First Thoughts: Roy Greenslade, Fleet Street editor, preacher of media ­ethics, and IRA apologist

After Greenslade’s declaration of support for the IRA, his high-minded media columns for the Guardian now look shabby. 

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In the British Journalism Review, Roy Greenslade, a former Daily Mirror editor and Sunday Times editorial executive, reveals that he was and is an IRA supporter, with no reservations about its violent campaign, including lethal bombing. He wrote under a pseudonym for a Sinn Féin newspaper; stood bail for an IRA man accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing that killed four soldiers; and became “a close personal friend” of Pat Doherty, an alleged former IRA council member.

Though Greenslade’s sympathies with Sinn Féin, the IRA’s political arm, have been evident for the past 25 years, the Sunday Times treated his confession as front-page news and ran a long extract. On ITV, Piers Morgan, another ex-Mirror editor, called him “a repulsive, terrorist-loving charlatan”. Is such abuse justified? I regard the Provisional IRA as a gang of murderous thugs. Its claims to be a liberation movement comparable to Nelson Mandela’s ANC are laughable. In Voltairean spirit, however, I acknowledge Greenslade’s right to hold contrary opinions even while working for British newspapers.

But his opinions did not float in a vacuum. From the early 1970s, he lived with a fellow journalist from an Irish republican family. They married in 1984. In the 1970s and 1980s, the couple spent several holidays with Doherty and his wife in Donegal, a border county where many IRA members were based. From 1989, the Greenslades owned a Georgian mansion in Donegal, with 14-acre grounds. Their social life was embedded in militant republicanism.

“War” combatant

As a newspaper executive from 1981 to 1991, when he held senior editorial roles consecutively at the SunSunday Times and Mirror, Greenslade was in a position to assist the IRA in what he calls “the war”. He could, if he so wished, have suppressed or rewritten stories that embarrassed the IRA; passed on information about security operations that selected newspapers are sometimes given in confidence; leaked details of the movements of Northern Ireland reporters seen as hostile by the IRA.

There is no evidence whatever that he did any of those things. Greenslade could separate his personal opinions from his work, as many journalists do. But Andrew Neil, his editor at the Sunday Times, and the late Chris Ryder, the paper’s Belfast correspondent until 1988, were both IRA targets. He was at risk of letting information slip unwittingly on social occasions. He was also vulnerable to blackmail. He fails to address these issues, despite holding, from 2003, a university professorship that involved lectures on journalistic ethics. He resigned from the position after the outcry over his article.

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Fake accent, fake news

I wonder if his lectures ever discussed a story, for which Greenslade was clearly the source, in the book Flat Earth News (2008) by Nick Davies. In 1988, three suspected IRA terrorists were shot dead by SAS special forces in Gibraltar. The Ministry of Defence claimed the terrorists were armed and a “suspected bomb” found. Some Sunday Times reporters doubted this tale.

Greenslade, then managing editor (news), had “useful” information from “Sinn Féin contacts” but “felt unable to pass it on openly, fearing that it would be rejected… because of its republican source”. Instead, he phoned a reporter and, in a fake Irish accent, “posed as the friend of an airline pilot who had overheard the SAS talking”.

Mortgaged truth

Greenslade writes that “my long silence” began in 1972 when he was sub-editing at the Sun. “To own up to supporting Irish republicans would result in me losing my job… the idea of forsaking a Fleet Street career… was unthinkable… I was on the verge of taking on a mortgage.” No doubt he still had a mortgage when he bought the Donegal mansion and then, as Mirror editor, rigged a spot-the-ball competition on the orders of Robert Maxwell to ensure no reader won the £1m prize.

We’ve all been there. But Greenslade, in high-minded columns for the Guardian, instructed journalists on how to conduct themselves. Those columns now look shabby and hypocritical.

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article appears in the 03 March 2021 issue of the New Statesman, Humanity vs the virus

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