Confidential evidence from alleged sex abuse victims of a notorious priest are among sensitive files seized by detectives investigating two film-makers.
Police who raided the offices of Fine Point Films in Belfast with a warrant to remove material related to its documentary on a loyalist massacre also took away a tranche of papers linked to a journalistic probe into Father Malachy Finnegan.
The search came as producers Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey were arrested earlier this year over the alleged theft of a police watchdog document that appeared in their film No Stone Unturned on the murders of six men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in 1994.
The 2017 film broke new ground by naming the suspects it said were involved in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) killings of six Catholic men who were gathered in a village pub watching the Republic of Ireland play a World Cup football match on TV.
Mr Birney has now revealed the scope and scale of the material taken, accusing police of massively overstepping the terms of their warrant and seizing years of work he maintains should be protected by journalistic privilege.
In response, Durham Constabulary, which oversaw the operation, has insisted it had the legal authority to remove material unrelated to Loughinisland.
Mr Birney said people who had trusted reporters to share their experiences at the hands of alleged paedophile Fr Finnegan had been “compromised” by the mass seizures.
The cleric, who died in 2002, has been accused of a litany of child sex abuse during his time as a teacher at St Colman’s College in Newry, Co Down.
The victim evidence had been gathered by sister organisation The Detail, an investigative news website that shares the offices with Fine Point.
“We are working with victims of clerical sex abuse in Northern Ireland and we have very sensitive documents belonging to some of those people who have suffered as a result of abuse and yet those documents were seen as of interest to the police,” Mr Birney said.
“They knew they had nothing to do with No Stone Unturned, they knew they had nothing to do with the Loughinisland investigation, but they decided to take them, despite the fact that their warrant was only in relation to No Stone Unturned they still decided to take those documents.”
Mr Birney said Fine Point had a “proud production history”, having worked on international projects with organisations such as Netflix, Amazon and HBO.
He said material seized also included sensitive files related to investigations on street gangs in Honduras, Farc rebels in Columbia and the conflict in Gaza.
“There’s lots of very, very sensitive interviews, each and every one of those films, each and every one of those contributors has to be aware now that our security has been breached and we have been compromised by the actions of the PSNI and I really don’t think the PSNI took any of that into account,” he said.
Police are investigating how information contained in a Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland document appeared in No Stone Unturned.
Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) chief constable George Hamilton, citing a potential conflict of interest, asked Durham Constabulary to take on the probe in the wake of the film’s release last year.
No one has ever been convicted of the Loughinisland murders.
In a 2016 report, Ombudsman Dr Michael Maguire concluded the security forces colluded with the UVF killers.
Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey have insisted the document was leaked anonymously and have criticised the police characterisation of it as a “theft”.
They have questioned why investigative resources are being diverted to their film when the Loughinisland killers have not been caught.
Hours after documents, computers, notebooks, files and digital material held on Fine Point’s server were seized by police, the company’s lawyers secured an interim injunction preventing detectives examining them.
Fine Point subsequently asked analysts to examine its server and they determined only 2.5% of the information downloaded by police related to No Stone Unturned.
All the seized material has been bagged and is in storage pending the outcome of a High Court legal challenge into the execution of the warrant.
The two reporters were arrested early in the morning of August 31.
Mr Birney’s eight-year-old daughter and her two young cousins were in the house when armed police arrived at the property.
The men were released after spending 14 hours in custody for questioning.
They remain on bail but the investigation is unlikely to progress significantly until the High Court decides what seized material police can access.
A judicial review hearing is expected in the New Year.
The National Union of Journalists has mobilised a campaign in support of the men.
Mr McCaffrey said the case struck at the heart of press freedom.
“At this juncture, where society is today, the press has a very important role to hold people to account, to hold institutions or organisations or government to account,” he said.
“Society needs somebody to bring the information, to bring the news forward that they can trust.
“What is society saying when the chief constable is sending his officers in to scare eight-year-old children to lift documents and sensitive material?
“What is he saying to our journalist colleagues who are involved in other projects, whether it’s to do with the kind of work we have been involved in or anything else?
“What message was George Hamilton sending to journalists on August 31?”
He added: “I think we are at a very dangerous situation here now if it is acceptable for journalists to now be targeted.
“This isn’t Saudi Arabia. This isn’t Uzbekistan.”
Mr Birney questioned whether the office raid was “proportionate”.
“After this film came into the public domain, after this film premiered, ultimately the police force had a decision to take,” he said.
“The very finite resources – should they deploy them going after the killers or should they deploy them going after journalists?
“Ultimately the decision taken was to come after the journalists and I hope that is a decision that ultimately they will be held accountable for.”
The PSNI declined to comment when contacted by the Press Association, instead referring all queries to Durham Constabulary.
A spokeswoman for Durham Constabulary said officers had powers to seize material unrelated to the offence subject to the warrant.
“Under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE), when a constable is lawfully on premises, officers can seize any material while on those premises if they have reasonable grounds to believe that the material has been obtained as a consequence of a commission of an offence, or is evidence in relation to an offence, and that it is necessary to seize it in order to prevent it being concealed, lost, altered or destroyed,” she said.
“While present on premises by way of a warrant execution, the seized material does not need to relate to the offence for which the search warrant was granted.
“The warrants carried out at these particular addresses were signed by a judge and the items were seized after a dialogue with, and with full knowledge of, the managing director of the business premises concerned.
“Under normal circumstances, materials such as this that are seized during a search are assessed and evaluated.
“However, we have been unable to do this as a result of the undertaking given during the judicial review process brought about by Fine Point Films.”