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Belfast journalists behaved in 'perfectly proper manner' in protecting sources, says top judge

Two journalists arrested for airing confidential material in a documentary acted in a perfectly proper manner to protect their sources, Northern Ireland’s top judge has said.

Trevor Birney (pictured, far left) and fellow film-maker Barry McCaffrey (centre) were detained last year over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned, which is about the murders of six men in Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994.

Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland Sir Declan Morgan said the granting of a search warrant for their homes and offices was “inappropriate”.

The men remain under police investigation and are on bail.

Sir Declan said: “The material that was before the judge and the material which was subsequently demonstrated to us does not indicate that the journalists acted in anything other than a perfectly proper manner with a view to protecting their sources in a lawful way.”

He added: “We consider that in any event in the light of the legal authorities that the execution or granting of the search warrant was inappropriate.”

He said they were doing what the National Union of Journalists requires them to do with regard to protecting the identity of their sources.

The NUJ code of conduct states that a journalist “protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work”.

Sir Declan added the material should be returned to the journalists but they could consider giving an undertaking to retain it for a period, in case it was required to be produced.

The award-winning reporters mounted a High Court challenge against police, accusing them of unlawfully seizing millions of journalistic documents and digital files when they raided their homes and offices in Belfast last August.

At the conclusion of the hearing in Belfast High Court on Wednesday, Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice, who heard the case alongside two fellow judges, said they were “minded to quash the warrants”.

The NUJ welcomed today’s decision, calling it a victory for press freedom.

NUJ assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley said: “The High Court has affirmed the right of journalists to protect confidential sources of information and provided clear and unambiguous directions for the appropriate manner in which the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the courts should behave in seeking to access journalistic material.

“There can be no shortcuts when it comes to fundamental principles of human rights.”

Dooley was present in court to support McCaffrey and Birney alongside Gerry Carson, joint chair of the union’s Irish executive council, representatives from Amnesty International, and Conservative MP and former Brexit Secretary David Davis (pictured, second right).

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s head of UK nations and regions who attended the hearing, said: “This is an important day and a vital decision for press freedom in the UK.

“Every journalist in the UK owes a huge debt to Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey for taking on, and winning, this case.

“If they had been unsuccessful in court this week, then every reporter in receipt of leaked official documents would have had to live in fear of dawn raids by the police and potential prosecution under the Official Secrets Act.”

Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

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