Redactions to documents in case of arrested journalists ‘kept to a minimum’
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were detained last August when homes, office raided
Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney leave Musgrave police station in Belfast after questioning. File photograph: Rebecca Black/ PA Wire.
Information on the frequency of contact between journalists and staff at Northern Ireland’s Police Ombudsman’s Office is being withheld to protect the integrity of an ongoing investigation into the suspected theft of confidential documents from the watchdog, the High Court in Belfast has heard.
Counsel for Durham Constabulary and the PSNI claimed redactions to search warrant applications had been necessary and kept to a minimum.
However, lawyers representing two investigative journalists arrested during the inquiry argued that critical material has been blanked out with no evidence that it was in the public interest to do so.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were involved in making a film about the killing of six Catholic men at Loughinisland in June 1994. UVF gunmen opened fire in a pub in the Co Down village as the men watched a World Cup match.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were detained last August, questioned and released as part of raids on their homes and an office in Belfast by detectives from Durham Constabulary.
The journalists and Fine Point Films, the company behind the Loughinisland documentary No Stone Unturned, are challenging the validity of the search warrants obtained from a County Court Judge in their absence.
With the case set for hearing later this year, legal discussion is continuing over the level of redaction of documents setting out the reasons for seeking the warrants.
Peter Coll QC, for the police forces, contended that the editing had been kept to an “irreducible minimum” in three main areas, with a gist of the information provided.
The sections include a reference to the Police Ombudsman’s IT system showing the frequency of any contact between its staff, journalists and the production team who made the documentary, the court heard.
Mr Coll suggested a closed hearing be held to assess the material, having the judges examine it in private, or seeking a Public Interest Immunity Certificate which would prohibit any disclosure.
He claimed that providing the information now would undermine the effectiveness of any future interviews carried out during the inquiry while the legal challenge takes place.
“The tensions and difficulties are acute. This is not just a straight forward situation where there’s a judicial review brought and everybody puts all their cards on the table,” Mr Coll said.
However, counsel for the journalists insisted all details on the central issue of how police justified their requests for the search warrants were blanked out.
Barry Macdonald QC, for Mr Birney, told the court: “This applicant is not interested in details about the Police Ombudsman’s IT system. But he’s very interested in the kind of details police were putting before the judge relating to any contact he and other journalists had with Police Ombudsman staff.”
Stressing that no reasons were given for the decision to grant the warrants, he added: “We have absolutely no idea what influenced the judge.”
Gavin Millar QC, for Mr McCaffrey, said no evidence had been produced to demonstrate disclosure of the material would be against the public interest.
Referring to the gist provided on the contact between journalists and the ombudsman’s staff, he pointed out: “It’s certainly not said to be clandestine or improper.”
Mr Millar likened the current situation to “taking potshots in the dark while blindfolded to a target moving very fast”.
Following submissions Lord Justice Treacy, sitting with Mrs Justice Keegan, confirmed they would examine the material before ruling on the redactions issue at a later.