Loughinisland case proves the freedom of the press must be protected
Police conduct towards investigative journalists seeking to expose the truth of what happened at the Loughinisland massacare was heavy handed and unlawful; it is important that press freedoms are protected, writes David Davis MP.
This week in the Commons I raised an important case of press freedom and police overreach in Northern Ireland.
25 years ago, a crowd gathered in O’Toole’s Pub in Loughinisland to watch the Republic of Ireland play Italy in the World Cup. Moments after Ireland scored the winning goal, two members of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) burst into the pub with automatic assault rifles and sprayed bullets across the bar.
They killed six people and injured five more, simply because they were Catholic.
It is known as the ‘Loughinisland massacre’ and it was an atrocity that shocked Ireland to its core.
The investigation carried out by the Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) – now the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) – was littered with glaring errors and outright failures of policing. Officers missed opportunities to take vital DNA evidence from the getaway car and the murder weapons, and they failed to take advantage of key informants in the UVF.
An Ombudsman’s report into the investigation, called for by the victims’ families, was damning. It found that “corrupt relationships existed between members of the Security Forces in South Down and the UVF” and described their failure to follow up on investigative leads as “inexcusable”.
Those responsible for this heinous crime have never been arrested, charged or prosecuted.
But in 2017 two Northern Irish journalists – Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney – exposed the truth.
In a hard-hitting documentary they shone a light on the collusion and, for the first time, named those suspected of the atrocity.
Like countless journalists have done over the years, they got their information from an anonymous leak, in a plain unmarked envelope, containing an unredacted Ombudsman’s report.
It was an investigative journalist’s dream leak.
But even so, the journalists offered the named suspects a right of reply, but they heard nothing from them.
They also passed the information onto the Ombudsman and the PSNI in an effort to ensure there was no compelling reason why the documentary should not be released. Again, they heard nothing.
But a year after the documentary was broadcast, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were arrested on extraordinary charges by the PSNI. For simply doing their jobs they were arrested and charged with suspected theft, handling stolen goods, breaches of the Official Secrets Act, and breaches of data protection rules.
And the PSNI’s action was extraordinarily heavy handed. Some 100 fully armed officers turned up at their homes at seven in the morning while their families were eating breakfast. The police threatened to kick in the doors and arrested the journalists in front of their wives and children.
The police then searched their homes and offices, and seized their phones, laptops and hard drives. They even seized the phones of the journalists’ children. Now the police hold a huge amount of very personal data belonging to them and their families.
Earlier this year, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney had the courage to challenge this outrageous case.
In June the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland handed down a damning indictment of the police’s conduct, and in defence of a free press. He ruled the warrants were unlawful and quashed them.
This was an important victory, not only for the journalists themselves, but for the fundamental principle of press freedom.
But the case is now back in the courts again. The PSNI has had to be hauled back before the courts because they are insisting on retaining the data obtained from the journalists’ phones and computers. It is not appropriate here to comment on the details of this case which is under sub judice.
But, more generally, data retention by the police throughout the UK has been a long-running issue. For example, when someone is arrested it is common that their phone data is held long after the person is released and exonerated.
Of course data retention is necessary for fighting crime. But data belonging to innocent people, particularly innocent journalists, should not be held without very good reason. On the rare occasions that proves necessary, it should be under the strict control of the courts.
That is why I strongly urged the Government to keep a close eye on the Loughinisland case. It simply cannot be right that the PSNI is holding the data of innocent journalists seized under an unlawful warrant.
But this issue is not confined to Northern Ireland. Whistle-blowers across the world will see cases like this and feel intimidated if the information they give to journalists is subject to capture and inspection by the police, or other agencies of the State.
Press freedom is at the core of our democratic system. It must be protected.
David Davis is Conservative MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.