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Channel 4's role in the Bloody Sunday inquiry

By Alex Thomson

Updated on 15 June 2010

After successfully battling to defend the identity of his sources, Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at Channel 4 News, reflects on his part in Bloody Sunday inquest.

As the Bloody Sunday inquiry ends, Alex Thomson, chief correspondent at Channel 4 News, reflects on his part in the exhaustive 12-year investigation, which threatened him with a prison sentence. (Image: Bloody Sunday graves)

So there I was, about 7am, jogging on the treadmill. Who walks in, in shorts and t-shirt? But Mark Saville.

We were just outside Derry in a pleasant, but not lavish, country house hotel. Mark and at least one of his fellow judges on the Bloody Sunday inquiry, were in for their morning workout, pre-breakfast.

So if you ever wonder how the hell judges manage not to drop off during long inquiries and trial - and none come longer than this one at 11 years - now you have one of the inside secrets.

I felt a little sorry for them all. Just a little, mind. A cloistered old life: the morning workout, the breakfast; the security details and drive to Derry's Guildhall; lunch; more hearings; back to the same hotel with the same judges; meal; bed; another early workout and so it went on for them and on and on.

For us - myself, producer Lena Ferguson and our (somewhat more modest) team of legal and managerial support from Channel 4 News, it was merely a one or two day dip into this arcane parallel universe of Britain's longest ever public inquiry.

Though it was not without its moments of humour and farce of course.

Such as the occasion when Dan - ITN's press officer - was dispatched to buy emergency underwear as it seemed we would be delayed in Derry longer than anticipated.

He appeared in our hotel lobby, with various plastic bags. He unloaded the contents across the carpet and declared: "Gentlemen - I present the new Contempt Range - from M&S!"

Gallows humour of possible impending prosecution for contempt of court was never far from proceedings in those days.

More from Channel 4 News on Bloody Sunday:
- The day Jackie Duddy came home in a brown box
- Bloody Sunday: what can the report achieve?
- Controversy either way in Bloody Sunday report
- Bloody Sunday Inquiry: a timeline
- What would an 'unlawful' Bloody Sunday verdict mean?
- Bloody Sunday inquiry rules in favour of ITN

All along, the clerk to the inquiry and his staff had been at pains to claim "this is not adversarial" and "this is not a court of law". I didn't believe a word of it beforehand and with hindsight I am glad.

Let me tell you, when you were in the box in Derry's Guildhall it was adversarial from the world go.

For some time we sat in the rear seats before Lena and myself gave evidence and it was a fascinating place to be.

The sessions would be with the likes of Christopher Clarke QC for the inquiry and Edwin Glasgow QC for the Ministry of Defence. Opposite sides as it were, but best of friends in this rather jolly "all in it together" atmosphere that had built up over the months and years.

These men were becoming richer and richer the longer it went on - both took several million from the taxpayers in the course of the Mark Saville Marathon. Clarke earned £4.5m, while Glasgow was paid £4.1m.

Christopher Clarke would jovially handed around boiled sweets every now and then to the large legal teams, as the fee meters purred away.

Personally, I found all this English public-school camaraderie at a vast public expense, frankly stomach-churning.  The daily scene on the floor of the Guildhall was truly something to behold. Worth going to see for that alone.

And the proceedings of course, were anything but non-adversarial.

Edwin Glasgow QC repeatedly seemed to be trying  to get me to say that the sound tapes we used of Bloody Sunday had never been heard before.

When all along I'd said that, to the best of our knowledge, they'd not been broadcast before. The inquiry transcript gives you a sense of the atmosphere:

EG:You broadcast in public a part of the tape which you understood had never been listened to by anybody before, what did you -
AT (Interrupts): That is not true. Forgive me, I thought we had just cleared that up a second ago. What we are saying is that it had not been broadcast to anybody before.
EG: That is just what I put to you.
AT: There is a world of difference. Forgive me, you said "played" - that's a very different thing.
EG: I apologise.

On another occasion Mr Glasgow appeared to be attempting to get me to say where we had met a particular source. Any information like that could lead to his or her identity. I was not willing to disclose that.

They knew that. It didn't stop them trying:

EG: He came to meet you?
AT: We met, yes.
EG: This is right? He did come and meet you did he?
AT: Well, we met, let us leave it at that shall we?
EG: Let's answer my question, Mr Thomson, shall we?
AT: I just did.
EG: Did he come to meet you?
AT: We met.
EG: I will ask the question once again.
LORD SAVILLE: I am not quite sure of the purpose of the question, Mr Glasgow.
AT: Let me help you out. The purpose is quite obvious. If I describe the situation as to who met who where, we immediately get into a process whereby we can get towards giving information away as regards this man's identity which I am simply not prepared to do.
EG: I am not suggesting that you should for one moment
AT: But that is unfortunately where it led, was it not?
EG: It was not leading there at all.
LORD SAVILLE: Again, I am not quite sure of the relevance of the question?

And so it went on. I was offered a chance to get anything else off my chest towards the end of my evidence. So I did:

AT: There are a number of matters which you said to my colleague  (Lena Ferguson) yesterday, and indeed this morning, which were extremely unfair, frankly disgraceful, and I have to say I was very surprised she was put through an experience like that in a Tribunal we were warned was non-adversarial. But that is something for you to consider.

The Tribunal then notes:
"We have your comment. We invited you to make it, if that is how you feel.

We were to testify on two occasions. On the second, I remember another spirited exchange between myself and the pugnacious Edwin Glasgow. Lawyers - plenty of them, had told me he was irritated by our first encounter.

As is the way with these things, you are asked for your educational qualifications and background when you make a legal statement to the inquiry, just by way of background.

Our lawyers had written a statement which contained some minor grammatical error.

Mr Glasgow accused me of boasting that I had a degree in English from Oxford. I told him I was merely saying what I'd been asked to put down in the statement. He pointed out the grammatical mistake in the statement:

"Is that good English?" he asked.

"Well it's not Mandarin Chinese", I replied. I think he sat down at that point.

Martin Fewell, Channel 4 News Deputy Editor later observed:

"You've certainly got a degree in sarcasm."

And there was me thinking we were there to add something to what might be known about the events of Bloody Sunday.

I can only hope and trust that others got a better deal from the likes of Mr Glasgow, when called to give their evidence.

Small wonder there was more or less open antipathy between the locally based lawyers from Northern Ireland and Derry in particular, many of whom openly resented the lofty but often less than effective manner of the highly expensive English QCs who flew in to the Guildhall month in, month out.

Our appearances ended with a direct exchange as the Tribunal formally asked me, in the witness box, if I would reveal military sources who had spoken to Channel 4 News during the course of several investigatory films we had made.

Everyone knew the answer before I gave it of course. But it was a kind of ritual which had to be formally gone through and in public too.

Christopher Clarke QC for the Tribunal, was the man to whom this task fell, on the day:

CC: Will you now write down on a piece of paper the true identity of soldier A?
AT: No. I'm afraid I cannot do that.
CC: Will you produce your unredacted notes of your interviews and conversations with soldier A?
AT: No.
LORD SAVILLE: As in the case of Ms Ferguson, Mr Thomson, you will realise that for the reasons we have given we must now order you to answer Mr Clarke's requests.
AT: There is a clear principle which needs defending there, a principle which extends not just to Channel 4 News, but to investigative journalism and its future as a whole. And if that principle needs to be defended by ultimately serving a prison sentence or whatever is required, then that is going to have to be done. Thank you.
LORD SAVILLE: Thank you Mr Thomson. Am I correct in understanding for the reasons that you eloquently put, you decline to comply with the order of the Tribunal?
AT: That is correct.
LORD SAVILLE: Thank you very much for attending here.
AT: Thank you.

Of course we were in theory laying ourselves open to a contempt of court and possible prison sentence. But all that seemed to me deeply theoretical throughout the whole business. Far from taking any stand it was simple pragmatism for me.

If I told Saville the names of the soldiers who had spoken to us on condition of anonymity, then any credibility I might have in the future would be shot down in flames very publically. I can't think any journo would not have done as Lena and I did.

Of course in our previous testimony much of what we had revealed was gone through with a reasonably fine toothcomb by various legal teams on the floor of the inquiry.

For example, the thrust of some of our reports was that ballistics evidence showed some of the protesters were probably not killed by bullets fired at ground level but from a completely different trajectory - from above the Bogside streets.

This tallied with testimony from many that there was firing from up above the Bogside, from the old walls of the city of Derry. That was where the Royal Anglian Regiment were stationed - a completely different outfit from the Paras, known to have fired at street level down in the Bogside.

It felt weird to be standing there accounting on the spot for what you had put on TV. No bad thing for any reporter to have to do. But weird nonetheless. Werider still to have to account for this and all the business of not disclosing sources to assorted newspaper, radio and TV reporters at the time.

Nonetheless I felt then as now that the importance of protecting sources cannot be overstated.

Not a few people have come to me with tip-offs and stories down the years because they either recall the Bloody Sunday episode in that light - or they Google you and the wonders of the internet certainly remind them if they didn't know already.

The joy of our investigations, led by Lena Ferguson who is from Northern Ireland and was absolutely the driving force behind what we did, was the unforeseen places and people such investigations lead you too. To the extraordinary Jimmy Porter, a large, lovely and remarkably man - radio ham to the core - who was recording much of the military traffic on that day.

He had a shop right next to "aggro corner" where almost ritualised rioting tool place between the security forces and the Bogsiders at the time. He lived on a road outside Derry when we met him, on the way out to Donegal across the border.

An elderly man, his grasp of events that day was completely lucid. His banks of bulky radio equipment still piled up and working in various sheds and rooms at his house. The whole place easy to find because of the a large radio mast sprouting from his garden. His radio tapes of that day are a remarkable body of evidence.

They show that there was apparently firing from the walls of the city above the Bogside. He patiently explained how he had put all this to the Widgery Inquiry which took place shortly after the killings. He was told they were not wanted because they had been "illegally" obtained.

One statement of many to us from disparate people who felt let down by Lord Widgery's brief inquiry into Bloody Sunday, was in some quarters discredited as a whitewash of the whole affair.

Fulbio Grimaldi, an Italian journalist, who, with his girlfriend Susan North, was witnessing and sound recording the events unfolding outside his window.

Lena tracked him down to Italy where she listened to remarkable tapes of the violence unfolding. The shock and disbelief somehow more unsettling than even the film images of that terrible day.

His extraordinary experience of sitting in a forensic sound lab in west London as an engineer unpicked the different gunfire sounds and separated out what we were hearing.

The time, lots of it with John Kelly and Gerry Duddy, both of them tireless campaigners for justice down the years in Derry itself. Indeed the experience too of walking those streets and alleyways with people there on the day.

There is something about taking people back with a camera. Something about what happens when you switch on and start going back over it all. Standing now together where they stood then with others. Sometimes remarkable things happen.

Lena had somehow tracked down  Lt Col Derek Wilford - commander of the Paras in the Bogside that day. To sit with him in an anonymous hotel room in London whilst he unpacked it all in his head again, all these years on, for our camera, remains with me as a riveting experience.

A brittle man, half steely military man and half artist. Still ready to defend his men to the hilt, each and every one of them, for their actions that day. Almost aghast and certainly enraged because he felt he pushed the British army into the previously "no-go" area of the Bogside:

"We were in there. We held the Bogside. We held it." The passion still there, leaning into the camera. Am still very much feeling he and his men remain wronged by what had happened.

Well, history has already judged otherwise. He struck me as a lonely figure these days in many ways.

We brought a soldier back to the Bogside for the first time in a generation. A man there on the day who had new perspectives on what he saw happen. As we drove across the Cragiavon Bridge towards Derry's city centre he suddenly said stop - stop the car.

We did so and he got out and went and stood at the roadside corner for a few moments, on a grassy bank. Neither Lena or myself had a clue what was happening.

"OK," he said after some moments, "let's get on with it," and he got back into our car.

We drove on. It turned out that he had seen a fellow soldier killed at or near that spot but had never disclosed that to us, until today, here and now. That is the way it happens when you take people back to the post, to the location. The passage of time suddenly appears to count for very little as people face up to their truths.

I'm not sure what we wanted in investigating Bloody Sunday all over again. Primarily at the time there was the feeling that the killings had never actually been investigated.

The initial inquiry by Lord Widgery was widely regarded as superficial and inadequate, and the more we heard and found out on that score, the more we found the weaknesses within it.

So there was a growing feeling as the months passed by that "something should be done" with regard to Bloody Sunday.

People spoke to us often about a peace, truth and reconciliated process in South Africa and increasingly saw Bloody Sunday in this context as the peace process began to gather momentum across Ireland north and south.

Indeed, it was said that tapes of our investigation were handed to the Tony Blair by the Taoiseach as part of a persuasion offensive for a proper inquiry to be set up.

And so we came to Mark Saville and the treadmill. Some inquiry and some treadmill. Everything Widgery was not in terms of scale and scope.

There will be some - many perhaps - who see it as too far to the other extreme, a behemoth whose sheer scope and scale has damaged the very concept of public inquiries - not least in the era of austerity.

Perhaps all that is true. Perhaps justice does have a price after all and we shall not see anything quite like the Saville Inquiry, ever again.

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