'Raid meant to intimidate all press' say arrested duo

Raid: police took 21 bagfuls of the journalists’ computers and material

The Sunday Times journalist and his wife who were detained by police for 23 hours last week after a raid on their home are to complain to the Northern Ireland Ombudsman about their arrest.

Liam Clarke and his freelance journalist wife Kathryn Johnston have already complained to the human rights bureau of the Police Service of Northern Ireland about the way officers searched their home and battered down the door of their office to take away 21 bagfuls of computers, contact books, notebooks and documents.

The police action followed revelations in their updated biography of Martin McGuinness of indiscreet conversations between him and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam and Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s chief of staff.

The angry Clarkes were finger-printed and had DNA swabs taken while they were in custody and now wait to be told whether they will be charged under the Official Secrets Act when they surrender to police bail on 29 May. They have also been warned the police may make further searches.

On Tuesday, Clarke, who is The Sunday Times’s Northern Ireland editor, got most of the material back. But they were told the police had made copies of their hard drives and a number of documents.

The return of the material has eased some of the problems for the Clarkes, who were desperately trying to reconstruct contact books at the weekend.

“I still think it is terribly invasive, incredibly heavy-handed and over the top,” said Clarke. “Raids like that would be perhaps justified if you were printing the names of people who were all going to be killed. This is just a little bit of political embarrassment.”

Johnston is concerned about confidentiality, with the police having the opportunity to find out who their sources are from their contact books.

Their publisher, Mainstream of Edinburgh, was obliged to give to the police proofs of the book, Martin McGuinness: From Guns to Government.

Both are also very concerned that a retired Special Branch officer has already been charged under the Official Secrets Act and accused of being their source for tape recordings of the telephone conversations.

David Lister, Ireland correspondent of The Times, and Henry McDonald, Ireland editor of The Observer, were also questioned this week about whether they had received Information from the officer. “If he had wanted to leak damaging information, I’m sure he could have leaked far worse than this,” said Clarke.

He had not submitted his book for vetting but had taken legal advice. “I wasn’t aware that there was anything in it that would have contravened the Official Secrets Act,” he said. “This is meant to deter other journalists and members of the public sector – the police, civil servants – from leaking anything to journalists.

“There is a whistleblowers’ charter for the private sector but in the public sector, even with tittle-tattle like this, you have house searches and arrests under New Labour and under Hugh Orde, who is supposed to be the new reforming chief constable of Northern Ireland.”

Clarke, who knows Orde well, asked to meet him directly when he was released from arrest. He wanted to know why they were arrested in the middle of the night when they could simply have been asked to go to the police station and why he was denied his right to make phone calls when detained.

“The reply came back that it would be inappropriate for me to talk to him; that these decisions had been taken ‘below his line of vision’.”

During the raid, Clarke said he had been concerned for his family, particularly his eight-year-old daughter. Johnston said: “There were three police cars outside our house with officers in plain clothes and officers from technical support dressed in boiler suits and peaked caps and very heavily armed.”

She said she thought this kind of operation was used to intimidate journalists. “I have no doubt this kind of thing will be happening with increasing regularity, despite Tony Blair’s supposed open government and Orde’s supposed human rights friendly police service,” she maintained.

“It really wasn’t so much to get information contrary to the Official Secrets Act. It was a fishing expedition.”

Observer editor Roger Alton said McDonald’s interrogation was “deliberate harassment and intimidation of journalists which is utterly unacceptable and must be stopped immediately”.

The Irish secretary of the NUJ, Seamus Dooley, said the raid on the Clarke home had “grave implications for the operation of the media in Northern Ireland”.

By Jean Morgan

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