For anything but the right reason, when we learn of events like the murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, it is all too commonplace to see what Einstein did, "spooky action at a distance.”
When the young journalist Lyra McKee was killed last year, her colleagues intuited correctly that, unlike the killing of Martin O’Hagan two decades ago, it was not a focused attack on journalists, rather a transfer of hideous malice. The projectile of hatred was aimed towards another, not her.
That's hardly the full story. In an era where the leader of the "free world" increasingly demonizes the "free press", both threats and violence against journalists and the profession of journalism are much closer to home. As recently as yesterday the NUJ released a press statement:
Two journalists working for the Sunday World newspaper have been contacted by police and told of a series of "imminent threats" of attack by criminals and loyalist paramilitaries including the West Belfast Ulster Defence Association (UDA). One NUJ member was contacted in the middle of the night by the police and alerted to a threat. Another NUJ member has been issued with a shoot to kill threat and is also at risk of entrapment and attack. Both individuals have been named in various threatening social media posts and both journalists have been threatened on previous occasions.
Appalling, but it is far from an isolated incident. Earlier in the week there were reports of threats having been issued against a journalist working for the Belfast Telegraph.
Increasingly, the website of the NUJ finds itself flagging up the type of intimidation that is wielded against journalists in Britain, the union's general secretary Michelle Stanistreet, voicing her own concern.
If you’re being threatened with rape, if you’re being threatened with grotesque violence, your family members, your children are being threatened over social media, you can’t simply think, ‘Don’t feed the trolls, don’t engage with it … You have to take those threats very seriously. And even if you weren’t, the very fact that this content is appearing in your life, in your home, is incredibly unsettling, and it’s affecting people’s mental health and their well-being.
The backdrop to the Stanistreet comments was a NUJ survey which estimated that one in five journalists claimed to have been physically attacked while a staggering 51% had experienced online abuse, with ethnic minorities and women bearing the brunt.
The specificity of the rape threat being used against journalists was earlier made evident by the UK journalist Lizzie Dearden:
I had been getting hundreds of threatening messages from people calling for me to be raped, attacked or killed. They had been sparked by a report I wrote from a terror trial – an account of what had been said in the court – that was published on The Independent.
It was with this invidious spectre hovering menacingly in the background that a charity group took the initiative and organised an online workshop to explore the matter. Compass Rose Network describes itself as:
a charity set up in response to dealing with conflict, trauma, peace and reconciliation. We run workshops where ordinary people relate their narratives of conflict and trauma but also how, by telling their story they have gained a transformative life changing experience.
The thinking behind the event, according to one of the proposed speakers, was to "to discuss attacks on women journalists." Invitations had been sent to journalists around the world as well as to academics and others who might have an interest in the subject matter.
Listed as panel speakers were journalists working and living in the North, Felicity McCall, Trisha Devlin and Kathryn Johnson, each of whom was expected to outline their knowledge or experience of the dangers faced by journalists. The keynote address was to be given by Trisha Devlin, who according to one of the organisers, had been subjected to horrific abuse, “trolled, abused and the safety of her and her baby threatened by loyalist gangsters.”
In an even chillier echo of the experience of those British journalists outlined by Michelle Stanistreet and Lizzie Dearden, the type of horrific abuse hurled the way of Trisha Devlin included a threat to rape her infant son. It is without the slightest difficulty that we can conjure up the horrendous vista of some knuckle dragger being more than prepared to follow through on his threat and then use political motive to mask his predilection for children. As in the case of Lyra McKee who had gone to the PSNI accompanied by a NUJ official to complain about being persistently bullied, stalked and intimidated - ironically on this occasion allegedly by a fellow member of the NUJ - the police have continued farcically directing onlookers away from the scene of the crime.
With police disinterest shaping a "look the other way" approach, it was crucial that CRN's workshop proceeded so that attention could be brought to matters that both the PSNI and Police Scotland would for some reason rather not see the light of day.
Nevertheless, the CRN event ended up being pulled in the most puzzling of circumstances that gravely dismayed the organisers who took to Twitter to express their disappointment:
It has unfortunately come to our attention that a journalist has made a complaint to the NUJ regarding one of our members. This is in relation to a personality clash + only that. As a result of this action we feel that they have prohibited the valuable work that CRN aim to do ... Many journalists will now not get the opportunity to tell their stories or participate in the upcoming workshop which has gathered an attendance from all backgrounds globally. The fact that @NUJofficial were NOT sponsoring this event nor did they contact us is disappointing ... Very sad state of affairs..... that freedom of speech is hindered by the very body who continually fight for it.... based on a vindictive complaint.
According to Lesley Stock, a former PSNI officer and one of the minds behind the event, CRN was contacted by participants claiming to have been informed by their union "that a ‘complaint’ had been lodged by another female journalist about one of the organisers.” Ms Stock further felt that the NUJ in London left the three journalists with no option other than to withdraw from the event.
The NUJ's reason for not wanting its members taking part is apparently down to three tweets posted earlier in the year by Ms Stock about a NUJ member, which the latter is said to have taken offence at. The tweets are available online and it seems beyond question that while sarky there is nothing in them that would remotely lend itself to a legitimate reason for seeking to dissuade journalists - including one under serious threat - from joining the panel.
If events like these which afford journalists some protection at an otherwise foreboding moment - where the police are culpable of a complete failure - are to be scuttled it should be for reasons of the utmost gravitas rather than the piffling one upon which the decision to upend this workshop seems to have swung.
Journalism matters, journalists under threat matter, and the voices of journalists like Felicity McCall, Kathryn Johnston and Trisha Devlin matter in the battle against all forms of perverse obscurantism and the threat posed from that quarter. They are voices that should be amplified not muffled. Lesley Stock and her colleagues at CRN deserve credit for doing in essence what the NUJ should be doing.
While what is happening to journalists is no laughing matter, if a laughing stock does emerge from this gratuitous cancellation - or the feet of someone are to be placed in stocks as atonement - it will not be Ms Stock.
⏩Follow on Twitter @AnthonyMcIntyre.