On August 31, 2018, Northern Irish journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey awoke to loud knocks at the doors of their Belfast homes.

"My street outside my home was filled with police," McCaffrey told The Listening Post's Daniel Turi. "They informed me they wanted to search my house for materials relating to the documentary, No Stone Unturned. The first thing they did was they sought to seize all digital materials: mobile phones, laptops, computers."

No Stone Unturned, directed by Academy Award-winner Alex Gibney, investigates the Loughinisland massacre - the killing of six unarmed Catholics in 1994 - towards the end of Northern Ireland's 30-year sectarian conflict known as "the Troubles".

The paramilitary group the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) claimed responsibility for the attack, but no one was ever brought to trial. No Stone Unturned presents new evidence - principally, a confidential draft of a report written by a police ombudsman, that states, during their original investigation, police identified one of their suspects as an informant embedded in the UVF.

Birney, the film's producer, and McCaffrey, an investigative journalist, were arrested by the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI), a branch of the UK police force, but have not so far been charged. Among the reasons given by the PSNI for their arrests was suspected "unlawful disclosure of information" under the UK Official Secrets Act.

At the time of writing, they are serving bail and have won permission to challenge the legality of the search warrants used. 

They informed me they wanted to search my house for materials relating to the documentary, No Stone Unturned. The first thing they did was they sought to seize all digital materials: mobile phones, laptops, computers.

Barry McCaffrey, investigative reporter, No Stone Unturned

The arrest of journalists in the UK is extremely rare. However, documenting Northern Ireland's Troubles has always been a contentious pursuit for British and Northern Irish journalists, because of both the continuing threat posed by the Irish Republican Army's (IRA) brutal bombing campaign - which targeted civilians, and also the counterinsurgency operation being waged by the British government - the so-called "dirty war" that included the incarceration and torture of terror suspects without trial.

During the conflict, varying degrees of censorship were felt at media outlets across the industry, but especially in television. The best-known case is the so-called "Broadcast Ban of 1988-94", a law that prohibited the voices of members of certain political and paramilitary organisations being broadcast on TV or radio.

Less widely known, however, is that journalists trying to televise the Troubles faced restrictions, albeit of a less formal nature, from much earlier. Starting in the early 1970s, following intense government pressure, the BBC required all items produced on Northern Ireland to be vetted by senior management.

Documentaries were particularly suspect, especially those looking into the IRA or detailing abuses by British forces, and many were vetoed by the BBC's Controller for Northern Ireland.

Government pressure on the BBC had a chilling effect. Regulators and executives at independent production companies, wary of the consequences of straying beyond certain boundaries, also began to censor. Overall, scores of productions - documentaries, news reports and even music videos - were banned, censored or delayed during the Troubles.

Today, over two decades on from the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's historic peace deal signed in 1998, censorship is viewed as a thing of the past. However, while the conflict may be formally over, the estimated 3,000 unsolved killings left in its wake have kept the Troubles very much alive in the media.

Cases involving allegations of "collusion" - shorthand for British government complicity in crimes committed by paramilitary groups, and where investigations by state authorities have often fallen short - have seen journalists take up the role of would-be detectives. It's a role that continues to cause controversy, as the fall-out over No Stone Unturned has demonstrated.

"The point that the police ombudsman Michael McGuire made in relation to No Stone Unturned was that it couldn't be left up to just investigative journalists and the police ombudsman's office to investigate the past," says Susan McKay, a freelance journalist who writes for The Irish Times.

"It's too big for that; there are too many unsolved cases, there are too many unanswered questions. So, while that is the case, inevitably journalism is going to step in."


Ed Moloney - Author, A Secret History of the IRA
Susan McKay - Contributor, The Irish Times
John Ware - Former reporter, BBC Panorama
Ben Lowry - Deputy editor, The News Letter
Trevor Birney - Producer, No Stone Unturned
Barry McCaffrey - Investigative reporter, No Stone Unturned

Source: Al Jazeera