Police have dropped their investigation into two Belfast investigative journalists behind a documentary on the 1994 Loughinisland Massacre after keeping them on bail for ten months.
Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney had been arrested and their homes raided over an allegation that they had stolen confidential material which was used in their film No Stone Unturned released in 2017.
The documentary revealed for the first time the names of loyalists suspected of shooting dead six men at a bar in Loughinisland, County Down, while they watched Ireland play in the World Cup.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland and Durham Police both said last night they were no longer pursuing the case, despite having extended the journalists’ bail conditions by six months in March.
The material at the centre of the theft claim belonged to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The PSNI asked Durham Police to investigate to avoid any conflict of interest issues.
A police press release issued at the time said the investigation was triggered when the ombudsman reported the theft to police, but the ombudsman’s office said it “did not make a complaint of theft” to police.
As part of their probe, police detained the journalists and searched their homes and offices, seizing journalistic material including computers, hard drives, mobile phones, files and notepads.
A judge ruled last week that the granting of search warrants had been “inappropriate”, saying the journalists had acted in a “perfectly proper manner” to protect their sources.
The police investigation was also heavily criticised by public figures, with former Brexit secretary David Davis describing it as “a troubling challenge to press freedom and civil liberties in Northern Ireland”.
Davis said last night the decision to drop the case was an “outstanding victory for press freedom” and called for justice for the Loughinisland victims.
Birney and McCaffrey told PA in a statement: “Our first thoughts are with the Loughinisland families. The attack on us was an attack on them.
“We call on the PSNI and Durham to apologise to them for putting them through this unlawful charade.
“The police have dropped the case for one reason only – finally, they accept that by arresting us and raiding our homes and offices, they were the ones that acted unlawfully.”
The pair have called for an independent investigation into PSNI and Durham Police’s handling of their case.
Speaking to Press Gazette, McCaffrey said: “Somebody did something wrong and we feel that it’s not good enough that this isn’t properly investigated, because if it isn’t properly investigated… if the authorities aren’t held to account here, the same mistake’s going to happen again.”
He added: “The good thing that we believe has come out of this whole debacle, this whole farce, is that the courts have sent a clear message that investigative public interest reporting has a legal defence.”
Birney and McCaffrey have now be able to take home the items seized by police during their investigation. They had been on bail since August last year.
The NUJ has welcomed the decision to end the investigations into the reporters and also called for an independent investigation into police handling of the case.
NUJ assistant general secretary Seamus Dooley said: “We welcome the decision to end the investigation but this case raises a number of fundamental questions about the attitude of the PSNI and Durham Constabulary towards the media.
“The manner in which warrants were secured, the execution of those warrants, the severe bail restrictions imposed on Barry and Trevor and the damage done to their reputation cannot simply be brushed aside on foot of a High Court judgement which could not have been more damning.”
In a statement on the decision to drop the case, Durham Constabulary chief constable Mike Barton said: “At all times, my officers have acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process.”
He told PA that Durham Police “accept and respect” the decision of the High Court last week.
PSNI chief constable George Hamilton added: “I am aware that the investigation over the last year has caused concern for families who have already suffered so much. That is something none of us would ever have wished to do.
“However, as a police service, the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate.”
Amnesty International described the decision as a “famous victory for press freedom”.
The organisation’s Northern Ireland programme director Patrick Corrigan added: “If they’d lost, every investigative reporter in the UK would have been living in fear of a dawn raid by the police.”
Picture: Liam McBurney/PA Wire