How 'fake news' actually happens

EDITOR'S BLOG: Journalists get their facts wrong in different ways, as I discovered in Northern Ireland.

by Matthew Gwyther
Last Updated: 01 Mar 2017

If there’s one thing that scribbling like this for 32 years teaches you it’s ‘do your homework.’ Making sure that a hack does his desk work before venturing out into the field leaves him, like Baden Powell’s boy scout properly ‘prepared.’ Occasionally we may thus even know what we’re talking and writing about. Often this means making good use of the endeavours and spent-shoe leather of journalists who went before you. So, before I flew over to Northern Ireland recently to write an article about the province and Brexit, I did a good deal of reading beforehand.

I wanted to find some older individuals living near the border who had stuffed their Leave vote in the ballot box despite having lived through the bad times of The Troubles. Why had they done this when it almost certainly would mean the return of a hard border with the Republic and life being made far more difficult for business people both Catholic and Protestant? The fruits of my labours are here.

I discovered a gem of a feature written by the highly accomplished Cal McCrystal for The Independent back in 1994. It was about Protestant farmers living near the border and the tough times they were facing living in ‘Bandit Country’ - an area so dangerously lawless that the British army usually chose to move around only by helicopter. McCrystal found one called Fred Elliott from Fermanagh:-

‘Elliott,’ wrote McCrystal, ‘Has been a victim of both the IRA and the Ulster Volunteer Force. "The IRA hijacked my car at the front gate, after hijacking a mobile shop to block a road. Nobody knew if there was a bomb in it or not. We were held at gunpoint in the house until it was dark. They then used the car to get away. It turned up in Ballinamore just over the border. The UVF hijacked the same car, put a bomb in it and made me drive down the road into the Republic. They'd timed the bomb to go off after I'd parked the car at the Garda (police) station.

‘"On the way there, the car hit a bump on the road, and I heard something rattling around in the boot. I knew something had been dislodged from the bomb, but I kept going, because they were holding my family hostage. When I got to the Garda station, I jumped out and yelled 'Bomb' But it didn't go off. A bump in the road had dislodged the timing device. The Irish Army carried out a controlled explosion."’

Great story, I thought. Using Google I tracked Fred Eliott down to Banbridge, County Down, where, like his late Coronation Street namesake, he runs a butcher’s shop. I phoned the place and asked if I could come and interview him as someone who’d lived through The Troubles and experienced them at first hand. He seemed to think it odd that I was interested in the views of a man like him but nevertheless agreed.

It was a Fred Elliott from County Down.

Down and South Armagh retain a certain edge even now. In February last year Thomas ‘Slab’ Murphy, a farmer whose property straddles County Armagh in the North and County Louth in the South, was given 18 months for tax evasion and smuggling. Murphy was finally jailed Al Capone-style for crimes other than those linked to violence he allegedly committed when he was the former chief of staff for the IRA which included both the Warrenpoint killing of 18 British soldiers in 1979 and the explosion that killed Viscount Mountbatten.

I arrived in Banbridge and spent a while outside Fred’s butchers shop admiring the display of beef, lamb, chicken, kebabs, soups, stews and hams not to mention the rotisserie. I went in and Fred, dressed in his white coat, took me to the back office to conduct the interview. We discussed the vote, how his business was prospering, what might change when we ‘took back control.’

Still, for all the current uncertainty, I mused, it must have been a blessing to live in peace since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. At least he could go about his business without getting hijacked in his car by paramilitaries from both sides. ‘Hijacked?’ he inquired, looking at me bemused. ‘I’ve never been hijacked.’ No hijack. By either the IRA or UVF. I clearly had the wrong Fred. There was an embarrassed pause.

But in terms of getting my story all was not, however, lost. Indeed Fred became quite animated. ‘No. I wasn’t hijacked. It was worse than that. My bomb went off. This place was wrecked by the IRA on 15 March 1982. They planted the thing by the wall there. I’ve still got the scars on my head and a child was killed. Took me two and a half years to re-build the shop and get going again.’ The child was Alan McCrum, aged eleven. Thirty four others were injured.

This cock-up is quite telling. Even if you get the wrong guy in Northern Ireland everyone of a certain age will have their story of The Troubles. Three and a half thousand lost their lives. Many thousands more were maimed or traumatised by the direct effects of hideous violence.
Just look at this web page, which lists all those killed or injured on 15 March down the decades of strife.

And why did Fred vote to leave? ‘Europe, France and all those countries are dictating terms too much to Britain. We gave too much away to them.’ But weren’t the futures of the North and the South now quite entwined? ‘We need them as much as they need us and that’s a fact.’ I never did find the other Fred Elliott - Fred, the butcher from Banbridge didn’t know him. But I wonder if he’s still about, what he makes of Brexit and if he still checks carefully under his car each time he gets in to go off somewhere.

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