In a settlement which could set a marker for other claims against the Crown Forces, huge damages have been paid to journalists falsely arrested by the PSNI in 2018.
The PSNI agreed to pay £875,000 to the journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey in a settlement announced at Belfast High Court on Friday. The damages include £600,000 to Fine Point Films, £150,000 to Birney and £125,000 to McCaffrey. The PSNI also promised to delete seized material.
The settlement ends a furore over British attempts to censor ‘No Stone Unturned’, a film about the murder by unionist paramilitary gunmen of six Catholics in Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994. Directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary named the main suspects, investigated why no one was charged, and exposed collusion by the PSNI.
The damages reflected the impact on the two journalists, their families and colleagues, said Mr Birney.
“It was a dark cloud hanging over us for two years. It was an egregious attack not only on us but on journalism. It was designed as a chill factor to put journalists off investigating these stories.”
He expressed relief that data held by the PSNI and English police would be deleted, hoping it would protect the film-makers’ sources.
In early morning raids in August 2018, PSNI units arrested Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey and raided their homes and offices on charges of ‘stealing’ information from a Police Ombudsman’s report into the massacre.
But the criminal investigation into the men was soon discontinued and they did not face any charges. The two men challenged the legality of the search warrants in a judicial review, leading to vindication in Belfast High Court last year when the warrants were quashed.
Barry 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?” he asked.
“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,” he said.
“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 should investigate this.”
Mr Birney said the case showed the value of judicial review, which allows people to question the lawfulness of decisions made by public bodies and the danger of the British government’s attempt to curb the process.
“If it wasn’t for judicial review we’d still be on bail awaiting trial,” he said.
The journalist also accused the PSNI of having “perverted priorities” in ignoring evidence about who perpetrated the Loughinisland massacre and instead pursuing the film-makers over a leaked document.
“It’s quite clear they have no appetite to give the Loughinisland families the justice they seek.”