Police drop charges as raided journalists vow to sue

Confiscated: Police haul after raid

A threatened Official Secrets Act prosecution against two journalists has been dropped after a controversial police raid on their home was condemned by the Northern Ireland police ombudsman.

Sunday Times’ Northern Ireland editor Liam Clarke and his journalist wife Kathy Johnston said they still intend to sue the Police Service of Northern Ireland over the incident.

And they have compared the “hounding down” of an alleged source to that of the Andrew Gilligan affair last year which culminated in the suicide of David Kelly.

Johnston said: “We feel vindicated and the timing of this decision is very significant. They kept the decision to drop the charges hanging over us until after the ombudsman’s report came out for the purposes of public punishment, and the intimidation of sources.

It just goes to show that the police raid should never have been carried out in the first instance.”

The raid took place at 8.30pm on April 30 last year, when armed police entered the home of Clarke and Johnston. They arrested the pair and kept them in custody for 23 hours.

Police also took 21 bags of evidence, including computers, contact books and mobile phones with information about confidential sources and broke down the door of the Sunday Times’ Belfast offices.

The police ombudsman said the raid on the pair’s home was illegal because a special warrant necessary to conduct a search of journalistic material was not obtained. He also described the smashing of the door of the Sunday Times’ office as unlawful because police had been offered a key.

However, the ombudsman did not condemn Clarke and Johnston’s arrests because breaching the Official Secrets Act is an arrestable offence. But the report recommended that eight officers should face disciplinary action.

Johnston said: “We intend to pursue every avenue that’s open to us in achieving satisfaction and closure.

“They flouted every civil and human rights’ procedure that the Police Service of Northern Ireland was supposed to have introduced.”

The raid followed publication of a new edition of the pair’s book: Martin McGuinness: from Guns to Government – extracts from which were published in the Sunday Times, The Sun and the Irish News.

Police were concerned about transcripts of conversations between McGuinness and British Government officials, which appeared in the book, and are believed to have been recorded by the security services.

Although a retired RUC officer was arrested by police in connection with the leak of the transcripts, Johnston and Clarke have never named their source. Johnston said: “If you compare this to the Gilligan and Kelly case, there are some similarities – this hounding down of a source.

“The implications for what could have happened to a source being exposed in Northern Ireland are horrendous.

We could have the same situation that we had with David Kelly.”

“The material leaked in the first place was hardly a threat to national security. At the very worst it was a bit of an embarrassment to Jonathan Powell and Number 10.

“What annoyed people so much about the transcripts was that it showed what an intimate relationship there was between former chief of staff of the IRA, Martin McGuinness, and Tony Blair’s chief of staff. They took this action to intimidate and put the frighteners on journalists and their confidential sources.

“The ombudsman’s report showed that the police raid was poorly planned and unprofessional and that their warrant didn’t enable them to search journalistic material. They just ignored the whole question of freedom of the press and confidentiality of sources.”

A PSNI spokesman said: “We have received the report from the police ombudsman and are examining the recommendations.”

By Dominic Ponsford

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