Bail scandal: PSNI challenged over claim it used media to aid manhunt

News Letter's front page, three days after the news broke of McLaughlin's disappearance
News Letter's front page, three days after the news broke of McLaughlin's disappearance

The PSNI has defended a claim that it used “media appeals” to help find a terrorism suspect – despite police having revealed nothing to the public for weeks after he vanished, then having maintained this silence for days once the news finally broke.

Chief Constable George Hamilton made the claim in written answers to members of the Policing Board, in which he set out some details about the chain of events which led to them realising that Damien McLaughlin had absconded, plus the measures police are now taking to track him down.

Damien McLaughlin, from Kilmascally Road, near Ardboe, is pictured in 2011 outside Maghaberry Prison.

Damien McLaughlin, from Kilmascally Road, near Ardboe, is pictured in 2011 outside Maghaberry Prison.

The News Letter has asked police for further details about the circumstances in which he disappeared, and challenged the chief constable’s suggestion the media were contacted to help hunt him.

McLaughlin is technically due to face trial in exactly one week’s time, on charges relating to the dissident republican murder of David Black; a prison officer whose car was strafed with gunfire on the M1 motorway on November 1, 2012.

However, he absconded some time in late 2016 whilst out on bail and remains at large – with an EU-wide arrest warrant in force for him.

He was required to sign bail five times a week at a police station, but was last seen on November 18. It was not until December 23 that police satisfied themselves he had fled.

David Black

David Black

Even then, his disappearance only became public thanks to a court hearing on January 6.

Now Mr Hamilton has told Policing Board members: “Since his disappearance, police have conducted extensive inquiries regarding Mr McLaughlin’s whereabouts.

“This has included several searches, interviews of associates and family members, CCTV inquiries and media appeals.”

The News Letter put it to the PSNI that this was not so.

Immediately after the January 6 court case, the story was on the front page of the News Letter twice. By that stage, attempts to get comment from the PSNI had been met with: “We have nothing further to add than what has been disclosed at court”.

Asked therefore in what sense the PSNI had made “media appeals”, the PSNI said: “Once the issue came into the public domain all PSNI statements and broadcast interviews involving the media on January 10th and 11th, including the two issued to the News Letter, contained appeals to the public to contact the police if they knew the whereabouts of Damien McLaughlin, or if they could assist the police in any way.

“No media appeals were issued proactively before these dates as it was decided operationally that a media appeal would have been counter-productive to the police investigation into his whereabouts at that stage.”

In fact, the PSNI first released a statement to the News Letter on January 9 (at 6pm), followed then by two statements in the next two days – but leaving many of the questions around his disappearance unanswered.

It then granted an interview with one of the key detectives to BBC radio (broadcast on January 12) – despite the News Letter having devoted overwhelmingly the most time and space to the story.

Shortly afterwards though, police said they could say little more, because by then the police ombudsman had begun to investigate the debacle.

McLaughlin, 40 and from Kilmascally Road, east Tyrone, denies four charges in the Black case, including aiding and abetting murder.