Lyra McKee reveals a sinister campaign to silence her reporting about Northern Ireland’s regional economic development agency.
Seven years ago, a Northern Irish Government department withdrew funding from a local charity. They accused staff of “financial mismanagement” – a euphemism for fraud. The charity’s founders denied any mismanagement, saying the department had a personal grudge against them and had conspired to remove the funding. The local press ignored them, except for one young reporter.
Over six months, the reporter uncovered a paper trail showing that the department had lied about their reasons for withdrawing funding. But newspapers refused to publish the story and it died, quietly. The civil servants involved went unpunished. One of them even got a promotion. The charity was unable to raise funding elsewhere and nearly closed.
I was that young reporter. It was my first taste of journalism in Northern Ireland and what it was like reporting on the public sector. With 28 per cent of the population working for the Government, local newspapers make a lot of money from government job ads. With money tight across the industry, this has created a reluctance among editors to bite the hand that feeds them.
They’re weary of asking hard questions and publishing hard stories. There are exceptions to this, of course: The Detail does some fantastic work, as do The Irish News and the BBC’s Darragh MacIntyre. But, for the most part, there is little investigative journalism in Northern Ireland. So Government officials aren’t used to being asked hard questions by reporters. And they don’t like it when it happens.
My investigation into Invest NI began with a tip-off from a source. Invest NI has teams around the world, all tasked with persuading foreign companies to open offices in Northern Ireland. The West Coast US team, said my source, wasn’t closing many deals. So I sent a few questions to Invest NI under the Freedom of Information Act.
A few days later, the phone calls began. A senior Invest NI executive had been contacting members of Northern Ireland’s startup community, asking who I was and how best to shut me up. My friends became worried: they urged me to back off the story, or to at least soften it. “They can make life difficult for you if they want to,” one person said.
Here’s some background: Invest NI’s chief executive, Alastair Hamilton, is married into one of Northern Ireland’s most notorious political families, the Paisleys. Ian Paisley was leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Northern Ireland’s First Minister from 2007-8; Hamilton was his economics advisor at the time. While the Paisleys are no longer as powerful as they once were, they’re still very well connected.
So journalists have been wary of upsetting Hamilton and his senior team; it definitely wasn’t a good professional move for a lone reporter. (In the interests of fairness, the team who handled my FOI request were a pleasure to deal with). But irritating people is a hazard of this job. I ignored the phone calls and kept digging.
Last Wednesday, I was typing up my final report. Writer’s block is frustrating; I’d struggled with it for days. But the words were coming, finally. My phone buzzed with a message. It was from a local entrepreneur.
This guy was a friend of mine. I’d helped him out a few times and we’d go drinking together in bars, usually after a start-up event. It was not a secret that we were mates. So his message concerned me.
He’d received an email from an Invest NI-backed venture capital fund (public money, in other words). The VC was concerned about his “association” with a “troublemaking” journalist and said it would affect their relationship with his company. Whether that meant they were concerned by our friendship or that he suspected my friend may have been acting as a source (he wasn’t), I don’t know.
But I was furious. That’s why I decided to tell the full story behind what you read at The Kernel this morning.
I was never planning to write about the Invest NI executive’s phone calls. I bitched about it on Twitter, but I didn’t want to include it in my reporting. It was just a part of the job.
But let’s consider the seriousness of this. A fund manager who manages public money is threatening a local start-up because the founder is friends with a journalist who is writing stories about his boss.
This is just one case I know of: I’m friends with a lot of Northern Irish entrepreneurs. Who knows how many of them have been contacted by this sinister outfit?
It feels like history repeating itself. In 2009, every editor in Northern Ireland turned a blind eye to what the Government did to that charity. And because the people behind that mess got away with it, others like them will too. This is what happens when the press stops asking questions.
I’m not going to name the VC fund or fund manager for now – Invest NI have told me they’ll address the situation if I can provide details – because I know that doing so will only make life more difficult for the entrepreneur.
But if the firm in question decides to repeat their mistake, and I will find out if they do, I’ll be naming them publicly in The Kernel and on Twitter.
The moral of the story is: if you have a problem with a journalist asking questions, address them directly. Don’t threaten a tiny start-up, one of the people whose interests you are supposedly there to serve.