The National Union of Journalists, a UK journalists association, has agreed to pay investigative journalist Suzanne Breen an undisclosed libel settlement over a 2009 story, the BBC reported. The NUJ, of which Breen is a member, had already retracted and apologized for its story shortly after its fall 2009 publication.
The defamation suit came as after the NUJ’s magazine wrote about a controversy surrounding Breen’s reporting. She had reported in 2009 that the Real IRA had assumed “responsibility for the murder of two soldiers” at an army base in Northern Ireland in March 2009. (See here the BBC’s report on the army base attack.)
At the time, the police called on Breen to reveal her sources and reportedly said they “would use all possible legal means ‘to access information which may assist their inquiries.'” But, Breen said she wouldn’t turn over the information. She wrote about her decision in the Sunday Tribune, stating:
“Compromising sources undermines the freedom of the press. Journalists and police do different jobs. Our role is to put information into the public domain. If a journalist becomes a gatherer of evidence or a witness for the state, they cease being a journalist.”
At the time, the NUJ’s Jeremy Dear commented that the NUJ would “stand firm” with Breen and her decision to protect her sources.
But, NUJ magazine, The Journalist, published a story including “comments about her stance on protecting sources in her stories on the Real IRA” and “followed her victory in a legal battle with police in June 2009 who were trying to make her surrender information on dissident republicans,” the BBC reported.
Her attorney, Paul Tweed, commented this month about the settlement, stating that the NUJ’s story in question was problematic because of “the gravity and outrageous nature of the offending allegations, which not only sought to undermine her professional integrity, but also could have prejudiced her personal security and that of her young family.” As a result, she filed the defamation suit.
The story in question was titled “Union hero Suzanne Breen was ‘licensed by the Real IRA.'” StinkyJournalism hasn’t seen the article as it has been retracted, but the headline suggests that the NUJ accused Breen of being in cahoots with the Real IRA. The fact that the NUJ fell on its sword indicates its claims were wrong.
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“We unreservedly accept that t-he allegations in the headline and article were totally and absolutely without foundation, and should never have been published by us in the first place.
“We fully accept that Suzanne Breen has at all times conducted interviews and investigations on a strictly professional basis as a journalist, and we sincerely apologise to her for publishing false allegations to the contrary.”
Tweed, Breen’s attorney, commented about the settlement:
“My client believes that her actions will not only have totally vindicated her own reputation, but will also serve to protect other journalists from being put in a similar unsatisfactory position in the future, in circumstances where total impartiality and independence are of vital and fundamental importance to their professional standing.”
In response to the settlement, Breen is quoted as saying: “It’s been an extremely stressful time for myself. I’m delighted it’s all over and very pleased with the outcome.”
Breen was Sunday Tribune northern editor at the time of the alleged defamation, the BBC reported. The Tribune closed in February after a few weeks in receivership and not publishing, according to The Guardian. As StinkyJournalism has reported, The Tribune’s receiver Jim Luby recently filed a lawsuit against the Irish Mail for the Mail’s wraparound cover featuring the Tribune’s masthead.
In a similar case, StinkyJournalism wrote in December about a media ethics case study of Nick Martin-Clark’s source confidentiality case that involved the NUJ. In 1999, Martin-Clark reported a murder confession from prisoner Clifford George McKeown.
Like Breen’s case, the police called on journalist Martin-Clark to hand over his notes, but unlike Breen, Martin-Clark not only complied but also “gave evidence in court” against McKeown. The NUJ kicked Martin-Clark out of the union, but Martin-Clark defended his decision to out McKeown. Read more about the case here.