Loughinisland journalists urge police to ‘stop digging’ after court hearing

Two journalists arrested for airing confidential material in a documentary have told police to drop the case after judges indicated their warrants will be quashed.

Trevor Birney and fellow film-maker Barry McCaffrey 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, Co Down, in 1994.

They remain under police investigation and are on bail.

Police Ombudsman
Police Ombudsman

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 Sir Declan Morgan, who heard the case alongside two fellow judges, said they were “minded to quash the warrants on the basis they were inappropriate”.

Following the hearing, Mr Birney urged police to “stop digging” and drop the criminal probe while Mr McCaffrey said the judges’ remarks had proved “journalism is not a crime”.

A further hearing has been scheduled for Friday to determine whether the material held by police should now be handed back.

The 2017 film broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.

It used a confidential Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI) document that identified the suspects – an item the journalists insist was leaked to them anonymously.

Loughinisland Massacre
Loughinisland Massacre

Following the hearing, Mr Birney accused police chiefs of concentrating resources on chasing journalists rather than those who carried out the Loughinisland massacre.

No-one has ever been convicted of the murders.

“For the Loughinsland families sitting at the back of the court today, all this action has told them over the last two days is that police are still trying to protect the killers rather than going after the killers and, in this instance, were prepared to go after journalists rather than going after the killers,” he said.

In a 2016 report, Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire concluded security forces colluded with the Loughinisland killers.

Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) Chief Constable George Hamilton, citing a potential conflict of interest, asked Durham Constabulary to take on the probe following the film’s release.

Darren Eliis
Darren Eliis

Durham chief investigator Darren Ellis oversaw the arrest and search operation.

Mr Birney said the police needed to reconsider their approach.

“They are on a hiding to nothing on the criminal case but I’ve no doubt that the PSNI and those who instigated this investigation, who resourced it and who funded it, will be determined to try to continue with this,” he added.

“George Hamilton and Stephen Martin (PSNI deputy chief constable) and the rest of the team who are sitting in headquarters today should be thinking about throwing away the shovel and stop digging, throw away the shovel and don’t make journalists the enemy – that’s the message that came out of the last two days.

“Don’t make whistle-blowers the enemy. That’s what you tried to do in this case and it had completely backfired spectacularly.”

Mr McCaffrey said: “I think this has huge ramifications – it is a very important day for investigative journalism and defence of press freedom.

“I think the courts have sent a clear message that journalism isn’t a crime.

“We are allowed, journalists are allowed, to hold the powers that be (to account), to scrutinise police and government and government departments.

“It isn’t crime what we did and I think the courts have sent a very clear message.”