The former editor of the Manchester Evening News has revealed how he defied police pressure to name the man suspected of planting the bomb which wrecked the city centre 20 years ago this week.
The IRA bomb which tore through the city’s Corporation Street on 15 June 1996 was the biggest device ever detonated in mainland Britain and caused £1.2bn of damage.
More than 200 people were injured, although fatalities were avoided after an IRA warning 90 minutes before the blast led to a mass evacuation of the area beforehand.
No-one was ever convicted of planting the bomb, but in 1999, the MEN named a suspect which they said Greater Manchester Police had identified and then failed to arrest.
Twenty years on, the paper’s then editor, Paul Horrocks, has penned a first-person account of why the paper decided to publish the story – and the pressure it was put under to spike it.
It was strongly suspected at the time that police had failed to progress with the investigation for political reasons so as not to disrupt the Northern Ireland peace process at a point when negotiations were at a delicate stage.
The decision to publish the name led to huge ramifications for the paper, with the police accusing it of derailing the investigation while “masquerading in a cloak of journalistic integrity.”
Later the journalist who wrote the story, crime reporter Steve Panter, was himself arrested and put under pressure to name his source.
Wrote Paul: “Newspaper editors have to make judgements every day. But sometimes issues come along which put your journalistic desire to inform the public bang up against the might of the machinery of law and order.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the police investigation into the MEN that followed our naming of a prime suspect in the IRA plot to bomb Manchester city centre.
“The newspaper’s revelations had struck at the very heart of Greater Manchester Police sensitivities about their own investigations, and they turned their full attention into finding out how we knew just what they knew.
“I maintain the public of Greater Manchester in particular had a right to know that there WAS a suspect, but there were no plans to arrest or prosecute. How could we not tell that story?”
Steve Panter has also published his own account of the episode, which can be read here.
He recalled how the police obtained a court order that would allow them access to his financial affairs to see if he had paid anyone for the bomb story.
“They obtained my bank account, my wife’s and all our phone bills. They set up a secret investigation into my professional and personal life from a police station near my home,” wrote Steve.
A judge later referred Steve’s refusal to name his source to the Attorney General for possible prosecution for contempt, but in 2002 the Attorney General decided it was not in the public interest to prosecute him.
Greater Manchester Police announced in 2006 that there was no realistic chance of convicting those responsible for the bombing.
Ironically, the MEN is unable to name the suspect again owing to legal reasons.