This sledgehammer could knock down more doors

Seventeen months after Liam Clarke and his partner Kathy Johnston were woken by armed police in the middle of the night, the pair have something to celebrate.

During the 1.30am raid last year, computers, notebooks and other sensitive journalistic material were seized, and Clarke and Johnston were denied access to a telephone – despite being concerned about organising child care for their eight-year-old daughter.

Meanwhile the door to the Belfast offices of the Sunday Times, where Clarke is Northern Ireland editor, was battered down, even though he offered officers the use of his key. More material was seized.

Now an investigation by the police ombudsman of Northern Ireland has found officers guilty of 32 separate failings in relation to the raids. Nuala O’Loan’s report recommends disciplinary action against eight officers, including a detective chief superintendent, because of the “poorly led and unprofessional operation”.

It’s a scathing indictment of the Police Service of Northern Ireland’s methods. Its actions at the time were seen as a heavy-handed act of harassment in reaction to Clarke and Johnston’s publication of a book, which contained embarrassing revelations about senior politicians thought to have been obtained by MI5 bugging devices.

But despite the report, journalists in Northern Ireland won’t be sleeping completely soundly in the wee small hours of the morning.

Had the police not made such a hash of getting the correct warrant, they would still have been entitled to seize some material, and to do so carrying guns.

The PSNI has a long way to go before it convinces journalists that it has any respect for their rights. And the Official Secrets Act remains the sledgehammer that could still batter down any number of doors.

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