An official report on an infamous arrest operation against two journalists investigating collusion in 2018 has been withheld, with only a small summary released into the public domain.
The two journalists, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey (pictured), were arrested in heavy handed raids at their homes and offices over their 2017 documentary ‘No Stone Unturned’, which examined a notorious atrocity in which there is strong evidence of British Crown Force collusion. Their notes, electronic devices and a range of personal items were seized in the raids.
The operation was a thinly undisguised attempt to stymie journalism considered embarrassing to British interests.
It was claimed the pair had illegally received information from a Police Ombudsman’s report into the massacre of six Catholic men killed in a pub by a loyalist death squad in June 1994.
Some 100 police, including some drafted in specially from Durham, England, were involved in the shock-and-awe attack on their homes and offices.
The High Court in Belfast later declared that the warrant issued for searches of the journalists and the seizing of their material was unlawful.
The investigation was dropped, with substantial damages ultimately paid to both men, and a public apology issued by PSNI Chief Simon Byrne. The total cost of the operation is thought to have run to several million pounds.
Last Wednesday, a brief summary of a PSNI review into the case, carried out by a senior barrister, was slipped into the Policing Board’s annual human rights report. It questioned whether the supposed offences existed and admitted investigators were not objective.
However, no member of the PSNI has ever been sanctioned or disciplined over the case.
Amnesty has written to PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne calling on him to publish the full report.
“The targeting of Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey undermined press freedom in Northern Ireland, damaged public confidence in policing, and likely cost millions to the public purse. Yet, it seems, no-one within the police has been held accountable,” they said.
“This is not a private matter for the police to consider behind closed doors. There is an overwhelming public interest in having this report made public. We need to understand what went wrong and ensure that it can never happen again. The day of dawn raids at the homes of journalists in Northern Ireland must be over.”
The review also questioned why a relatively junior PSNI figure had applied for the warrant, suggesting that more senior figures had sought to evade responsibility for their actions.
Mr McCaffrey described the report’s findings as “shocking” and said in any other police force they would have “led to a proper, public, independent inquiry”.
“We still do not know how much this whole sorry debacle cost the public purse, whether or not anyone has been held to account,” he said.
Mr McCaffrey said he was dismayed that no-one appears to have been held to account. “The culture of secrecy and silence within the PSNI has been allowed to go unchallenged,” he said.
Mr Birney said the PSNI report should be published in full.
“It is in the public interest that the PSNI is held accountable for its actions,” he said.
“Barry or myself cannot be surprised by anything that has been published so far, but we can really only make a full assessment when we see the full report and what actions have been taken as a result of the malicious farce we and our families were subjected to.
“It is in the public interest that the PSNI is held accountable for its actions.
“It was the PSNI who sent Durham Constabulary after us. We still don’t know why the PSNI decided to go after journalists instead of the men who killed six innocent Catholics in Loughinisland.”
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey said they were never told that the review was completed last year, or what its findings were.
“We were never informed this review was taking place, we were not asked to participate or give submissions and were not made aware that the report had been completed in the spring of 2022,” Mr McCaffrey said.
“Only the summary of findings and recommendations have been provided to the Policing Board. The policy of secrecy and lack of proper scrutiny and accountability is being allowed to continue unchecked.”
Mr Birney’s lawyer Niall Murphy said the arrests of the journalists were “ill conceived and indeed malicious”.
“The unprecedented scale of damages paid and apology made by the Chief Constable are clear evidence of this.
“I find it convenient and dubious that the review concludes that the blame for this farce should lie with junior officers.
“It was fundamentally obvious from the judicial review that the arrest strategy from its inception to execution was co-ordinated and directed by senior police.
“The only police investigation that should have commenced as a result of the documentary film No Stone Unturned, was not the arrest of the journalists who exposed the truth, rather the police should have arrested the murderers against whom there is clear evidence.
“Those arrests should still be made.”