How would you feel if someone threatened to kill you or your family? It’s a question most of us will never have to face, but it is nothing new to Leona O’Neill, a high-profile journalist in Northern Ireland, which, says Amnesty International, is the most dangerous place for journalists in the UK. Many, especially those covering paramilitary groups and organised crime, have had to enhance the security in their homes, install alarm systems, panic rooms, and bulletproof windows and arrange daily escorts to and from work,
After witnessing the fatal shooting of a fellow journalist Lyra McKee on 18 April 2019 during riots in Londonderry, O’Neill faced another traumatic event, an international hate campaign on social media. This forced her to leave her career of 23 years because of a barrage of threats against her and her family. Sometimes she received 100s a day.
These traumatic events left her with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a condition she discovered is common in newsrooms, but one that journalists hide. She reveals this hidden secret in Breaking, her second book, which focuses on journalism, trauma and building resilience in the newsroom. She says: “That night is tattooed on my brain, an indelible mark that I will never be able to forget. I still have nightmares”.
As a young reporter in Belfast, she was often threatened by Loyalist paramilitaries for the stories she covered, so much so that it forced her to use alternative routes from her home to work and even stopped her from using her front door in case there was an attack. Police warned her that the author of the threats held all her personal information.
“Threats in those days were common,” she recalls. “People would post bullets and sympathy cards,” she says. Now, aged 46, with three sons aged 18, 16 and 13 and a daughter aged 11, she has more to lose if someone decided to attack her. “It frightened me that I could leave my children without a mother,” she says.
O’Neill wanted to become a journalist from a young age while watching the news with her father. She was impressed by BBC reporter Kate Adie reporting from warzones, sometimes from just a few miles away in Londonderry’s Bogside. “I realised that you could make a difference in the world through journalism, and give a voice to the voiceless,” she says.
O’Neill worked as a news and features reporter with the Belfast Telegraph, a broadcast journalist with QRadio and Northern Ireland field producer with Al Jazeera as well as a weekly columnist for the Irish News.
But nothing prepared her for what followed in the aftermath of witnessing and reporting McKee’s murder, an unremitting bombardment from bloggers in the United States, Canada and from Irish Republicans. One blogger even fundraised to buy weapons to attack her house. The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) told her they could not act as it was out of their jurisdiction.
She endured a constant year of abuse, but being freelance, with no employer to help, O’Neill relied on the National Union of Journalists and other organisations for advice and support.
O´Neill reported the life-threatening comments to Facebook and Twitter, but they were ignored until her friend Henry McDonald, a senior reporter at The Guardian, covered the story, and Facebook finally agreed to take certain pages down. “If I had more money, I would say that I would sue them because they put me, and my family, through absolute hell,” she says.
It´s no surprise that she has joined calls for social media to do more to tackle the kind of abuse she experienced or face legislation. “Women journalists tend to get a tsunami of abuse,” she says.
Patricia Devlin, a crime and investigative journalist based in Northern Ireland, agrees after facing escalating threats on social media against her then new-born son. She also complained to Facebook but got a shocking question back: “What have you done to stop them?”
Northern Ireland is the biggest concern in terms of journalist safety in the UK, one of the main reasons for it being 33 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, says Rebecca Vincent, director of International Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
And so reporters in Northern Ireland have got used to receiving threats – death threats, graffiti with their names close to a cross, or accusations of being a tout (police informant) to silence them. Devlin says: “I’ve been told by the police that there are areas in Belfast they would strongly advise me not to go into, because I’d be at risk of attack, and that’s just become part of my life now.”
Last year, journalists from three newspapers – Belfast Telegraph, Sunday Life, and Sunday World – were threatened by Loyalists paramilitaries after reporting on organised crime, drug dealing, extortion, intimidation and the networks of counterfeit goods. Nobody in London would believe the abuse journalists face in Northern Ireland, and according to Devlin and Vincent, the threats have escalated in the last three years.
The climate of impunity in Northern Ireland and the inaction by the police make journalists feel hopeless and alone, says O’Neill. The Police Ombudsman agreed in September that there were “flawed investigative failings” from the PSNI to the threats to Patricia Devlin’s family, revealed after she filed a complaint.
Vincent says journalists in Northern Ireland who face threats have complained about not having enough information to allow them to protect themselves. She says: “Police may tell them of a threat against them, but they aren’t given specific enough information. How can they continue to do their job if they don’t know where in town the menace is coming from?”
For O’Neill, after enduring a year of online abuse, the final straw came when her name and a cross appeared on the wall near where Lyra McKee was murdered. She decided to walk away from journalism because it wasn’t safe for her in the streets anymore. “I gave up the career that I always dream about.”
After seeing a specialist who had understood how trauma could affect journalists, she started to talk to colleagues who had gone through similar experiences. She discovered many journalists were dealing with secondary trauma. “I was working until I was exhausted and did not want to stop and think. Some reporters drank too much, took prescriptions pills, or struggled with relationships, depression, anxiety. These are all kinds of traits you find with PTSD,” she says.
O’Neill now lectures in Journalism at Ulster University, teaching the next generation of reporters how to be strong, skilled and resilient storytellers, as well as how to stay safe, and how to recognise trauma and PTSD. “Many journalists face it but are ashamed to talk about it, often afraid that doing so could lead them to lose their jobs,” she says.
While writing her book, she spoke with a 75-year-old journalist who still has nightmares. “The people in the book are talking about things like the tsunami in Indonesia or covering a murder case, the things that broke them and how they built themselves back together. I wanted to start a conversation, I wanted people to realise that journalism can be a really tough, but also a rewarding job, where you can help people and it’s OK to be impacted by something.
“You’re a completely normal human being if you are impacted and here’s help, here are other people, very well-known journalists talking about their own experiences so you’re not alone,” she says.
O’Neill still carries on with her mission to give voice to the voiceless, but this time to her own and future colleagues, familiar with the feelings of being terrorised, due to threats against them and their families, especially in Northern Ireland.
Useful links if you have been affected by theses issues: