This weekend brings a piquant moment for me -- a telling anniversary in the chronicles of information-management, as well as a horrifying memory in itself. At 4.10 p.m. Sunday afternoon, exactly 40 years ago, I witnessed soldiers shooting innocent civilians dead, an atrocity that officialdom instantly lied about -- and provoked a four-decade struggle to get the truth finally established.
I'm able nowadays to record how -- thanks to great journalistic effort, determined community campaigning, and in the end a responsible governmental and legal answer to pressure -- the tangled story of Northern Ireland's "Bloody Sunday" eventually reached a powerful and welcome resolution.
That chilly Sunday afternoon I took cover behind a rubble barricade in the Bogside district of Londonderry while members of the British Army's crack Parachute Regiment fired a total of 108 high-velocity rounds that killed 13 members of a demonstrating crowd instantly, and injured more than a dozen others, one of whom died within a few months. Four of the dead, all under 21 years of age, were killed within 50 feet of me.
All of us journalists present got an early taste of official lying. An army officer briefing us soon afterward said his unit had been attacked by gunmen (although there were none, we were sure). "We came under fire from seven snipers" said the officer. "Of whom we killed 13", was the muttered interpolation from my colleague Simon Hoggart of London's The Guardian, nowadays a mordant parliamentary sketch-writer.
Truth got only more mangled as the British government's information machine got to work. Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath announced a public inquiry, to be chaired by none other than the most senior judge in the land, Lord Chief Justice John Widgery -- who just happened to be a retired army brigadier.
The immediate effect of the inquiry was to apply a gag. The government said it would amount to contempt of Widgery's court-like forum, or at the least be seriously prejudicial, if the media were to present and discuss evidence pertaining to the shootings.
The British network TV program I worked for, This Week, circumvented this gag-order. My valiant (some people said routinely "foolhardy") executive producer John Edwards figured out with lawyers acting for our equally brave (or "reckless") company, Thames Television, that -- as long as we didn't edit the material we broadcast -- we could not be accused of selecting evidence in a way designed to influence the judge in his deliberations.
Accordingly, This Week transmitted a 10-minute roll of raw footage of paratroopers recollecting what they said happened, plus a matching roll of equally raw footage from civilians who'd been present. None of us was sent to the Tower of London charged with hustling the Lord Chief Justice.
But Lord Widgery himself was certainly open to other influences. Subsequently released government minutes of their meeting revealed that Prime Minister Heath had told the Chief Justice: "It has to be remembered that we are in Northern Ireland fighting not only a military war but a propaganda war."
So, unsurprisingly perhaps, when Widgery's report was published three months after the dreadful day, it amounted to an endorsement of the original official reaction. Widgery acknowledged that the troops' firing had "bordered on the reckless" but he left open the possibility that soldiers had indeed been fired upon first by elements in the crowd. His report became known as the "Widgery Whitewash." But it stood, officially, for years.
One journalist in particular deserves credit for never letting go of the story. Prompted by closeness to the families of the dead -- wanting as they would to have their murdered loved ones cleared of all blame -- an indefatigable Derryman, Don Mullan, collected and published in 1997 an extraordinary tranche of previously unconsidered eyewitness testimony. Mullan's journalistic career had been decidedly low-profile until this point -- but he had the deep, driving conviction of someone who'd been in the midst of the massacre, at the age of 15. His book Eyewitness Bloody Sunday had a profound effect on Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair and his advisers.
One of Blair's earliest moves after entering government that same year was to set up a whole new public investigation -- convinced (probably rightly) that being seen to be freshly prepared to establish the truth would help his administration to further the Irish peace process as a whole, which was then tentatively advancing.
The new inquiry took a mind-boggling 12 years to reach its findings. Along with hundreds of witness from Ireland, Britain, and a number dispersed around the world, I returned to Derry and gave evidence all over again. And so did the men who had pulled the trigger -- though their appearances took place in a special session in Westminster, not Derry, and they were concealed behind screens to ensure anonymity. (During the inquiry Mullan and I took part in a film about re-examining the evidence, An Unreliable Witness -- produced and directed by Michael McHugh. See part of it here.)
It fell to a conservative Prime Minister again, David Cameron, to announce the second inquiry's findings. None of the dead, it concluded, had attacked the troops, with guns or anything else. Neither had anyone else. Cameron said in Parliament in June 2010:
There is no doubt, there is nothing equivocal, there are no ambiguities. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong... On behalf of our country, I am deeply sorry.
It was, as I wrote then, an extraordinary instance of a nation totally disowning a long-held official narrative.
So what happens now? The families, understandably enough, have varied feelings. Some want to press criminal charges against the killers of their relatives. Others feel having the names of their loved ones cleared is enough.
Derry's leading nationalist militant, Martin McGuinness, who at the time of Bloody Sunday led a brigade of the Irish Republican Army (which had stashed its weapons that day, for the avowedly peaceful protest) is now part of Northern Ireland's power-sharing government, established under the province's Peace Agreement. He suggested to the BBC only this week that he could approve a reconciliatory visit to Northern Ireland by Britain's Queen Elizabeth -- who incidentally is the titular Colonel-in-Chief of 10 British Army regiments, with the Paratroopers conveniently enough not among them.
Such a visit would, of course, be a matter for the politicians. The journalists, for their part, have now pretty well done their job. And as a journalist it's good to reflect, in this instance at least, on such a clear and consequential correction of an official lie, even if the process has taken far too long.
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