The Irish Times view on protection for journalistic sources: an overdue apology

The PSNI has finally apologised for using unlawful search warrants at the homes and workplaces of two journalists

Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested in August 2018. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

Journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested in August 2018. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA Wire

 

The apology by the Police Service of Northern Ireland to journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey is a welcome and overdue development in what Birney described yesterday as “a sorry episode”. The apology follows a ruling from Northern Ireland’s Lord Chief Justice last week quashing the warrants used to search the journalists’ homes and workplaces. Birney and McCaffrey were arrested in August 2018 as part of an investigation into the alleged theft of documents from the offices of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland and had documents and other items seized from them.

In last Friday’s ruling, Mr Justice Declan Morgan referred to the protection for journalistic sources in the UK’s Contempt of Court Act 1981 and Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and said he saw “no overriding requirement in the public interest which could have justified an interference with the protection of journalistic sources in this case”. In his letter to Birney, Chief Constable Simon Byrne said he fully accepted that the search warrants were unlawful and apologised to the journalist and his family.

Twenty-six years after their loved ones were murdered, the Loughinisland families are still waiting for justice

Birney produced the film No Stone Unturned, while McCaffrey was the main reporter featured. The documentary investigated the 1994 Loughinisland atrocity in which six people were killed by Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen in a bar while watching the soccer World Cup. The film highlighted failings in the investigation by the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the forerunner to the PSNI, and questioned whether the authorities placed too much emphasis on protecting informants.

Birney said yesterday serious issues still needed to be addressed in relation to the PSNI’s “illegal retention of massive swathes” of his data as well as his “unlawful arrest, wrongful detention and the impact it has had on his business”. Byrne promises the PSNI will review the judgment “to ensure that all appropriate learning is being taken”.

He would do well to also reflect on the fact that 26 years after their loved ones were murdered, the Loughinisland families are still waiting for any of the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

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