Raid couple win five-figure payout

Two Northern Ireland journalists this week won an "unprecedented" five-figure payout after suing the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) for wrongful imprisonment.

The payout came on the eve of a High Court case due to start on Monday.

Sunday Times Northern Ireland editor Liam Clarke and his journalist wife, Kathy Johnston, sued the PSNI after armed police raided their house on 30 April 2003 in a bid to discover who had leaked phone transcripts of Sinn Fein politician Martin McGuinness.

The transcripts appeared in the paperback version of their biography of McGuinness, and in The Sunday Times, and revealed his apparently close relationship with former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mo Mowlam, who called him "babe".

The tapes also revealed Downing Street chief of staff Jonathan Powell sharing jokes with him about Unionist politicians.

The publication of the tapes also revealed that MI5 and/or Special Branch were apparently tapping the phone calls of an MP in contravention of the "Wilson doctrine" established by Harold Wilson.

Clarke told Press Gazette: "Our hope is that now they have got their fingers burned they will have to be more careful about the way they treat journalistic material in future.

"There's very limited protection given to journalists in law, but I think the police will have to recognise there is some protection there and be slower to raid a journalist's home or a newspaper office.

"The way they behaved — rushing out to get a warrant and then carrying out an armed raid with Land Rovers in the street — you would expect if there was a bomb involved or something of that sort. Not in a case like this where it was just a bit of political embarrassment."

The pair lodged their claim for false imprisonment, supported by The Sunday Times, because they were detained at their home for five hours and not allowed to make childcare arrangements.

They were also prepared to argue in court that the search warrant was illegal because under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act, police searches involving journalistic material must be authorised by a High Court judge. This search was approved by only a magistrate.

The police took 21 bags of material away from the pair's Ballymena home — a large amount of which was irrelevant and personal, the journalists said.

The same day police revealed to Clarke that they had a warrant to search the Sunday Times offices in Belfast. He said he offered to unlock the door for them, but instead they decided to break it down.

Despite being questioned over a 24- hour period, Johnston and Clarke refused to reveal their source for the tape transcripts.

A retired RUC officer was later arrested in connection with the case but charges against him were dropped.

An Official Secrets Act prosecution against Clarke and Johnston was dropped last year.

In a joint statement, Clarke and Johnston noted that their settlement followed a Police Ombudsman's report which was "seriously critical" of the PSNI and which led to the disciplining of several officers.

They said: "This was a case where the police tore up the rule book and rode roughshod over the limited protection offered to journalists and the press by law."

Their lawyer Paul Tweed said the settlement was "an unprecedented sum of damages for the circumstances of this category of case".

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