Police are facing a multimillion-pound bill after settling a case taken by two journalists arrested over material used in a Troubles documentary.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland has agreed to pay £875,000 in damages to Trevor Birney, Barry McCaffrey and the company behind the film on the Loughinisland massacre.
The PSNI will also have to foot both sides’ legal costs for the lengthy and complex judicial review proceedings that have been running for more than two years – a bill understood to run well into seven figures.
That expenditure is on top of the hundreds of thousands of pounds spent on the botched arrest and search operation that prompted the journalists’ legal case.
It is understood the PSNI has also agreed to delete material it seized from Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey when officers raided their homes and offices in August 2018.
The settlement comes after a court ruled last year that the warrants used by police to search the journalists’ homes and Fine Point Films had been “inappropriate”.
The criminal probe into the journalists was discontinued following that ruling.
The PA news agency understands the £875,000 in damages includes £600,000 to Fine Point Films, £150,000 to Mr Birney and £125,000 to Mr McCaffrey.
News that a settlement has been reached was announced during a brief hearing at Belfast High Court on Friday morning.
Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney were arrested over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned about the notorious loyalist massacre in Loughinisland during the Troubles.
Six men were shot dead while watching football in a pub in the Co Down village in the summer of 1994.
The original police operation had been undertaken by Durham Constabulary at the request of the PSNI amid conflict of interest concerns.
In the summer, Northern Ireland’s police chief Simon Byrne issued an unreserved apology to the two journalists.
Reacting to the settlement, Mr Birney said: “Today marks an end to the legal process I began in a police cell on August 31 2018 after being arrested and my home and offices raided by dozens of PSNI and Durham police.
Northern Ireland: Amnesty hails 'victory for press freedom' in case of arrested journalists
Police agree to delete data wrongly seized from journalists and pay substantial damages
Amnesty to write to Policing Board to demand investigation into ‘debacle’https://t.co/QOqSdQLPmL
— Amnesty Int'l NI (@AmnestyNI) November 27, 2020
“We launched a judicial review in the face of the PSNI’s most egregious attack on journalism, to protect our journalism, our sources, and press freedom itself.
“Over the past two years, the PSNI fought our attempts to protect our journalism and sources every step of the way.
“They sought to defend their indefensible attack on press freedom right up until the judgment delivered by the Lord Chief Justice in July this year.
“We have welcomed the current chief constable’s apology for the actions of the PSNI. No such apology has been received by his predecessor George Hamilton, under whose leadership the PSNI arrested us.
“Journalists in this jurisdiction now need to see Simon Byrne take all steps necessary to ensure accountability for the PSNI’s despicable attack on press freedom and to assure the press that lessons have been learned.”
Mr McCaffrey questioned why it had taken the PSNI so long to settle with them.
“It’s a relief that it’s finally over but I don’t see why it took so long,” he said.
“This whole thing has cost the State millions.
“Millions of pounds wasted for what? This could have been spent on Covid and people in hospitals, but somebody within the PSNI decided that public money, millions of pounds of public money, was going to be wasted. Who’s going to be held to account?
“I support policing, we support proper policing, but this was the dark arts. This was the dark forces. This was an attack on press freedom. And as far as we can see, those people have been allowed to escape.
“The Lord Chief Justice vindicated us. He cleared our names and we’re very happy about that, but the people that did this to us and that attacked the Fourth Estate and press freedom, they have been allowed to escape.
“We think that the Policing Board (PSNI’s oversight body) should investigate this.”
Mr Birney’s solicitor Niall Murphy said of the payout: “It’s a totally unprecedented, I have never experienced or heard of in the legal community of a settlement of this scale in respect of unlawful arrest.
“And that, in and of itself, speaks to the egregious actions that were planned, conspired and executed by the PSNI and Durham police.”
Amnesty International, which supported the journalists’ campaign, said the settlement represents a victory for press freedom.
Patrick Corrigan from the organisation said the Policing Board should investigate the episode so lessons can be learned.
“This is a huge victory for press freedom and the fundamental principle of protecting journalists’ sources,” he said.
“Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey have successfully defended press freedom, not only on their own account, but on behalf of media across the UK.”
Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice Sir Declan Morgan, who heard the case, welcomed the fact a settlement had been reached between the parties.
“We congratulate the parties on finding an answer to this interesting and difficult, but also important, case,” he told lawyers in Belfast High Court.
A PSNI spokesman said: “The Police Service of Northern Ireland is pleased that these matters have now been concluded.”