Peter Preston is in fine form in today’s unobservant Observer. He devotes his column to the question of brave investigate journalism and the state-sanctioned assassinations in Northern Ireland. To set the stage, though, Preston showers deserved praise on the journalists Seymour Hersh and Pedro J Ramirez for uncovering and reporting the state-sanctioned assassinations by the CIA and Spanish agents. Hersh and Ramirez, Preston writes, should "take a bow – brave, determined journalists doing their jobs…" Indeed.
He contrasts their courage with the gutlessness of Blighty’s reporting community: "…hang your British heads in shame," he fulminates. The champion of investigative journalism thunders on: "Did any battling Hersh or Ramirez figure expose that at the time? No. And nor was it much exposed last week, when the province’s Police Ombudsman published her chilling report." Quite so.
Preston is aghast at the pitiful commentary emanating from the moribund British press regarding state-sanctioned assassination: "Just five or six paragraphs buried inside the Sun [that paragon of investigative journalism] and the Mirror." Our shining but infuriated knight is distressed by the rest of the press concentrating on lesser issues: "recycling problems in the Indy, inheritance taxes in the Mail, courts short of cash in the Times and judges getting stroppy over rape trial reforms in the Guardian." The condemnation, the fury finally peaks, and St Peter tells it like it is: "It’s a bizarre, shaming blindness. Not uncovering the truth is bad enough. Not blazoning it when somebody else has it worse." Never a truer word written.
It was, Preston reminds us, not long after that "A hundred thousand Turks walked in silence at the funeral of murdered Armenian [sic. He was a Turk of Armenian extraction] editor last week. They showed us how important good journalism can be. But nobody walked the walk, or even talked the talk, on the streets of Belfast – or Whitehall". The shame of it all.
Brave reporters are one thing, but having an editor with a backbone is an entirely different thing. All the Hershes and Ramirezes in the world is not much use if your editor is a jellyfish. Boasting a "D.Phil in source protection theory", Preston knows how many beans make five. He also knows that the cardinal rule of journalism is you never compromise a source. Preston, however, was not in the mood for a bit of "source protection" (alright in "theory", not in practice) or "uncovering the truth" when the PC Plods of "Special" Branch came knocking at the Guardian. Editor at the time, Preston was in possession of documents leaked by Sarah Tisdall, a young Foreign Office clerk. Rather than doing the Hersh and Ramirez stuff, Preston, rather than showing the Hersh spirit or stalling for time or even eating the damned papers, presented the info sharpish. And Tisdall went to the slammer.
This is no mere case of a dog returning to its own vomit, but a canine passing off the spew as the choicest cut of beef. Has Preston gone mad? Possibly he’s senile and can’t quite remember the name Sarah Tisdall. Maybe this is Preston’s attempt at some sort of rehabilitation. If so, this unseemly foray as ambassador of investigative journalism compounds the disgrace that will justifiably haunt him to the end.