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Arrested Belfast pair warn journalists to 'protect your sources at all costs'

One of the two journalists arrested in Northern Ireland over a film naming alleged suspects in the Loughinisland Massacre has said he would “completely change” the way he works online given the chance again.

Trevor Birney, who produced the 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned working alongside journalist Barry McCaffrey, also said he feared their arrests would have a “chill factor” on journalists in Northern Ireland.

The pair were arrested on 31 August last year on suspicion of theft of a document which is featured in the film, and of breaching the Official Secrets Act by putting it into the public domain.

The document, a draft report from 2008 by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland, was leaked to McCaffrey by an anonymous source. It contained the names of suspects, made public for the first time in their film.

Six men were murdered in the Loughinisland Massacre, and another five wounded, when gunmen opened fire at a pub where people were watching Ireland play in the World Cup on 18 June 1994.

Several men were arrested in connection with the killing, but no one was ever charged.

A Police Ombudsman report, made public in 2016, claimed there had been collusion between the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the Ulster Volunteer Force killers. This was separate from the unpublished draft report.

Speaking at a screening of the film at City University last night, the men – who are still on police bail – were asked if they would have changed their practices during the investigation to stop police grabbing their journalistic material.

Birney said: “The question’s very pertinent for [the younger] generation of journalists because we all use mobile phones, we all use Whatsapp, email, to share information and we were no different.

“I think that absolutely if I could go back three or four years I would completely change the way that we do our business.”

When police raided investigative outfit The Detail’s Belfast offices as part of the raid on the journalists on 31 August, they were able to “suck every single piece of information out”, Birney said, even though only 2.5 per cent related to the Loughinisland investigation.

“So they have 97.5 per cent of that information that has absolutely nothing to do with this film but it is a lot to do with sensitive sources, sensitive interviews, sensitive material we’ve been gathering for many years,” he added.

“We didn’t really foresee the day that police would [come into the office and take all this information] so absolutely there’s a real challenge, particularly to your generation, around how you maintain the integrity and protection of sources but still carry around these things in our pockets and not do anything to compromise your sources.”

McCaffrey emphasised the importance of source protection, saying that he did not know who leaked him the document, but that if he did, he would not have divulged their identity to the police “or anybody else”.

He said: “We have an obligation to protect our sources at all costs. Do not break that. People trust you. People give you information on the understanding that you’re going to protect them, so protect your sources at all costs.”

Birney also said that there is little investigative journalism taking place in Northern Ireland and he feared his and McCaffrey’s arrests wouldn’t help.

“In Belfast, I think we are very similar to any other city in the UK or Ireland and indeed in the western world in that there just aren’t enough people like Barry McCaffrey. We really only have the BBC that is really a fully-functioning investigative journalism unit.”

Birney praised The Detail, where McCaffrey is a senior reporter in a small team of about six investigative journalists, but said the print newspaper environment is “just very similar to anywhere else”.

“I think there are very few resources and very few people who really spend any amount of time investigating and that has created a frame for why this film then hit a raw nerve, because if you’re a senior police officer in Northern Ireland and the BBC are not investigating the massacre in the way that we did, well then you can relax,” he went on.

“This film was like a wrecking ball, not only that comes into Northern Ireland but that is released across the world and is still playing at film festivals and is available on Amazon Prime. That really tells a story to the world that they really weren’t expecting to happen.

“So I think that the environment in Belfast for journalists is not good and I think that there is no doubt that this will have a chill factor because I think that any investigative journalist… would have to question whether to go after and investigate these issues and have police come through the door at 7am in front of their families.”

Birney revealed the morning of the arrests was his eight-year-old daughter’s first day back at school, and that she became “very agitated” when police arrived at his family home.

McCaffrey was alone at home when picked up by police and only realised the seriousness of what had happened after his fingerprints and DNA were taken and he was put in a cell, he said.

But, when he heard Birney’s voice as he was brought down the corridor, he said “it was like the birds singing in summer because [it meant] I’m not on my own”.

The two men were bailed for a second time in March, and are due to report back to a Belfast police station on 6 September for further questioning.

Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan said in a statement today: “Amnesty is deeply concerned at the arrests of two of the most widely-respected journalists in Northern Ireland, and the seizure of documents and computer equipment.

“The arrest of has sent a shiver of fear through media across Northern Ireland and we are in no doubt that press freedom is now at grave risk.”

Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Comments

3 thoughts on “Arrested Belfast pair warn journalists to 'protect your sources at all costs'”

  1. Terrifying; thanks for this piece.

    Real journalism has been under severe attack financially through technology and from the state, notably via “The Brian Leveson Circus” fiasco, super injunctions, a disturbingly biased state funded broadcasting behemoth…

    A weak, timid 4th estate weakens us all.

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