EXCLUSIVE: On a late summer morning in Belfast just over a month ago, more than 100 police officers raided the homes and an office of journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, both of whom had worked with the Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney on 2017’s No Stone Unturned, a revelatory, deeply unsettling film about a June 18 1994 mass shooting in a Northern Ireland village pub. Two men, their identities hidden beneath balaclavas, had opened fire, killing six patrons (all Catholics, all shot in the back) and wounding more. The paramilitary loyalist group Ulster Volunteer Force was immediately suspected, but until Gibney’s film, grounded in his own investigation and that of producer Birney and former Irish News reporter McCaffrey, the terrorists, including the primary gunman, had not been named.
No Stone Unturned, which debuted at last year’s New York Film Festival, didn’t stop with the shooters, though, and outlined collusion and cover-ups on the part of police and government officials of Northern Ireland, basing some of the film’s claims on a letter from the wife of a suspect, and documents leaked to Gibney’s team.
Though no criminal charges have yet been filed against Birney and McCaffrey, they were arrested and questioned about the theft of papers from the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland (PONI), a public body that handles police complaints. PONI reported the theft of the documents to the Police Service of Northern Ireland, which forwarded the case to the local Durham Constabulary, and officers from both searched the homes and an office of Birney and McCaffrey on August 31. The two men were arrested, questioned and released, with possible charges to come.
And Gibney believes he might be next. The personal stakes are high – prison is not an impossibility, he says.
But the consequences don’t end with the three journalists. Says Gibney in this exclusive interview with Deadline, “This is a shotgun fired at a small group of crows – me, Barry, and Trevor – in order to prevent other crows from landing in the yard of the UK police or the UK government.”
Gibney, who has directed deeply investigated films on Scientology (Going Clear), finance (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room) and torture (the Oscar-winning Taxi to the Dark Side), tells Deadline he’s never experienced the kind of official push-back and threats that have come since No Stone Unturned premiered last year.
In advance of an October 9 screening of the film as part of the Stranger Than Fiction documentary series at the IFC Center in New York – at which Gibney, Birney and McCaffrey will appear and take questions – Gibney spoke to Deadline about the film, the government reaction and what’s at stake for him, for Birney and McCaffrey, for journalism.
These excerpts from the conversation have been edited and condensed.
DEADLINE: Two of your colleagues, Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey, were arrested recently. Have charges been filed?
ALEX GIBNEY: There were arrests, but no charges filed. They were arrested for questioning, and where it gets outrageous in my view is that over 100 policemen were dispatched to go to the homes of Barry McCaffrey, Trevor Birney and the offices of Trevor Birney’s company, Fine Point Films, to pull them into the police station for questioning relating to the so-called “theft” of documents from PONI. PONI is the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland.
DEADLINE: And in what way is it being called a theft?
GIBNEY: That’s a good question, because we find that kind of ridiculous on its face. You can’t steal confidential material that is on a piece of paper. You’re stealing paper which has no value. I think the idea is that we – and I include myself – published a document or published portions of a document that was classified. I don’t know if that’s even the correct term in the UK, but [the document] was not meant to be seen by the public at large.
DEADLINE: So what do you think was the purpose of the arrests?
GIBNEY: I think their purpose was to send a message, and the message is “Don’t engage in these kind of enquiries into past police behavior.” I think this was an act of intimidation. They were concerned, as all governments are, when journalists obtain classified material. Nevertheless, there’s kind of an assumption, particularly under US law but also under UK law, that journalists are operating in the public interest, and if there are leaks, the government may go after people in the government who may have leaked that material, but not the journalists who publish it.
[No Stone Unturned was] a film that was intending to hold the UK government to account for collusion. That is to say, for an active role in aiding and abetting criminal behavior in regard to a massacre that happened in 1994.
DEADLINE: So we’re not talking here about any current, ongoing security threat?
GIBNEY: That’s correct. These events happened in 1994. Now, the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland has been conducting current investigations into these events and recently published a report that definitively found there had been collusion between the police forces and paramilitary groups. So there are contemporary investigations ongoing, but the actual event itself happened in 1994, and interestingly enough, the police, in terms of reporting this, said they were investigating because people were put at risk. When they say “people were put at risk” – and I’m not quoting directly – but they’re referring to the suspected killer.
DEADLINE: So they’re saying the suspected killer, whom you name, was put at risk, his safety was put at risk by making his identity known?
GIBNEY: Yes, and the way his identity became known to us was through the document that had been leaked to us. It was an early draft of a report on this incident which did not have any of the names redacted, and by cross-referencing that document with the publicly released document, we were able to figure out who the likely suspect was, and we revealed his name. But I should say that we were extremely forthright both with the Police Ombudsmen office and with the police in Northern Ireland in terms of letting them know that we were going to make this name public.
We did that precisely because, if the police had any particular concern that this person might be at risk or if they wanted to take measures to ensure his safety, they could do so.
DEADLINE: I remember when the film was pulled from last year’s Tribeca Film Festival at the last minute. Was that related to all of this?
GIBNEY: Yes. Yes, it was, but not because of the government. We were also having an argument with the BBC, our broadcast partner. Ultimately, they stepped out, but there were all sorts of conflicting and legal issues that caused us to have to withdraw from Tribeca because we weren’t able to resolve them in time. By the time it premiered at the New York Film Festival, we were able to resolve all the issues to our satisfaction.
DEADLINE: Talk about the massacre itself. What happened and what did you and your team uncover?
GIBNEY: In 1994, on the night of…well, in Ireland, it was night, in New Jersey, it was day…so on the day of the World Cup match [in New Jersey] between Ireland and Italy, which, miraculously, Ireland won, but just after halftime in that match, gunmen waded into a small bar in a little village called Loughinisland, Northern Ireland, and opened fire with an automatic weapon and killed six people, including the oldest person killed in the Troubles, a guy named Barney Green, and wounded many others.
It was a horrific massacre that provoked worldwide concern and condemnation from the Pope, from the Queen, and others. I got involved in this originally to do a short for ESPN about what was then called Ceasefire Massacre. ESPN was doing a series of films about soccer, and [producer] Trevor Birney got me involved in this story that I found interesting.
So we did a short, but in doing the short, I became more and more interested in the fact that there was a crime that had never been solved, and also I became interested in larger issues of government involvement in criminality…I was interested in that [topic] also in this country in terms of The Looming Tower, this tension between criminal investigation and Intelligence.
And I was interested in the issue of how you reckon with the past. Is it better just to let the past go? As President Obama famously said about torture, should we just look forward, not back? Or is there some fundamental importance in terms of trying to come to some understanding of what happened so that we don’t make the same mistakes in the future?
So it had a very particular emotional draw for me. I was interested in these people, these victims [of the massacre] who were trying so hard to find out the truth and seemingly were being ignored by their own government, but also these larger implications for America and the rest of the world at a time when we were trying to figure out how to hold governments to account.
What we discovered in making the film was that we actually, we think, solved the crime. Now, there’s not been any kind of criminal indictment or conviction, but we found the people we believe were the likely suspects to have committed this murder, and we find the evidence to be pretty compelling. We also find the evidence about the cover-up by the police to be absolutely appalling and going way beyond the Police Ombudsmen report.
They had a confessed suspect in custody — the wife of the alleged gunman — and she had, both on the phone and in the letter, confessed to her own involvement in this massacre, and yet neither she nor her husband, who she named as the killer, as the gunman, were ever prosecuted.
And there were other appalling events involving destruction of evidence, involving the fact that the car was found 100 yards or so from the family home of the suspected gunman. The fact that the suspect was warned by somebody in the police station just prior to being arrested, and he wasn’t arrested for two months. Just the most appallingly negligent investigation, so much so that it was either the worst, most incompetent investigation in the history of policing, or there was a reason why they were purposefully bungling it, that there was a sense of purpose to bungling the investigation. To cover something up — notably, the fact that one of the members of this murderous gang who was, in our view, the key suspect in the killing, was actually an informant for the British government at the time of the murder. Indeed, we believe one other member of the gang was also an informant, but we were not able to confirm it. But we confirmed through government sources that at least one member of the gang was an informant at the time.
DEADLINE: And that would be why the government is being so aggressive still? Could they argue that they are protecting informants, singular or plural? And is there anything to that argument?
GIBNEY: Well, there’s something to it, except that what the film raises questions about is did the police value protecting informants over protecting the lives of innocent people. Did they value protecting informants over prosecuting likely killers of this most appalling crime? The whole purpose of the film was to shed light on possible police corruption, and so in that context we felt it was appropriate not only to get to the bottom of how it happened and why it happened, but also in a certain sense, to do what should’ve been done, which is to name them in this context, because it was important to have enough certainty about the identity of these suspected killers in order to be able to try to prod an investigation to happen.
That said, that’s why I told you earlier that we took certain precautions. You know, we not only reached out to this guy – Ronnie Hawthorne, the suspected killer – and his wife to see if they would talk to us, but we also informed the Police Ombudsmen, and we informed the police, that they were going to be named. So, obviously, there are tensions involved here, but sometimes you make a call as to whether or not it better serves the public interest to actually name somebody in order to try to get done what the police were either unwilling or unable to do, which is to hold someone to account for these murders.
DEADLINE: Bring us up to date on what’s happening regarding the arrests of Birney and McCaffrey, and where you stand with regard to possible arrest.
GIBNEY: They were released after questioning. They were “interviewed under caution,” which is the British term, meaning they were read their rights, and were interviewed under oath so that anything you say can and will be used against you. They have not yet been charged, but they’ve been released on bail. Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey are currently engaged through their attorneys on launching a judicial review that is challenging the lawfulness of the application of the warrant and challenging the execution of the warrant, and they’ve also taken the case to the European Commissioner for Human Rights.
Nobody’s officially been charged yet, but there’s concern that those charges might be forthcoming. In my case, I’ve been told that I’m also wanted for questioning under caution, that they want to interview me under caution. Meaning they want to read me my rights and interview me knowing that what I might say can and could be used against me. Which means, in effect, I’m a suspect in whatever charges the government might choose to bring. So, yes, I am in some legal risk at this moment.
DEADLINE: You’ve arranged to surrender to them, if that’s the correct term?
GIBNEY: I’ve said through my UK lawyer that I’m willing to submit to an interview. That’s as far as we’ve gone. We’re waiting to hear back from the police. I just went to the UK [for a current, as-yet-unannounced film project, unrelated to No Stone Unturned], and there was apparently some risk that I would be arrested at Heathrow, but my attorney contacted the police, and the police said that this could be arranged in a way that would be voluntary. So that’s where it stands at the moment.
DEADLINE: What do you intend to do from here?
GIBNEY: Don’t know yet.
DEADLINE: What exactly do you think they want to know?
GIBNEY: I’m having a hard time trying to understand that myself. I mean, it’s possible they’re trying…you know, the simple answer is I don’t know what they’re trying to do. Based on the dispatch of 100 cops to arrest Trevor and Barry, I would argue that that in and of itself was an act of intimidation in trying to both silence us and also to silence journalists in the future.
DEADLINE: No Stone Unturned is already out there. They can’t silence you anymore, at least with regard to that case. What’s their end game here?
GIBNEY: There’s some interesting language in the request for the warrant. The police went to a judge and tried to get a request for the warrant, and the judge said, in effect, “Are you shooting at a single crow in order to discourage other crows from landing in your yard?”
I would say that the answer is yes. This is a shotgun fired at a small group of crows — me, Barry and Trevor — in order to prevent other crows from landing in the yard of the UK police or the UK government.
DEADLINE: Do you think they’re looking specifically at discouraging further investigation into this case, or is there something wider going on here?
GIBNEY: Both, would be my guess. Again, these are only guesses by me because we don’t know what the police are thinking. Now the police are just saying “We’re doing this because we’re responding to a notice of theft.” We don’t even know for sure that the Ombudsmen actually asked them to pursue this case. So there’s a lot of murkiness in terms of what the police did.
But it’s a big deal for us, because this is a time when journalists are put in jail for eight years in Myanmar, for a violation of a so-called Official Secrets Act, for reporting on the massacre of Rohingya. When President Trump in this country is vilifying reporters and trying to suggest more Draconian measures might be taken to silence them from reporting on secrets. It all comes at a critical moment in time.
Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and we have a long-shared tradition of law with them. Our protections are a bit more robust for reporters here, but nonetheless, we share certain legal traditions, and so it should be a pretty big concern. You think of Jim Risen, for example, under the Obama Administration who was pressured very strongly by the Obama Administration to reveal sources and conversations with sources.
DEADLINE: Americans are getting a very close-up look every day at the situation between the Trump Administration and the media. We see it on our television screens, with Donald Trump demeaning a female reporter just the other day. Are these pieces of the same puzzle?
GIBNEY: Trump exists within an international context. He views himself as a Nationalist, but very much you’re seeing this around the world, in terms of how tyrannical leaders behave towards members of the press, and I think Trump is part of that trend. That’s why something like [the arrests of Birney and McCaffrey] should raise a flag of caution. If it can happen over there, it can happen here, and it can happen pretty quick.
I’m an American, a documentary filmmaker, and I’m in the midst of a legal proceeding that, in my view, is attempting to chill my journalistic freedom. So, yeah, I think it’s a big deal.
DEADLINE: No Stone Unturned will be screening at the Stranger Than Fiction weekly documentary series at New York’s IFC Center next Tuesday, October 9…
Gibney: And, significantly, I’m going to be there afterwards, and also Trevor and Barry who had the experience of being arrested by 100 cops, will also be there to answer questions, not only about the film but also about the response by the government.
DEADLINE: Is there any thought of amending the film or adding to it in any way?
GIBNEY: It depends on what happens. Further events might cause us to revise the film, but nothing so far has happened that would cause us to believe we’ve done anything but be rigorously accurate about what really happened and how the UK government was involved in enabling and covering up a crime.
DEADLINE: What’s at stake for you guys?
GIBNEY: Well, prison potentially. We haven’t been charged yet, but I think that based on what I’ve been told about the interviews with Trevor and Barry, the police are considering bringing charges that could result in prison time.
DEADLINE: Since the police are using the word theft, I ask you, did the three of you steal anything?
GIBNEY: The story about the document is actually contained in the film, which makes it easy for us to talk about. This unredacted draft of a PONI report, which was produced under a different administration than the current PONI, was sent to Barry McCaffrey in a brown paper wrapper, presumably by somebody who was upset at the travesty of justice that was occurring. It landed on Barry’s doorstep in a brown paper envelope, so it was leaked to Barry. So, legally, the idea of theft is specious at best because it’s a piece of paper, and there’s no value to a piece of paper, but in addition, there was no theft. It was sent or leaked to Barry McCaffrey by an anonymous person who could’ve been from the Ombudsmen office, could’ve been from the police. We just don’t know who it was from.
DEADLINE: You still don’t know? Do you think the arrests were an attempt to get to [the leaker]?
GIBNEY: It’s entirely possible. That was certainly the purpose of the Obama Administration leaning on Jim Risen, trying to get to know more about his source. That’s very often the purpose of these things. But I think in this case, given the show of force by the police, that there is another purpose. They confiscated all of Trevor’s phones, all of Trevor’s computers, and confiscated a tremendous amount of material that had nothing to do with the No Stone Unturned case. That’s an act of intimidation, pure and simple, by the government of Northern Ireland against a journalist trying to do his job.
DEADLINE: Have you ever experienced a police or government response like this to anything else in your career?
GIBNEY: I’ve never been confronted with the prospect of arrest by a government authority that I had been investigating. It’s a first for me.
DEADLINE: And your response, if they’re trying to intimidate you?
GIBNEY: I think it’s outrageous. It’s absolutely outrageous. People need to pay attention to small signs so the big stuff doesn’t happen down the road. The erosion of journalistic rights doesn’t happen all at once in, like a thunderclap or a bolt of lightning. It happens bit by bit by bit, and the erosion of press freedom happens that way, and this is a sign of an international trend away from journalistic freedom and trying to send a message to get journalists to back off.
DEADLINE: Speaking for yourself, is there any chance of that succeeding?
GIBNEY: You know, it both gives me a sense of pause, a sense that there is some risk to what it is that I do, but also makes me determined to go forward because you begin to see the importance. That is to say, if governments can cow or intimidate journalists, then they accomplish their goal, which is to not be investigated by journalists. We take a lot of these rights for granted here, but you can see [press freedoms] under assault by President Trump, and we can’t take them for granted. So it makes me understand that what it is that I do as a filmmaker has some real value and importance, and the work that so many other great journalists in this country and around the world do, particularly in terms of uncovering abuses of power and particularly abuses of government power, how vital it is for free societies to be able to function as true democracies.
DEADLINE: You said earlier that we have to pay attention to the small things, which made me think about what’s going on with Brett Kavanaugh and this attempt to diminish questions being asked about a high school yearbook or some drinking game. Those small questions go to greater truths, and to who is telling those truths…
GIBNEY: The biggest danger is that the Trump Administration, as well as other administrations around the world, are trying to discredit the very notion of truth. That is the biggest danger of all. Truth-seeking is being portrayed as a kind of ignoble, political exercise rather than an end in itself, because if you discredit the idea of truth and the idea of truth-seeking, then you only have one thing left, and that is pure, raw power. If you succeed in devaluing the search for truth, all you have, as Orwell said, is a boot stamping on a human face forever.