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At noon tomorrow (Friday 30 November), the award-winning journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey must present themselves to police in Belfast and speak to detectives over the alleged theft of confidential material used in a powerful documentary shown on Amazon Prime.

For the past three extraordinary months, since they were arrested at home and detained for 14 hours by detectives from Durham Constabulary backed by armed officers from the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the pair have been on police bail with their lives in limbo. Scores of police, some wearing boiler suits, searched their properties and offices.

In that same period, the documentary they worked on, No Stone Unturned, a forensic examination of the killing of six men at the Loughinisland massacre in County Down in 1994, has been acclaimed by the Royal Television Society and given prestigious screenings at film festivals in New York and Cork, which Birney was only able to attend with police permission.

No Stone Unturned points to official collusion in the mass murder of innocent men watching a World Cup game in a bar and identifies some of those it holds responsible. The sledgehammer police response to the film has serious implications for journalism in the UK.

The case also spotlights the value – and potential extreme challenges – of practising investigative reporting outside the London-based national media.

McCaffrey works for the Belfast-based investigative website The Detail, which Birney co-founded in 2011. It is the digital arm of Fine Point Films, which used McCaffrey’s detailed reporting on concerns over the police’s Loughinisland investigation as a starting point for No Stone Unturned.

Such was the strength of The Detail’s work that the Oscar-winning American documentary maker Alex Gibney agreed to direct the film.

Over seven years The Detail has grown to cover all serious aspects of life in Northern Ireland, from government accountability to provision of health services, education and the justice system. Its current primary focus is Brexit, on which it provides illuminating and unique insight into how the UK’s departure from Europe will impact on the region most directly affected by the split.

The Detail is a non-profit organisation. It is funded by philanthropy and grants from organisations ranging from the Big Lottery Fund to Google. It uses multi-media formats, including data-heavy infographics and a new podcast series called The Brexit Club, which is dedicated to explaining the “complexities” of the withdrawal process as it pertains to Northern Ireland.

As he prepares to submit himself for police questioning, the situation Birney finds himself in is "very confusing and very frustrating”, he says.

He was nominated for an Emmy for his production of the 2017 documentary Elián and for an Oscar for being co-producer of 2012’s Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God. On both projects he worked with Gibney. When No Stone Unturned was this month named best documentary of the year for Northern Ireland, it was Birney’s third award from the RTS. Since his arrest, he is concerned that being linked in articles with the word “theft” might damage his reputation.

“Durham Police went out of their way to try to create a picture that myself and Barry McCaffrey had stolen documents that appeared in the film – which is the most horrendously ridiculous thing that they could have possibly done,” he says. “We took our responsibilities in this film extremely seriously, given the matters that we were pursuing. These are issues in this film of life and death and people apparently being protected by the state. We were being very, very careful.”

McCaffrey’s reporting for The Detail on the Northern Irish justice system won him a special award from the Northern Ireland attorney general John Larkin in 2014.

Neither journalist has been charged with any offence and Birney’s mystification at their treatment increased this month when The Irish Times was given a statement by the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, from whose office the Loughinisland documents are alleged by police to have been stolen, saying: ‘We did not make a complaint of theft.”

Birney, 51, was arrested at home in front of his wife, three daughters and visiting relatives, during a raid by around 30 officers. He says: “It’s clear to us that this is really about something much more significant than us as journalists; it’s something that’s been detected or some other strategy is being pursued and the police convinced themselves it was necessary to arrest two journalists.”

Chief constable Mike Barton of Durham Constabulary said in a statement that a complaint had been made over the “loss of secret documents” and that “the potential for lives to be put at risk” was a factor in the criminal investigation.

“The Office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (OPONI) did report the theft of their material to the Police Service of Northern Ireland at a meeting on October 4, 2017 immediately after identifying the fact that ‘secret’ documents, created by OPONI, had featured in a documentary film,” he said. “The report by OPONI was subsequently followed up by a written statement of complaint by a member of their senior management team.”

He described the Loughinisland massacre as “a barbaric atrocity which continues to have a devastating impact on the lives of many people”.

The emergence of The Detail

Meanwhile interest in No Stone Unturned, Fine Point films and The Detail continues to grow.

Talks are underway with broadcasters in the UK and Ireland to show the documentary to a mainstream television audience. It launched on Amazon Prime last year and took £200,000 at the box office from a small number of cinema screenings.

Birney was head of current affairs at former commercial broadcaster UTV before he and colleague Ruth O’Reilly left in 2006 to set up their own investigative TV company, Below the Radar. Birney was concerned that serious current affairs was no longer being supported by commercial media in Northern Ireland. “You really had only the BBC producing current affairs in Northern Ireland and that’s not good in any properly functioning democratic society but it’s particularly not good when you have a divided society.”

The Detail launched five years later to take advantage of online publishing and has since won more than 20 awards for its distinctive reporting, which it willingly shares (in return for acknowledgement) with other media outlets in the province and across the UK and Ireland. It frequently works in conjunction with The Irish Times and has collaborated with the Belfast papers, Northern Ireland’s Sunday titles and TV investigative strands in London and Dublin.

“What we didn’t want to do when we set up The Detail was in any way undermine the already delicate ecology that there was outside the BBC among the newspapers and radio,” says Birney of the decision not to seek advertiser-funding. “We weren’t going in to raise finance or sell advertising from an already stretched market. Instead what we would do is provide our reporting free of charge to any newspaper or radio station that wanted to collaborate with us.”

The Detail’s team of six full-time reporters was initially funded largely by Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation created by Irish-American businessman Chuck Feeney (a San Francisco entrepreneur famed for having given away his $8 billion fortune). Latterly, the site has had money from Google’s Digital News Initiative to pay for its coverage of Brexit and from the Big Lottery to support journalism carried out in partnership with community and voluntary groups in Northern Ireland.

The Detail’s editor Kathryn Torney says her team benefits from “the luxury” of not being obliged to follow the daily news cycle. “We are aware that a lot of outlets don’t have the time we have to invest in something. If they then take a slice of what we do that’s great - we are very passionate about the stories we do and so we genuinely want that to reach the widest audience possible.” In this way, The Detail and other Northern Irish media outlets are able to “bounce o? each other”, she says. “I think it benefits both.”

A former education specialist for the Belfast Telegraph, Torney has identified data journalism as a means of reporting Northern Ireland in greater detail, getting beyond the province-wide story to highlight local areas of concern. “Data allows us to do strong visualisation…and for readers to personalise a story by looking at figures that relate to their area or school.”

At the head of The Detail’s website is a ticker counting the length of time since the last sitting of the Northern Ireland Assembly (more than 680 days), and this absence of a functioning executive makes the site’s role even more important, Birney argues. It is focused on “public service journalism” that serves all parts of the community. “We have determinedly steered away from seeing the world through orange or green glasses,” he says. “There is absolutely no media outlet apart from The Detail that is focused on investigative journalism and I think that is worrying in the very unhealthy and polarised society we now have in Northern Ireland.”

Especially with Brexit on the horizon. “If you live in Belfast, it’s already tangible the difference that Brexit is making,” he says. “Unionists, nationalists, republicans, loyalists – all are now involved in a debate that is about the existential crisis that has been created by Brexit for Northern Ireland. We are very proud that The Detail is right at the front of the debate.”

Birney has an appointment with police tomorrow, but he also knows that The Detail points to a better future for investigative journalism, where everyday online reporting can generate material for TV, cinema and global streaming services. It’s a blueprint that could be taken to other cities and regions, he says. “There are elements and a model in The Detail that could be replicated by anyone who is interested in a mix of journalism and documentary and film-making.”

Read more from Ian Burrell's column, The News Business, and follow him on Twitter @iburrell