< Closing the Book on Bloody Sunday


Friday, June 18, 2010

BROOKE GLADSTONE: This week in Britain, the publication of the Saville Report, passing what presumably is the final judgment on what led to British soldiers killing 13 people and fatally wounding another during a civil rights march in the Northern Ireland city of Londonderry on January 30th, 1972. I say “final judgment” because an official investigation launched soon after Bloody Sunday laid the blame on the marchers. The Saville Report reached the opposite conclusion. It found that the soldiers’ attack was entirely unprovoked and that some civilians were shot even as they crawled away. Here’s British Prime Minister David Cameron on Tuesday.

PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: I never want to believe anything bad about our country. I never want to call into question the behavior of our soldiers and our army, who I believe to be the finest in the world.


PRIME MINISTER DAVID CAMERON: But the conclusions of this report are absolutely clear. What happened on Bloody Sunday was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Former Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered the Saville investigation in 1998. Twelve years later, it has finally set the record straight. In a story we did in 2002, we noted that among the thousands of people to give evidence to the Saville investigators were several reporters who were on the ground in Londonderry in 1972.

PETER PRINGLE: There I was sitting in my Manhattan apartment uh, 27 years later and the phone goes, and it's uh the Saville Inquiry in London announcing to me that they have five of my notebooks, which I had used during the time that I was in Derry, in 1972. And I have to say I was shocked.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Pringle was an investigative reporter with The Sunday Times in London when he was sent in by his editor, Harold Evans, to try and determine what happened in Derry that Sunday.

[BACKGROUND HUBBUB/NOISE] All was confusion and contradiction in Derry. A civil rights march was underway, but no organized violence was planned by the Catholic side. The IRA had even declared it was taking the day off. Police and British regulars were tactically deployed, armed as always with purple dye-firing water cannons and rubber bullets, all except the paratroopers, straight from service in Cyprus. They had their standard self-loading rifles.

PETER PRINGLE: Tell me what happened when the paratroopers came in, Father.

PRIEST: They came out and they, they just came in firing. The people – there, there was no provocation whatsoever. They -

PETER PRINGLE: Firing what, rubber bullets?

PRIEST: No, it was lead bullets they fired.

PETER PRINGLE: A short while ago, we filmed you leading the way with a, with a – with a white handkerchief -


PETER PRINGLE: - for a, a party. You were carrying a boy who was dead or dying. Now, how was he shot?


PRIEST: That little boy was shot when he was running away.

GENERAL ROBERT FORD: I don't believe they were shot in the back running away. A lot of us, in fact, do think that some of their people were shot by their own indiscriminate firing.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: General Robert Ford, commander of the land forces in Ireland, said they intended only to separate the stone-throwing hooligans from hundreds of peaceful marchers and arrest them, and he denied the evidence that lay in the streets of Derry.

[SOUND OF GUNFIRE] The editor of The Sunday Times was Harold Evans, a journalist with an investigative bent, frequently brought before the bar for various violations of Britain's Official Secrets Act and privacy and libel laws.

HAROLD EVANS: The government announced that it was setting up an inquiry by Lord Widgery, and a notice came to all the editors that we should await Widgery's report to see what actually happened. After talking to him we decided what we should do was mount a parallel inquiry by sending our very best people over to, uh Northern Ireland so that when Widgery came out, we would be able to say, an excellent report or as, in fact, we did say, Widgery is a whitewash.

PETER PRINGLE: Our idea was that we would get at the truth, and we would probably get closer to the truth than the Widgery Inquiry. You know, they - they didn't have the access that, that we did.


PETER PRINGLE: It was a curious thing to be a reporter in Northern Ireland because you could in the morning go to the normal press briefing of the British troops and in the afternoon um, you could cross the line, if you like, and go and talk to the IRA leaders.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: But the most telling bit of evidence collected by Pringle and his reporting partner Philip Jacobsen were the audiotapes, complete with time codes of the army's radio communications, taped surreptitiously by a local shop owner.

PETER PRINGLE: Every afternoon when they - when the, the agros started and the young Derry hooligans, as the army called them, started throwing stones, Mr. Porter of Porter's Television would go up into his upstairs room and record the army messages, and he made a full recording on this day.

ARMY MAN: Hello, Zero, this is 7-6. Two high velocity shots heard in the area of three of the Rossville Flats. People are lying on the ground now, the – over.

PETER PRINGLE: It was a stunning piece of evidence, which the British government inquiry under Lord Widgery rejected. Why did they reject it? They rejected it because they said it had been made sort of clandestinely and was um against the Official Secrets Act and couldn't be used in evidence. Well, of course, if you don't use the tape, then you can't reconstruct the day.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Soon after the Widgery Inquiry was released, exonerating the British Army of any wrongdoing, Pringle and Jacobson published their 12,000-word account of Bloody Sunday in The Sunday Times. Conservative members of Parliament accused Harold Evans of betraying his country, but otherwise the story barely made a ripple. And it sank under the weight of Widgery and a largely unsympathetic public into a sea of subsequent events.

PETER PRINGLE: It was so fast moving that nobody had time to stop and, and examine the difference between the government's report and our report. But it, it had no shelf life beyond about a week. After Bloody Sunday there was Bloody Friday, there was Bloody Wednesday, there was Bloody Thursday. And more people died in a single event in those bombings and shootings than they did at Bloody Sunday.

HAROLD EVANS: How did they get into this mess?


HAROLD EVANS: There were so many theories being bandied around that had no basis in fact [LAUGHS], so-and-so saying it's all the fault of Lloyd George or so – it was all the fault of the IRA or it was all the fault of de Valera or Michael Collins. But what are the facts? And so, once you resolve to get into the facts of the situation you have a tremendous momentum to continue, until you've nailed, as far as you can, that shadowy, elusive thing called truth.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: The frustration of investigative work is that you may see it and feel it, and even write it, but you only have one chance to get out the word, unless by some miracle it comes around again, which brings us back to Pringle and his moldering notebooks, which had languished for 27 years in the archives of The Sunday Times, until the Saville Inquiry demanded The Times hand them over. And the paper, under the aegis of Managing Editor Richard Caseby and Owner Rupert Murdoch, complied.

PETER PRINGLE: I wondered immediately what my notebooks looked like. I wondered immediately what on earth they might contain that I didn't want anybody else to know. I wondered whether they would want me to translate them from my very shaky shorthand, and why I would do that, and whether I should do that.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Pringle finally determined that he should, though he won't divulge his sources, as Lord Saville demands. He doesn't actually believe that Lord Saville will arrive at the truth. Too many people are dead, or they can no longer remember, or they remain silent, still. But he does hope for a proper reckoning for the people of Derry.

PETER PRINGLE: Think of this: 13 people died on Bloody Sunday. The compensation that was worked out two years after the event for the four teenagers who died was 250 pounds per dead body, given to the relatives. When I first heard this, I thought to myself, I would love to end this book with an interview with the civil servant who signed the check to give 250 pounds to the mother of a teenager who was shot in the back.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: As it turned out, Pringle was overly pessimistic. As victims and their families gathered at the Guild Hall in Derry on Tuesday, they saw the truth emerge, after all. It took approximately 2500 witnesses, 160 volumes of evidence and nearly 200 million British pounds. Peter Pringle, when did you start to believe it would work?

PETER PRINGLE: Well, only on the day of publication, which was on June the 15th basically. Everybody who went into the Derry Guild Hall, the lawyers for the dead and wounded, the relatives for the dead and wounded simply didn't know what Saville was going to say. And they opened the boxes and they were given two hours to read it before Cameron’s speech. And the relatives of the dead and wounded gave the thumbs-up sign and the whole crowd outside just erupted in clapping and cheering and clenched fists into the air. So it was right up to the last minute that nobody was really certain about it.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: You wrote recently in The Guardian that the Saville Commission seemed to subscribe to a Rankian view of history.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Can you summarize that?

PETER PRINGLE: Well, basically what 19th-century German historian Leopold von Ranke said, if you’re reconstructing history, dip your bucket as close to the source as possible. Or, if you'd like to put it another way, a witness’ second thoughts about what happened are probably unhelpful. You know, he’s had second thoughts about it, it’s been tainted in some way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: In other words, your unassuming little notebooks were where the bucket was closest to the original event.

PETER PRINGLE: Yes. What do we say? Journalism is the first cousin of history? We probably took the first statements of the witnesses. Then they made their own statements to the Northern Ireland Civil Rights Association. Then some of them made statements to that first inquiry, and then they finally made another statement to the Saville Inquiry. So when they actually got into the witness box in front of the Saville Inquiry, they had three or four versions of what they believed at the time and then could remember 30, 40 years later. But it was quite extraordinary to see Saville take our original notes and then from there build this case. And, curiously enough, Saville was not a criminal lawyer. He’s a contract lawyer. And so everybody thought when he was appointed that it’s a long way from the courts of contract law to dead bodies in the bog side. That’s what his colleagues said behind his back. And so they thought he would be completely swamped and wouldn't ever get anywhere near what he did get. And that’s why others, including myself, were skeptical.

BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter, thank you so much.

PETER PRINGLE: Well, you’re very welcome. Thanks for having me.


BROOKE GLADSTONE: Peter Pringle is coauthor, with Philip Jacobson, of Those Are Real Bullets, and Bloody Sunday, January 30th, 1972 and, most recently, of The Murder of Nikolai Vavilov.