Call for investigation into police actions
A criminal investigation into Belfast-based journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, who were arrested over confidential material they aired in a documentary, has been dropped, it has been confirmed.
The reporters won a High Court action challenging police actions in enforcing a warrant to seize their material over an alleged theft of a Police Ombudsman document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned, which is about the loyalist murders of six men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in 1994.
On Monday Belfast High Court heard how the material was ready to be collected after police put on extra resources over the weekend in order to compile the material together.
The material is to be released on an undertaking it will not be destroyed for another 28 days to allow for the possibility of the police mounting an appeal into the court's ruling.
Durham police confirmed they were no longer treating the journalists as suspects.
In a statement, Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey told the Press Association: "Tonight, our first thoughts are with the Loughinisland families. The attack on us was an attack on them. We call on the PSNI and Durham to apologise to them for putting them through this unlawful charade.
"The police have dropped the case for one reason only: Finally, they accept that by arresting us and raiding our homes and offices, they were the ones that acted unlawfully.
"At last, the penny has dropped for the Chief Constable, George Hamilton.
"But this only comes after nine months of a Judicial Review that was instigated and funded by Fine Point Films to protect the rights of a free press."
The reporters continued: "The Lord Chief Justice told the court last week that we had no case to answer. We were right to protect our sources.
"The PSNI put the cudgel in the hands of Durham Constabulary and let them loose on us and on press freedom itself.
"There was no oversight during an investigation that was clearly motivated by nothing less than pure malice. Rather than going after the killers, Durham detectives turned the chief suspect in the Loughinisland Massacre into a victim.
"George Hamilton and (Deputy Chief Constable) Steven Martin have to be held accountable for the attack on Barry and myself and the local press. We call for an immediate, independent investigation into the role of the PSNI and the Durham detective who led the assault on us.
"We now know they were supported by the local Public Prosecution Service which is shocking. They need to answer questions how they could have supported such an unlawful investigation.
"We thank the NUJ and Amnesty International for their support in particular. We've been humbled by those at home and abroad who have stood by us throughout the past nine months.
"But most of all, we thank the Loughinisland families. We are proud to have brought their story to the world."
Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan last week said the granting of the search warrants was "inappropriate" and the two journalists acted in a perfectly proper manner to protect their sources and not hand over the information voluntarily.
On Friday, Sir Declan and two fellow High Court judges formally quashed the warrant used by police in their search and arrest operation last August.
At a follow-up hearing on Monday, Peter Coll QC, representing the Police Service of Northern Ireland, told the judges Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin had moved to expedite the collection of the material.
"The Deputy Chief Constable ordered the provision of extra resources to arrange for the curation of the seized material as soon as possible," he said.
"That resulted in the material that was seized from the three premises now (being) available for collection and now it's a matter of arrangements being made between parties for that to be completed."
Sir Declan replied: "Thank Mr Martin for his appropriately prompt response in relation to this issue."
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey intend to collect the material, which includes computers, hard drives, mobile phones, notebooks and other sensitive documents, at Castlereagh police station in Belfast on Tuesday morning.
Their 2017 film broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.
No one has ever been convicted of the murders.
Police are investigating how information contained in a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document appeared in No Stone Unturned.
Mr Birney's solicitor Niall Murphy added: "We are delighted for our clients Fine Point Films and Trevor Birney and their esteemed colleague Barry McCaffrey, who have received the news tonight that the investigation that led to their arrest is to be discontinued. We are obliged to the court for their urgent attention to the issues engaged in this case.
"The court clearly recognised the special importance of protecting journalists' sources.
"We consider that this case demonstrates a clear and unambiguous pronouncement that freedom of speech and the importance of investigative journalism is to be respected and cherished in our society.
"Both Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey will be released unconditionally and immediately discharged from their bail conditions."
Durham police defended their officers actions saying officers acted in good faith, within the law and following due process.
“We plan to produce a final report to the Chief Constable of the PSNI outlining all of our findings,” Durham Constabulary’s Chief Constable Mike Barton said.
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton thanked the Durham force for its work saying he supported its decision on ending the probe into the journalists.
“Throughout the period of this investigation, the horror of what happened in Loughinisland has never been far from any of our thoughts. The perpetrators of that crime have never been brought to justice and that is a matter of huge regret for policing," he said in appealing for those with information into the murder of six innocent men to come forward.
He added: "I am aware that the investigation over the last year has caused concern for families who have already suffered so much. That is something none of us would ever have wished to do.
“However, as a police service, the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate.
“Recognising the sensitivities, we asked an independent police service to conduct the investigation. The clarity provided by last week’s hearing has now brought a significant part of that investigation to a conclusion.
“I await the final report from Durham on this complex investigation.”