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Search warrants against Loughinisland journalists quashed by High Court in Northern Ireland in vindication of press freedom and source protection rights

Related Member(s):
Gavin Millar QC
Related Practice Area(s):
Media and Information Law

In August 2018 the Police Service of Northern Ireland was granted four warrants at a closed hearing before a judge in Belfast to search the homes and offices of investigative journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. 

Huge quantities of their confidential journalistic material were seized, including on their computers and mobile phones. The journalists were also arrested when the warrants were executed. The journalists had made a documentary film, “No Stone Unturned” about the murder of a group of catholic men by loyalist gunmen in 1994. The victims were watching a Ireland World Cup football match in a bar In Loughinisland Co Down. The film exposed police failings in the investigation and alleged state collusion. No one has ever been prosecuted for the murders. Mr Birney was the producer of the documentary and Mr McCaffrey was the reporter. 

The journalists relied on anonymously leaked information from the police Ombudsman’s office in making the film. The ostensible reason for the search warrants was to obtain material identifying their confidential journalistic sources. In a judicial review the High Court has quashed the warrants and ordered the police to return all of the material seized.

The High Court accepted that the documentary was high value public interest journalism. It found that there was no sufficient evidence before the judge to enable him to identify criminal offences which might have justified the issue of the warrants and that the journalists had acted professionally in previous instances where they had protected their sources. It also found that the granting of the warrants breached the ECHR Art 10 rights of the journalists.

Gavin Millar QC represented Barry McCaffrey through the auspices of the National Union of Journalists.