Andrew MarrYou know this already, but let me repeat it. Journalists make a lot of stuff up. So great is the demand for comment and 'insider' analysis that wild hunches, tripe really, is packaged as fact, trimmed with self-importance and flung into the insatiable mouth of the news beast –
It was with a bad taste in my mouth that I waded through a red top piece penned about a close friend. Tony Catney has in recent months been diagnosed with a terminal illness and is currently undergoing treatment. I first met him in Magilligan Jail in late 1975. I was being released just as he was arriving in the windswept prison camp to begin a life sentence. Given his age at the time of the offence for which he was convicted the technical term for an underage lifer was 'at the Secretary of State’s Pleasure', in prison vernecular a SOSP. As we now know, if we didn’t already, from the treatment of Marian Price and Martin Corey, British Secretaries of State take great pleasure in keeping people detained, denying them any certainty about a release date.
TC was solid throughout the jail and proved a great friend upon release. We disagreed on many things over the years but could always laugh at it. His decision to challenge the party from within was far removed from my own of challenging it from without. Yet in many ways it was more difficult to stay within that suffocating environment, where ideas struggled to breathe as they navigated a very thin oppositional channel in circumstances where the waters could be made very choppy and turbulent. The only vessels considered fit for travel were those that showed deference to the leadership cult of personality. Much too stifling and restrictive for my temperament. Outside the party there was at least an invigorating ideational and intellectual life that could not be drowned out by the monotonous chant of ‘loyalty to the Big Lad.’
TC refused to join in when Sinn Fein waged its hate campaigns against dissent. His opposition to the party’s strategy of repressing republicans critical of its conservative departure extended to actively providing succour to myself. Despite the Sinn Fein ostracism he would frequently call to my home and I to his. During the battle for interpretation fought out in the wake of the Provo killing of Joe O’Connor, when myself and my wife were on the receiving end of volleys of venom, TC visited us and was not slow in transporting myself and her, then heavily pregnant, from one place to another when the need arose.
All these things came to mind when I read the tabloid piece about him. Tony Catney’s illness seemed such a cheap way for the Sunday World to hang a story. It appeared crafted to hook the readership on ‘here is a monster and even in his death agony this is his monstrous thinking.’ In an example of what the former Nightline anchormanTed Koppel referred to in 1997 as ‘the trivialization of our industry’, the article conjured up the accusation against him that he longed to see one more spectacular IRA operation a la Masserene before giving up the ghost.
When I visited him in his hospital bed there was plenty of political discussion but nothing of wishing for spectaculars, even by way of jest. To my surprise and relief he was not rendered incoherent or intellectually disorganised by his illness. I was on my way to deliver an eulogy at the graveside of a couple, one of whom I had spent time in prison with, Dominic and Mary McGlinchey. I was in the company of a friend I had also done jail with. We were joined during the visit by a former member of Sinn Fein. The crack was great. Despite going in tentatively and with no small measure of trepidation we left in high spirits because of TC’s attitude. He was uplifting throughout, winding, slagging and holding court from his bed as he discoursed about politics and the need for more debate and exploration of strategic options. He actually referred to a conference he had been planning where the collapse of republicanism would be the main topic for discussion. Not once did he say he would like to see a cop or a soldier killed.
TC has been the victim of many tabloid assaults over the years. Once an interview with him that had never taken place was fabricated and after a complaint to the Press Complaint commission an apology was given. He is said to have vented his dying ‘blood drenched desire’ at his North Belfast home. Yet he does not live in North Belfast. He was also reported to have left the Republican Network for Unity (RNU) with a man ... who was never at any point in the RNU. Inaccuracies of this type littered the piece. It hardly beckoned a strong belief in the accuracy of the ‘spectacular’ comments.
Having more serious matters on his mind Tony Catney is unlikely to worry what is said in the Sunday World about him where much worse has been said about others. On occasion there is a factual basis to what is reported in the paper, but unfortunately it is a rule that doesn’t always hold sway. The late Christopher Hitchens had a point when he said ‘I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.’
None of us are free from criticism and we must never seek to censor those who criticise, even when they get it wrong. Nevertheless, acuracy goes a long way towards enhancing public understanding and is ultimately what differentiates a newspaper from a comic.