A strange way to celebrate World Press Freedom Day

The police officers who surrounded the suburban home of Liam Clarke and his wife Kathy Johnston last Wednesday night were presumably unaware of the irony of the timing of their raid.

Likewise their colleagues who refused Clarke’s offer of keys to his Sunday Times office in Belfast and opted instead to charge down the door with a battering ram that same night.

As they ransacked files, removed computers and mobile phones, tipped 20 years worth of documents and contact numbers into bin bags and whisked the two journalists to an interrogation centre in Antrim, it’s unlikely that any of them were aware that 48 hours later would see the dawn of World Press Freedom Day.

The two journalists were kept under arrest for 23 hours – having had to leave their eight-year-old daughter in others’ care – and questioned about transcripts of conversations they had published in a new edition of an old book about Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness. His cosy chats with Mo Mowlam (who called him “babe”) and with the Prime Minister’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, were an embarrassment to the Government.

But the police reaction was an over-the-top, heavy-handed exercise in harassment, worthy of the old eastern bloc. Which may have been precisely the point.

Forget about the embarrassing revelations of the conversations, taped by MI5, between McGuinness and senior members of Blair’s Government being a danger to national security. Forget about there being any outcome in the case of the retired police officer who has been charged under the Official Secrets Act with leaking the transcripts to Clarke and Johnston. This entire exercise has been about discouraging anyone in the public sector – particularly in the police forces – from talking to journalists.

It’s also, presumably, been a useful fishing exercise for the officers who can now go through two decades of Clarke’s contacts and work on undercover activities in the province with impunity.

There may be a whistleblowers charter for the private sector. Not so for public-sector workers. This case illustrates that they’ll have to think very carefully indeed before helping journalists expose the truth.

Just as Steve Panter, of the Manchester Evening News, found from his investigations into the identity of the Manchester bomber, journalists can pay a heavy personal and professional price for embarrassing the police or the Government.

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