go, Daddy". I wanted to throw the camera down... when I got back everyone said "what a great cameraman you are".

As the conference ended, all the participants agreed that it had been a very worthy experience and should mark a concerted attempt by the NUJ to put health and safety at the top of its agenda. It was also agreed that facilitators from WAVE, DART and Healing Through Remembering would compile reports on conclusions and lessons learned from the workshops and how best to advance health and safety in the workplace.

Barry McCall, NUJ Vice President, thanked Marty's sister Joanne and her husband Padge for joining the delegates at the conference. Mr McCall closed the conference by saying "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."

He went on to say; "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." He concluded: "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."

Full closing remarks by Barry McCall

Colleagues, fellow journalists and all of the others who have come along today to participate in this very important event.

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.

He would also appreciate a story told to us in one of the workshop sessions by his editor Jim McDowell. The story touched on the humour that journalists use as a balm and a defence to the horrors they encounter almost daily when they are covering conflict zones.

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 story would certainly have appealed to Martin's sense of humour.

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.

London Freelance Branch is debating ways to support the effort of take the work of the conference forward in Northern Ireland and, eventually, more widely.

Last modified: 11 Oct 2011 - © 2011 contributors
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