Journalist tells of arrest experience over Loughinisland material

An award-winning Belfast journalist, arrested in an investigation where the case against him recently collapsed, says the experience has left a mark on him.

Barry McCaffrey said he will not be the same again after he was arrested last August along with his colleague Trevor Birney.

The two journalists were arrested over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned on a notorious loyalist massacre in Loughinisland during the Northern Ireland Troubles.

Loughinisland Massacre
Loughinisland Massacre

The Lord Chief Justice recently ruled search warrants used by police had been “inappropriate”.

This resulted in the criminal probe into the journalists being discontinued.

Mr McCaffrey was speaking at the Docs Ireland Film Festival event called Freedom of the Press: Are investigative journalists safe to work in Ireland, at the Ulster Museum in Belfast.

“It’s like a death, you go through all the emotions, you’ve got the anger, you’ve got the guilt, the guilt about what you are doing to your family, Trevor’s children had to watch him being arrested, my mother who battled cancer… we were big enough and bold enough, we knew the risks we were going through, but it was stress and the hassle that you put your family through, to me, that’s the guilt for me,” he told the event.

“Have we changed, will we ever be the same again? Without over dramatising it, I don’t think we probably will because I think it’s left this mark on us.

“I think our lives have changed, is it the end of the world? no. Emma Rogan lost a daddy (in the Loughinisland shootings), and there are other people here who lost family members, we lost nothing.”

Loughinisland Massacre
Loughinisland Massacre

Mr Birney said after the arrest experience he feels the risk to journalists is from the State not from the street.

“I think we have got to be thankful that the courts are independent and certainly the court in our case acted so robustly in response to what was an attack on free speech and an attack on press freedom in Belfast,” he said.

“I’m not sure that if we were working inside a media organisation in London that this would have happened to us.”

Sean Murray, a documentary maker who also appeared on the panel at the event, revealed that when he was making his film Unquiet Graves, he was informed by police that there was a threat to his life.

“At the end of 2017 I received a death threat while making the film. When police come to tell you, you’ve had a death threat, they don’t tell you the reasons for the death threat, they just tell you to take these precautions. I did not want to publicise it at the time, it was something I didn’t want to speak about at the time,” he told the event.

We're underway at our Freedom of the Press event in @UlsterMuseum !

— Docs Ireland (@DocsIreland) June 12, 2019

Author Susan McCann chaired the event and described it as “incredibly timely”.

“The fact that journalists thought we had come through a period where there was a lot of physical risk of violence and in fact surprisingly very few journalists were hurt or killed in the Troubles, but we have now come through all that and we are supposed to be in peace time but we are now discovering there are all kinds of other risks and dangers for journalists,” she said.

“Lyra McKee was tragically killed in a situation where ordinary people were out walking around, no one suspected it was a situation where lives would be a risk.

“She was there to observe it because she wanted to understand how events like that happen and that was her legitimate requirement as a journalist so she did die in the course of her work.

“Then you have got the situation of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney who have just been put through a horrendous experience by the police and thankfully have been vindicated by the Lord Chief Justice.”