Belfast Telegraph

Chief constables called up before NI Policing Board

George Hamilton
George Hamilton
Mike Barton

By Steven Alexander

Two chief constables are to appear before Northern Ireland's Policing Board after the High Court ordered confidential material be returned to journalists.

Millions of journalistic documents and digital files seized when Durham police raided the homes and offices of documentary film-makers in Belfast last August with support from the PSNI will now be returned.

Durham Constabulary Chief Constable Mike Barton will accompany PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton at next Thursday's Policing Board meeting.

A spokesperson for the board said yesterday's ruling "raises some serious questions around the circumstances and handling of this investigation".

"This matter has been the subject of scrutiny by the board with a series of questions put to the chief constable on it," they said.

"Following today's court ruling, the Chief Constable of the PSNI has been asked to report to the board on its implications and he will be accompanied by the Chief Constable of Durham Constabulary."

SDLP Policing Board member Dolores Kelly MLA said that journalistic freedom should not be impeded by the PSNI.

She said: "The comments from the Lord Chief Justice today are a welcome vindication of the entirely appropriate actions taken by Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey to protect their sources.

"They behaved in an ethical and professional manner.

"It is a matter of profound regret that the PSNI has appeared to zealously pursue these journalists for simply doing their job. Shining a light on one of the most heinous acts of our past is a public service that should be lauded, not branded as criminality. I have raised this case at the Policing Board and directly with the chief constable. I will be doing so again.

"There needs to be a serious rethink about the approach to this matter and I hope the PSNI will learn very quickly."

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International's Northern Ireland programme director, said that if Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey had been unsuccessful in court "then every reporter in receipt of leaked official documents would have had to live in fear of dawn raids by the police and potential prosecution under the Official Secrets Act".

He said police had "acted outrageously" and the two police forces involved "have emerged with their reputation tarnished, and senior officers in Durham and in Belfast now have serious questions to answer".

"It is unacceptable that the bereaved families of Loughinisland are today not an inch closer to justice than 25 years ago, when the police promised they would leave 'no stone unturned' in the pursuit of the killers," he said.

The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) said it was "a victory for Trevor and Barry, for the NUJ and for press freedom".

"The High Court has affirmed the right of journalists to protect confidential sources of information and provided clear and unambiguous directions for the appropriate manner in which the PSNI and the courts should behave in seeking to access journalistic material," said Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary.

"There can be no short cuts when it comes to fundamental principles of human rights."

"The attitude of the PSNI and Durham Constabulary has been profoundly disappointing and it is evident that their mission has been to frustrate at every turn the work of the two journalists.

"In a democratic society trust in the police is vital. That trust was shattered by the actions of the PSNI and Durham Constabulary.

"Today's ruling by the High Court sets the standard for future behaviour and I hope that the incoming chief constable pays attention to the judgment.

"He will also have to address a culture of suspicion of and aggression towards reporters and photographers by elements within the PSNI."

Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said it was "an important legal victory".

"The message from this case is clear. Journalists have a right to stick to the code of conduct and NUJ members have a right to affirm that right when confronted with an application for a search warrant," he said.

"This has been a time of great stress for Trevor, Barry, their families, friends and work colleagues. At this time we think also of the Loughinisland families, who have shown such grace and dignity at all times and whose determination to seek the truth has been a source of inspiration."

Alliance Party deputy leader Stephen Farry MLA welcomed the judgment.

He said: "The arrests and detentions of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney led to serious public interest issues relating to freedom of the press and how journalists serve the community.

"Ultimately, the priority must be to seek justice for the loved ones of those killed in Loughinisland, as well as addressing the complex needs of all other victims in our society."

Loyalist blogger Jamie Bryson, who has also been involved in a legal case about the seizure of journalistic material, said it was "the right decision".

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