The arrested Loughinisland massacre journalists are pawns in a legacy struggle

More details have been revealed by the journalist Susan McKay   about the circumstances of the arrest of the two journalists who researched Alex Gibney’s  exposé documentary No Stone Unturned.  The film gives a compelling account of alleged police negligence and collusion between some police officers and the murderers who committed the Loughinisland massacre in 1994, killing six people and wounding five when they burst into the Heights bar and sprayed it with bullets. The Ombudsman cleared one police commander.   Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey from the film-making arm of The Detail investigative website were arrested by armed police at their homes in August. They face further interrogation at the end of this month. The police inquiry is being conducted by Durham police on behalf of the PSNI, although the local force is heavily involved.

The film was made with the obvious and visible assistance of the Police Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire and members of his staff who took part in the film.

Nevertheless the journalists were arrested on suspicion that they were in receipt of documents stolen from the Ombudsman’s office.

The Ombudsman’s report itself was the subject of furious criticism from the police federation and others and legal action on the grounds that it had exceeded its brief.  The film makers were criticised for naming alleged perpetrators identified but not named in the report. Legal action continues.

McKay reveals serious discrepancies between the basic police statements about the arrests and the Ombudsman’s reply to  her inquiries.

The motive suggested for the arrests in the story is highly plausible, that the journalists are pawns in a bigger struggle over  the accountability  of  the security forces  in dealing with the past.

Extracts

The film makes use of, and shows what appears to be, a draft of a Police Ombudsman report from 2011. It was sent anonymously in the post to McCaffrey. As well as the ombudsman’s office, the PSNI would also have had access to this material.

“At the PSNI’s Serious Crimes Unit, the journalists were told that “on October 4th, 2017, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland reported the theft of two ‘secret’ documents from their offices”.

There is plenty that is strange about these events, and strangest of all is this: the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, Dr Michael Maguire, had never reported the theft of documents from his office.

In a statement to The Irish Times, his office explicitly denied that he had done so. “We did not make a complaint of theft.” The ombudsman’s office said it understood the PSNI had commissioned Durham Police to investigate the means by which the film’s production team had secured access to the documents.

The ombudsman’s office had known in advance that the film would rely “very heavily” on the ombudsman’s 2016 published report: “Late in the day we were told that it would also use documentation which may or may not have come from the office.

“At no point were we made aware that this material may have been taken from the office,” it said. In reply to another question it emphasised that “the format of the document shown in the documentary is different to any similar document that we would have”.

The film-maker had multiple sources, many of them anonymous, but including ex-RUC officers. It drew on the documents posted to McCaffrey in 2011 as well as on the published June 2016 Ombudsman’s report.

“I met Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin in early 2017 and he told me [then] deputy chief constable Drew Harris had been briefed soon after the 2016 meeting,” he adds. (Harris is now the Garda Commissioner.) “We took comfort from that. As journalists we cannot assess risk – the only party that can do that is the PSNI. They could have warned the suspects and they could have injuncted us.”

Maguire strongly advised Gibney not to name a UVF informer. That advice was taken. Maguire saw the film before its release. The film-makers knew he would be obliged to inform the PSNI of its contents, and on October 4th last year, he did so.

In his statement to The Irish Times, Maguire explained: “We briefed PSNI that [the film] had identified a number of individuals, who may be now at risk, and that it had shown extracts from what appeared to be a Police Ombudsman document, albeit in a different format to our document.”

The PSNI thus had time to seek an injunction blocking the film’s release. It did not.”

 

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London