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Friday, 28 January, 2000, 20:13 GMT
Bank executive 'chaired death squad '

David Trimble: To appear in controversial libel case

A senior executive of the Ulster Bank was chairman of a high-powered committee which co-ordinated the assassination of republicans by loyalist death squads, a court has heard.

TV journalist Sean McPhilemy, who is suing The Sunday Times for libel over claims that his Channel 4 documentary, The Committee, was a hoax and a deception, named the executive as Billy Abernethy.

At the High Court in London, he said during the making of the documentary in 1991, he was told that Mr Abernethy had found out he was the head of TV production company Box Productions and "had been to reconnoitre my farmhouse outside Oxford".

The information came from his programme researcher, Ben Hamilton, who told him that committee insider Jim Sands - on whose testimony the documentary was largely based - had given a precise location and description of the house which Mr Abernethy had visited.

"I was very concerned about this because Ben was also reporting to me the growing awareness of Abernethy and the Committee about the Channel 4 production and his determination that it should be stopped because it could do great damage to their cause if we discovered what was going on," said Mr McPhilemy.

Involved in committee meetings

He knew that Sands had said Mr Abernethy was involved in committee meetings which gave the go-ahead for the shooting of four Provisional IRA men and Catholic lawyer Pat Finucane.

"I was very frightened. I had a young family at the time," Mr McPhilemy told Mr Justice Eady and a jury.

Mr McPhilemy, 52, is suing The Sunday Times over a May 1993 article headlined Film on Ulster Death Squads a Hoax which he claims severely damaged his reputation and effectively wrecked his career because television companies turned their backs on him.

His documentary alleged that a committee of RUC officers, businessmen, politicians and lawyers colluded with loyalist terrorists to murder IRA suspects and other republicans.

The newspaper is standing by its claim that the programme was "little more than a collage of unsubstantiated rumours and fabrications".

It points out that Sands had admitted lying in the programme and it plans to call evidence from some of those accused by Mr McPhilemy of involvement in the murder conspiracy, including Northern Ireland's First Minister, David Trimble.

Concerned for safety

Mr McPhilemy said incidents during the making of the programme made him concerned for the safety of his wife and four children and the production staff.

He said he received a message that four men were on their way from Northern Ireland to pay him a visit with hostile intent, and as a result Channel 4 paid for him to move his family away.

Mr McPhilemy denied suggestions in a Sunday Express article that he was guilty of deception and had fabricated the security threats to enhance the credibility of his programme in the eyes of Channel 4 executives.

After the programme was broadcast, he received threatening letters and a card bearing the words "with deepest sympathy" addressed to "The Fenian, Box Productions".

Sectarian hatred

He claims the Sunday Times article, at the centre of the libel action, implied he was motivated by sectarian hatred and indifferent to the consequences.

Mr McPhilemy was close to tears as he pointed out that he and his wife were from "different traditions" and had always had a good relationship.

He told the jury that, because of the article, he had been living on the charity of his brother and friends, and the highly-successful Box Productions had gone "down the drain".

The hearing continues on Monday when Mr McPhilemy will be cross-examined by Andrew Caldecott QC, for The Sunday Times.

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See also:
12 Jun 99 |  UK
Trimble sues Amazon for libel
27 Jan 00 |  Northern Ireland
Trimble to testify in libel trial
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