Belfast Telegraph

Suzanne Breen: Waffle wins the day as Hamilton and Barton drag their feet

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton
Suzanne Breen

By Suzanne Breen

The two Chief Constables were tripping over themselves to stress how much they believed in press freedom at yesterday's Policing Board meeting.

It may have ticked the boxes for their PR teams, but the smooth soundbites rang hollow. When push came to shove, neither man could say a simple sorry to Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, arrested for doing nothing other than their jobs as investigative journalists.

PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton and Durham Police chief Mike Barton had ample opportunity to apologise during the hour-long meeting - and they had every reason to do so.

Last week Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan delivered a stinging rebuke to police for raiding the journalists' homes and offices.

He ordered the return of their laptops, phones and documents, and said Birney and McCaffrey had acted in a "perfectly proper manner" in protecting their Loughinisland massacre documentary sources. Given the decision of Northern Ireland's top judge, it was time for the two Chief Constables to swiftly step up to the mark.

Barton said he "thought the law was in a different place until the Lord Chief Justice corrected me, and I stand corrected", but he'd await Sir Declan's written judgment.

He said journalists had freedoms "thank goodness but they shouldn't be abused". That followed waffle about "looking at it from both ends of the telescope".

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Hamilton is open to an inquiry into the police's actions and said he would have no problem with an apology if it decided he or his officers had acted improperly.

Yesterday represented an opportunity for the police to be magnanimous. They didn't take it and instead engaged in spin and foot-dragging.

Let's remember what happened last August. Up to 100 police officers were involved in raiding the journalists' homes and offices.

McCaffrey was accompanied out of his house by armed police in boiler suits with officers hiding in the bushes across the road.

Birney's wife and three young daughters watched as he was arrested. His daughter's GCSE coursework was among the material seized.

At times listening to proceedings yesterday, it seemed that the two men were actually victims of a wider war between the PSNI and outgoing Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire.

The National Union of Journalists is seeking a meeting with the Policing Board to ensure that this is the last such venture against the media that police embark upon.

Ten years ago, as northern editor of the Sunday Tribune, this journalist successfully fought a source protection case.

It seems that despite the fine words spoken yesterday, the PSNI are very slow learners regarding the freedom of the press.

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