PSNI action 'counterproductive'

 

THE ACTIONS of the PSNI Chief Constable in seeking to force a Northern Ireland journalist to hand over her notes and other materials relating to the Real IRA are counterproductive, a senior counsel has told a Belfast court.

Arthur Harvey QC, appearing for the Sunday Tribune’s Suzanne Breen, said he could not think of an approach by a chief constable “more designed to frustrate rather than uphold the law”.

Breen is refusing to disclose information about her Real IRA sources, citing the National Union of Journalists’ code of conduct. She says that to do so would be unethical and would place her life in grave danger from the republican group.

The PSNI is seeking her notes to help them in the case of the murders of two British soldiers in Antrim last March.

She told Belfast Recorder’s Court yesterday she would be in “grave danger” were she to comply with Sir Hugh Orde’s request.

“We are journalists. We are not detectives,” she told the court. “We chose to become journalists, not to become police officers or detectives.” She also said she had been warned that the Real IRA would be ruthless if she facilitated the PSNI. “I was told ‘You know what co-operation with the PSNI means’,” she said.

She said she was “under immense personal pressure and stress” because of the police demand for her materials and believed that the Real IRA were watching the court proceedings “like hawks”.

Tony McGleenan, counsel for the PSNI, pressed her on the perceived level of threat, asking why she had not received any protection from the PSNI.

Ms Breen claimed the threat would only materialise were she to comply with Sir Hugh Orde’s request.

She told Mr McGleenan that “everything substantial” about the Real IRA murders had been included in her newspaper reports.

Her counsel called a series of senior journalists to underscore to the court their belief that protection of journalists’ sources was a fundamental prerequisite for a working reporter.

The BBC’s John Ware said the Real IRA were “the Taliban of the republican movement” and utterly ruthless. He said previous chief constables had not sought breaches in journalist confidentiality, even during the worst of the conflict.

Alex Thomson of Channel 4 News, Sunday Tribune editor Nóirín Hegarty, freelance writer Liam Clarke, and professor of journalism Roy Greenslade, all testified to the importance of the confidentiality of journalists.

However Mr McGleenan told Belfast Recorder Tom Burgess that the NUJ code of conduct carried no legal weight and that the public interest lay in the police finding those responsible for the soldiers’ murders and bringing them to court.

“The public interest is that the police investigate a crime and then bring to justice those who took lives in Antrim,” he said.

“The court is not concerned with codes of conduct. The court is concerned with law,” he added.

In his final submission Mr Harvey argued that the Real IRA threat to Ms Breen should she reveal her sources was both “real and immediate”.

The judge told the court an early finding was in the interests of all involved and he promised to return to the court early next week.