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Police chiefs won’t say sorry for arresting film journalists

Journalists Trevor Birney (back left) and Barry McCaffrey listen as PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton (front left) and Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin address the Northern Ireland Policing Board yesterday
Journalists Trevor Birney (back left) and Barry McCaffrey listen as PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton (front left) and Deputy Chief Constable Stephen Martin address the Northern Ireland Policing Board yesterday

By Suzanne Breen, political editor

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton and the head of Durham Police have declined to apologise to two journalists arrested over the alleged theft of confidential documents.

The case against Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey was dropped after Belfast High Court last week ruled that search warrants used by police to raid their homes and offices were unlawful.

George Hamilton and Durham Police Chief Constable Mike Barton were questioned about the arrests at a Policing Board meeting yesterday.

Policing Board chair Anne Connolly said the investigation into the journalists had caused "significant reputational damage to the PSNI".

But there was no apology from the two chief constables to the journalists who made the No Stone Unturned documentary on alleged police collusion in the UVF's 1994 Loughinisland massacre.

Speaking after the meeting which he attended with the Loughinisland families, Mr Birney said: "I am hugely disappointed by the attitude of police to press freedom and to the Loughinisland victims."

Ciaran O Maolain of the National Union of Journalists expressed disappointment that neither police chief had apologised.

He said: "We are seeking a meeting with the Policing Board to ensure that lessons are learned and that international human rights standards are taken into account in any future policing action that will impact on the work of investigative journalists who are fulfilling their duty of informing the public."

Mr Barton said that following the High Court judgment he "stands corrected" about the law. He said press freedom was crucial in any democracy.

He insisted that the Police Ombudsman's Office had reported the theft of secret documents naming suspects in the UVF Loughinisland Massacre - a claim the ombudsman denies - and he was following a legitimate line of enquiry.

Mr Barton told the Policing Board meeting that the search warrant had been granted by an experienced judge after extensive legal advice. He said he believed in press freedom but added: "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.

"I've got to say that I thought the law was in a different place, until the Lord Chief Justice corrected me and I stand corrected and I have now changed my mind on what the law is. I'm now reflecting on his words, I now wait for his written judgment."

Mr Barton added: "I absolutely respect press freedom, but I do not - in my view and I have been corrected by the Lord Chief Justice - I do not think it appropriate that secret documents that put people's lives at risk are put out there in the public domain. I think those discretions should be fettered."

Sinn Fein MLA and Policing Board member Gerry Kelly asked Mr Barton if he should now apologise to the two journalists.

He declined to do so but he "apologised unreservedly" for any distress caused to the Loughinisland families.

The PSNI Chief Constable admitted there were "lessons to be learned" from the case and told the meeting there is "nothing about this investigation that has been easy".

He said: "I became a police officer to uphold the law, to do so without fear or favour from anyone. The theft of documents containing information that may, in fact are likely to, endanger life of citizens is a serious matter which police officers are statutorily obliged to investigate.

"We do not have the choice of simply ignoring an issue because it is unpleasant, because it's uncomfortable, too difficult, or will result in bad publicity. We must go where the evidence takes us."

Mr Hamilton added: "But in doing so, it is right and proper we should be - and we expect to be - held to account for our actions." The chief constable said he believed in press freedom but everyone including "politicians, police officers, British soldiers and RUC officers" must be held accountable under the law.

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

Alliance Policing Board member John Blair said there must be an urgent investigation into police handling of the journalists' arrests. He said concerns remained over the ability to scrutinise the actions of the Durham Constabulary, the lead investigating force in the operation.

Yesterday's meeting also heard that the investigation into the killing of journalist Lyra McKee in Londonderry was "progressing at pace".

After the meeting, DUP MLA and Policing Board member Mervyn Storey spoke to the Loughinisland families.

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