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When the authorities fail, journalists prevail

In June 1994, in small village in Northern Ireland, six Catholic men were shot dead at point blank range by loyalists, as they watched the World Cup in their local pub. The main shooter was accompanied by two others, and although within 24 hours the local residents had a strong indication of whom the murderers were, over twenty four years later British Security Forces have yet to charge anyone for the crime.

After years of being drip fed information, the families of those killed started to demand answers. Investigative journalists met with the families, people professionally involved in the case at the time and eye witnesses to search for the truth behind the failings.

“No Stone Unturned” a film by Alex Gibney, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney explores the Loughinisland massacre and how it came to pass that such a tragedy was left unsolved for over 20 years.The film is the first published work to name the murderer suspects. Several newspapers have now followed. This incredibly brave step was taken with all due care: the journalists involved even warned the authorities several months in advance, so that protection may be offered to the named individuals. Why the authorities were not able to provide a transparent conclusion or logical methodology in the original case is not known. But by using information which was only a fraction of what was available to the state, journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney demonstrated with conviction that the police had more than enough information to investigate and convict, they even had DNA evidence linking the main suspect to a balaclava worn at the scene of the crime.

The film – screened to a packed and passionate audience at the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) Headquarters earlier this month – highlighted several failings in the investigation. The lead investigator on the case was able to maintain his month long holiday plans the day after the murders took place. The getaway car, the largest piece of evidence relating to the case, was destroyed with very little explanation. Attempts to decipher the mysterious actions which had been taken were obfuscated and no clear answers were forth coming. Still, the families kept up their fight.

Eventually, in 2016, the Police Ombudsman produced a (secondary) report, which finally gave the families the truth they had been seeking for so long. The report found that there had been collusion between the police and the criminals. Unfortunately, it did not identify any individual officer as being at fault, and created no accountability for the failings.

The film highlighted the importance of two whistleblowers who leaked information to those in authority who they thought would know what to do with it. Unfortunately, it took the making of this film for the potential impact of the information they provided to be realised, and for the whistleblowers to know the risk they took was worth it in the end.

Shockingly, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney are now being legally pursued for document theft, from the office of the Police Ombudsman, who denies having made a complaint of document theft. Perhaps Oscar-winning director Alex Gibney’s reaction reflects the majority of public opinion. In a tweet, he said the film had exposed the failure of police to properly investigate the massacre. “Police reaction? Re-open murder investigation? No. Arrest the truth tellers,” he wrote.

In a further twist, the original 2016 Police Ombudsman report was amended in March 2018 to further distance the main suspect, Ronald Hawthorne, from the wrong doing mentioned in the report.

Protect knows the value of open and honest journalism, even (and especially) when this reveals information which is embarrassing to the state.  We  commend the National Union of Journalists in their robust and compassionate support to these outstanding professionals and offer our support of Barry and Trevor, and will continue keeping a keen eye on any attempts to persecute them for their achievements. With deepest respect of, and support for, the families of those who were killed in Loughinisland.

By Laura Fatah, Adviser