A criminal investigation into two journalists arrested over confidential material they aired in a documentary has been dropped.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested last August over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film on a notorious loyalist massacre during the Northern Ireland Troubles.
The reporters, who insist the material on the Loughinisland killings came from an anonymous whistleblower, have been on bail ever since.
The Police Service of Northern Ireland had asked Durham Constabulary to investigate the theft. Both organisations confirmed on Monday night that the reporters were no longer under investigation – though they said the probe into the theft would continue.
“The attack on us was an attack on them. We call on the PSNI and Durham to apologise to them for putting them through this unlawful charade.
“The police have dropped the case for one reason only – finally, they accept that by arresting us and raiding our homes and offices, they were the ones that acted unlawfully.”
The film makers’ case has attracted worldwide attention, with the award-winning reporters having mobilised a high-profile campaign against what they portrayed as an attack on press freedom.
Durham Police had been called in by officers from Northern Ireland to investigate the alleged theft.
The development comes days after three senior judges in Belfast quashed warrants used by police to seize a wide range of journalistic material from early morning raids on the men’s homes and their film company, Fine Point.
Their 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned broke new ground by naming suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.
Police had been investigating how information contained in a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document appeared in No Stone Unturned.
As the Loughinisland killings have long been linked to allegations of police collusion, PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton had asked Durham Police to conduct the investigation, citing potential conflict of interest concerns if local officers led the probe.
Monday’s development came hours after a court heard that the haul of journalistic documents and equipment that police inappropriately seized from Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey were now available for them to reclaim.
The men are due to collect their possessions from a Belfast police station on Tuesday – an event that is now set to have a celebratory tone in light of the police move.
“But this only comes after nine months of a judicial review that was instigated and funded by Fine Point Films to protect the rights of a free press.
“The Lord Chief Justice told the court last week that we had no case to answer. We were right to protect our sources.
“The PSNI put the cudgel in the hands of Durham Constabulary and let them loose on us and on press freedom itself.”
The men questioned why detectives had not instead focused on going after the Loughinisland killers.
The men called for an immediate and independent investigation, demanding that senior officers in the PSNI and Durham Police were “held accountable”.
“We now know they were supported by the local Public Prosecution Service which is shocking,” the reporters added.
“They need to answer questions how they could have supported such an unlawful investigation.
“We thank the NUJ and Amnesty International for their support in particular.
“We’ve been humbled by those at home and abroad who have stood by us throughout the past nine months.
“But most of all, we thank the Loughinisland families. We are proud to have brought their story to the world.”
Durham Chief Constable Mike Barton confirmed the move.
He said: “Following the outcome of last week’s judicial review, a decision has now been taken not to progress the investigation into those two individuals and both will be immediately released from police bail.
“We are in the process of concluding what has been a highly complex investigation, with some final lines of inquiry still to be assessed. These lines of inquiry do not include the journalists, Mr Birney or Mr McCaffrey, as suspects in the investigation.
“At all times, my officers have acted in good faith, within the law and followed due process. The warrant application was originally submitted to and approved by a county court judge. We do, however, accept and respect the decision of the High Court last week.
“We plan to produce a final report to the Chief Constable of the PSNI outlining all of our findings.”
PSNI Chief Constable George Hamilton said: “I have always accepted the autonomy of Chief Constable Barton’s inquiry and I fully concur with his decision not to progress the investigation into the two journalists Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey.
“Throughout the period of this investigation, the horror of what happened in Loughinisland has never been far from any of our thoughts. The perpetrators of that crime have never been brought to justice and that is a matter of huge regret for policing.
“The police investigation into who murdered the six innocent men in the Heights Bar in 1994 remains open but progress is dependent on new information. There are people out there who know what happened. I would appeal to them to come forward and make a statement that will help us finally bring justice to the families of the victims.
“I am aware that the investigation over the last year has caused concern for families who have already suffered so much. That is something none of us would ever have wished to do.
“However, as a police service, the suspected theft or unlawful leaking of any sensitive documents containing information that may endanger life is a serious matter which we are statutorily obliged to investigate.
“Recognising the sensitivities, we asked an independent police service to conduct the investigation. The clarity provided by last week’s hearing has now brought a significant part of that investigation to a conclusion. I await the final report from Durham on this complex investigation.”
In response to the criticism levelled by Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey, a PPS spokeswoman said: “The conduct of investigations, including applying for and executing search warrants, is entirely a matter for police.”