Belfast Telegraph

Policing Board hears 'lessons to be learned' over Loughinisland journalists' arrests but no apology

Gareth Cross

By Gareth Cross

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton has admitted there are "lessons to be learned" from the case of Loughinisland journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey.

However, the Durham Chief Constable who led the investigation would not apologise for the arrests.

Last week a court ruled search warrants used by police were unlawful, prompting officers to announce the probe into the film-makers was being discontinued.

Speaking at a meeting of the Policing Board on Thursday Mr Hamilton said he would welcome an independent inquiry into actions of police during the case if it was deemed neccesary.

Both the journalists attended the meeting.

The Chief Constable said police had a duty to investigate the case to uphold the law, especially as it concerned sensitive information which could put people's lives at risk.

However Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton stopped short of apologising to Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey instead saying that "I apologise unreservedly when we do things that further inflicts distress on families and I apologise unreservedly".

Mr Barton's force was tasked to investigate the case of the stolen document by the PSNI. Mr Hamilton said that he considered it a conflict of interest for the PSNI to conduct a case involving the Ombudsman, which exists as a body to scrutinise his force.

The Durham Chief Constable told the meeting the Ombudsman's Office had reported the theft of secret documents naming individuals involved in the Loughinisland Massacre to police, a claim the Ombudsman has repeatedly rejected.

He said that he was following a legitimate line of enquiry in the case and had been granted a search warrant by an experienced judge after much legal advice.

Durham Constabulary's chief constable Mike Barton (left) and Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton speaking at a public meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast about the controversial arrest of investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 6, 2019. See PA story ULSTER Loughinisland. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire
Durham Constabulary's chief constable Mike Barton (left) and Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton speaking at a public meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast about the controversial arrest of investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 6, 2019. See PA story ULSTER Loughinisland. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire
Durham Constabulary's chief constable Mike Barton (left) and Police Service of Northern Ireland chief constable George Hamilton (centre)speaking at a public meeting of the Policing Board in Belfast about the controversial arrest of investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney (both centre rear). PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Thursday June 6, 2019. See PA story ULSTER Loughinisland. Photo credit should read: Michael Cooper/PA Wire
Investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey (right) and Trevor Birney (left) listen to Durham Constabulary's chief constable Mike Barton. Pic: Michael Cooper/PA Wire

Though he did admit that he had changed his mind on the law following the judge's decision in the case of Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey.

"Press freedom is crucial in any democracy, I spent the last 39 years held accountable by people such as yourselves, who are elected, and by the fourth estate, the media," he said.

"That happens on a daily basis and I am content to be so constrained, however everybody has to operate within the law as it applies to them.

"Journalists do have freedoms - thank goodness - but they shouldn't be abused, you've got to say, I thought the law was in a different place until the Lord Chief Justice corrected me, and I stand corrected."

Mr Birney and McCaffrey were arrested last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned about the notorious loyalist massacre at Loughinisland.

The reporters, who insist the material on the 1994 UVF atrocity came from an anonymous whistleblower, had been on bail ever since and until the criminal investigation into them was dropped.

George Hamilton said that while he fully believed in the freedom of the press nobody was above the law

He said that it was an "uncomfortable, difficult and awkward" investigation to commission, and acknowledged that he had been the subject of a criminal investigation.

However he said that everyone, including "politicians, police officers, British soldiers and RUC officers" must be held accountable under the law.

Mr Hamilton said that he was "well known for apologising" and said that he would have no problem issuing a full apology if it was determined that he or officers acting under his command had acted improperly.

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