Raids on the homes of two journalists by police trying to uncover their sources were unjustified, concluded judges in a historic press freedom ruling.
Judges quashed the search warrants against journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, stating that the hearing in which the police had applied for the warrants to search the homes and offices of the pair “fell woefully short of the standard required” to ensure a fair hearing.
The judgement also emphasised the journalists’ right to protect their sources, saying they did “exactly what one would expect a careful, professional investigative journalist to do in anticipation of any attempt to identify a source”.
In the ruling, Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan said he had been presented with no information “which could have justified an interference with the protection of journalistic sources in this case”.
Birney and McCaffrey were arrested and had their homes raided in 2018 – in front of their children – over an allegation that they had stolen confidential material in their 2017 film No Stone Unturned.
The documentary revealed the names of loyalists suspected of shooting dead six men at a bar in Loughinisland, County Down, while they watched Ireland play in the 1994 World Cup.
The material at the centre of the allegation against the journalists belonged to the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. The PSNI asked Durham Police to investigate to avoid any conflict of interest issues.
McCaffrey and Birney were kept bail for ten months while the investigation went on until an initial ruling quashed the warrant authorising police raids on them.
In the raid, journalistic materials including computers, mobile phones and notepads were seized. The final judgement added that any warrant which was issued could only relate to those paper documents and the failure to make clear that the warrant did not include “the taking of electronic and other digital material” was “inexplicable”.
The full judgement given on Friday (June 10) found that in the August 2018 hearing granting the warrants, the judge was not advised that freedom of expression rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights were engaged. Nor was it made clear to the judge that a warrant like this could “only be justified by an overriding requirement in the public interest”.
“This issue was absolutely fundamental to whether or not a warrant should be issued and the failure to address it means that we can have no confidence that the trial judge applied the right test,” the judgment said.
Responding to the judgement, NUJ General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet said:
“This case is an important and historic victory for all journalists working in the public interest. We very much welcome the decision of the judges to quash the warrants and the bold emphasis they have placed on the right of journalists to protect their sources. Today they have clearly stated that the most appropriate procedures to use in law in any attempt to access journalistic material is not ex parte search warrants.
“Journalists must not be treated as criminals, they must not have their homes and offices raided, simply for doing their jobs.”
The judgement can be found in full here.
Picture: Royal Courts of Justice, Belfast