The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) has agreed to pay significant damages for wrongly arresting the makers of a documentary about a Troubles atrocity.

The police agreed to pay £875,000 to the journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey in a settlement announced at Belfast high court on Friday. The damages include £600,000 to Fine Point Films, £150,000 to Birney and £125,000 to McCaffrey. Police also promised to delete seized material.

The deal ends a controversy that sucked in English police and created a press freedom furore around No Stone Unturned, a 2017 film about the murder by Ulster Volunteer Force gunmen of six Catholics in Loughinisland, County Down, in 1994.

Directed by Alex Gibney, the documentary investigated why no one was charged, questioned contacts between police and the alleged killers, and named the main suspects.

The damages reflected the impact on the two journalists, their families and colleagues, said Birney. “It was a dark cloud hanging over us for two years. It was an egregious attack not only on us but on journalism. It was designed as a chill factor to put journalists off investigating these stories.”

He expressed relief that data held by the PSNI and Durham constabulary would be deleted, protecting the film-makers’ sources.

Detectives arrested Birney and McCaffrey in August 2018 on suspicion of stealing an unredacted police ombudsman report into the massacre. The raids were overseen by officers from Durham constabulary after they were asked to take over the case by the PSNI due to a potential conflict of interest. The criminal investigation into the men was discontinued and they did not face any charges.

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Birney and McCaffrey challenged the legality of the search warrants in a judicial review, leading to vindication in Belfast high court last year when the lord chief justice of Northern Ireland, Sir Declan Morgan, quashed the warrants and rebuked police.

Birney said the case showed the value of judicial review – which allows people to question the lawfulness of decisions made by public bodies – and the danger of the British government’s attempt to curb the process. “If it wasn’t for judicial review we’d still be on bail awaiting trial,” he said.

The journalist accused the PSNI of having “perverted priorities” in ignoring evidence about who perpetrated the Loughinisland massacre and instead pursuing the film-makers over a leaked document. “It’s quite clear they have no appetite to give the Loughinisland families the justice they seek.”



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