An establishment driven media witch hunt- Why it is right to defend Stephen Matthews

By Jamie


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Let me, for the avoidance of doubt set my position out very clearly from the outset. If anyone, regardless of who they are, is involved in crime then this should be investigated throughougly, if appropriate the person should be charged and thereafter tried by a jury of their peers.

This law should apply to all equally- I raise no objection to that. My objection comes when the law is applied unequally, and the media saddle up beside the state as part of an orchestrated witch hunt designed to dehumanise and target persons who do not have a public platform to defend themselves.

The focus of today’s front page article- which outrageously targeted a man simply going on holiday- was Stephen Matthews. They also alleged he is a target of an unexplained wealth order investigation. If he is, then the Sunday Life know more than the accused and surely this breaches all standards of fairness?

There is a desperate attempt to create a perception of crime around Stephen Matthews in order to justify targeting him. The cart is going before the horse. Rather than this being a case of the media fairly and impartially reporting on any criminal proceedings, they are trying to whip up a lynch mob to stimulate a criminal investigation for which there is no basis. They are not reporting on the orchestra, they are composing and conducting its music. It is trial by media in the worst possible manner.

Stephen Matthews is as entitled to privacy and respect for his family life as much as every other citizen. Every person has a reasonable expectation of privacy in an airport, which is private property, and indeed within the vast majority of areas photography is prohibited. This provides a person with an enhanced expectation of privacy.

The Press complaints Code of Practice at Clause 2 (iii) states the following;

“It is unacceptable to photograph individuals, without their consent, in public or private places where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy.

In the further information section the code, relating to ‘citizen journalists’, freelance photographers and indeed all sources of information for a publication says the following;

An editor intending to publish material from such sources would need to be sure it complied with the Editor’s Code.”

Plainly the Sunday Life, despite whatever spurious public interest defence they retrospectively try to conjure up, are in breach of the Code of Practice by using the photographs of Mr Matthews, taken with his family. It would be interesting to know whether payment has been made- to either police officers or criminals- for the photographs.

The source shouldn’t be too difficult to identify- a complaint has already been made to Belfast International Airport for this security breach, and indeed to the Police Ombudsman, given the suspicion that PSNI officers took this footage. Given the area of the airport is clear for all to see and Mr Matthews knows the time of his flight, a quick check of CCTV will identify the culprits.

The story also makes a range of allegations of ‘unexplained wealth’ against Mr Matthews and allegations that he is a member of the UVF, a proscribed organisation. All of these allegations are based on anonymous sources which, when clearly disputed by Mr Matthews, are then verified by further unnamed ‘police sources’.

If the media exist to be fair to all then why do allegations by anonymous sources trump the clear and unequivocal denial of the accused? This is especially true when it comes to matters of criminal allegations being made about persons- are we just to abandon all notion of fairness and the presumption of innocence and have a free-for-all of trial by media?

The Sunday World also had a pop at Stephen Matthews today, claiming he is trying to ‘re-invent’ himself. This is somewhat bizarre- his reinvention takes the form of denying a plethora of unsubstantiated and false allegations against him. Is he not even entitled, through a representative, to do that?

However, despite my many gripes with the Sunday World, one piece of credit they do deserve is that at least their journalists always put their name to their stories. In my view many of the stories are absolutely outrageous, but at least the author puts their name to it and as such opens their journalism up to public scrutiny.

The same can not be said for other outlets who hide behind made up names. If there is a real public interest in a story, then why would the author of same not put his or her name to it? What kind of ethical journalism are we at when the reader is misled before they even read the opening word of the story by virtue of reading a fictitious by-line?

I have never met Jane Fletcher or Sarah Henderson, but I am sure their sworn affidavits in any potential civil case would make interesting reading.

Today’s coverage comes following a BBC Newsline report which focused solely on the fact Mr Matthews was present at Avoniel- so what? Is he not entitled to support his culture and engage in community activities?

BBC Newsline have set themselves a precedent- so any convicted or merely alleged IRA members that are present at the Feile in the coming weeks, I expect a BBC Newsline report on it. Or would that not fit the establishment agenda? If they do not apply the same precedent to republicans then they will have to explain why they treat different sections of the community with different standards.

All of this is no co-incidence, it does not exist in a vacuum. It comes shortly after the editors of all the main media outlets were treated to a lavish lunch by the Paramilitary Monitoring board, which entailed the editors receiving- over a glass of prosecco no doubt- off the record briefings from senior police officers. How can we expect journalism to hold the state to account if they allow themselves to simply become an arms-length state press office?

Then we had the ball starting to roll with the Chief Constable seeking to demonise and dehumanise the law-abiding peaceful protestors of Avoniel. This ended up back-firing somewhat given he ended up having to explain that the PSNI were not “in cahoots with the UVF” and ACC Alan Todd had to be wheeled out to field awkward questions about precisely what the PSNI were up to over Avoniel.

This was followed by a choreographed interview by the DUP MP Gavin Robinson. You would be naïve to think this was because he was concerned about allegations (in the majority of cases, wild allegations) about crime; rather the DUP had lost control of the grassroots unionist response at Avoniel and feeling the potential for another situation similar to the flags protest, they moved quickly to try and demonise any such potential movement.

Republican activist Patricia Macbride was also keen to get in on the act. On two radio programs she effectively made the argument that any political dissenters within loyalism should be de-platformed, even going as far on the BBC Nolan show as demanding that spokespersons who “orchestrate dissent” should be “taken out of circulation”. This is a pretty clear way of seeking to ensure that those within grassroots loyalism who are seen as unhelpful due to articulating perfectly lawful and legitimate anti-agreement viewpoints are stifled in favour of voices more conducive to the ‘New Ireland’ project.

This is also the policy position of sections of BBC NI (including Newsline and Talk Back)- who for some bizarre reason feel it their duty to try to de-platform unhelpful loyalist voices and enhance those they feel are more conducive to political harmony. I am not sure who gave the state broadcaster the mandate to take on this task, but they have nevertheless taken it on with some vigour. You would imagine the next stage would be a concerted effort to dehumanise aforementioned ‘unhelpful voices’ in order to pressure other sections of the media- including parts of the BBC who actually still value freedom of expression for all- into joining in their de-plaforming policy.

This was rather evident when the former Chief Constable made outrageous and false allegations against me around the UVF. The BBC Newsroom almost fell over themselves to carry the story prominently. When the PSNI were humiliated, their comments shown up for the black propaganda that it was and their actions subsequently deemed unlawful by the High Court, the same sections of the BBC who had salivated over the original inaccurate comments could not even bring themselves to carry the court report outlining how the PSNI had in fact acted unlawfully. Is this the fairness we should expect from the state broadcaster?

There will be some that will turn their noses up and ask why I am publicly defending Stephen Matthews. Why shouldn’t I? he is as entitled to fair treatment as everyone else.

And I know what it feels like to be the subject of a witch hunt. I can argue my own case in the media- I have willingly chosen to put myself forward for public debate and entered that arena. I have a platform and means of defending myself. But what about persons like Stephen Matthews who has never put themselves willingly in front of a camera, who has never sought publicity and who has never come forward as a spokesperson or given interviews. He has sought to jealously guard his privacy.

Who speaks up for the persons such as Stephen who are subjected to unfair witch hunts?

Some will say such persons should come forward and give interviews to address the issues, but why should Stephen do this, or anyone else for that matter? He didn’t ask for this, his privacy has been invaded through no fault of his own. He is not publicly funded, does not walk about with a suit and a briefcase calling himself a politician or community development worker. The absurd suggestion is that his remedy is to basically waive his own privacy and open himself up to the lynch mob. That is quite frankly outrageous.

I will continue to speak up for those persons within loyalism who are being dehumanised and their basic rights trampled upon, not because of crime, but primarily because they are politically unhelpful. If you want to target people for crime, then let the PSNI do their job robustly and efficiently- but do it fairly and select people who are actually criminals, not people whose political views make them necessary persons to criminalise.

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