Revered in the British media as the scourge of over-zealous attacks on press freedom, barrister Trevor Burke is perhaps less well known in his second home, the Cayman Islands.
That might be about to change.
The QC, whose association with the territory began with the infamous Euro Bank trial and continues today with the ongoing defense of former Health Services Authority chief Canover Watson, was admitted to the bar of the Cayman Islands in September.
Working out of the offices of Samson & McGrath in George Town, Burke expects to be on island for at least the next year, working with the law firm’s white collar crime and fraud team.
He has long been lauded as one of the U.K.’s top lawyers.
But it was the defense of a number of journalists, caught up in a massive U.K. investigation into alleged abuses of the British tabloid press, that brought him into the public eye in his home country.
Burke emerged as a key figure in the fight back for press freedom, following scandals that began with the revelations that reporters in some U.K. tabloids had engaged in phone hacking.
The QC, who defended several journalists charged in Operation Elveden – an investigation into inappropriate payments to public officials – believes legitimate outrage over phone hacking spiralled into a more general attack on the free press.
In his closing argument, in March of this year, in the successful defense of John Kay, The Sun newspaper’s chief reporter – on trial for paying for information from a military source – he compared the behaviour of prosecutors in pursuing journalists to oppressive regimes like Egypt.
Following the acquittal of Kay and three other Sun journalists, the Crown Prosecution Services dropped cases against some other reporters.
“It hit a very basic issue with the jury that they do not like governments, whatever their complexion, determining what a journalist can write in a newspaper, especially if it is something that, but for the journalist, they would never have known about,” Burke told the Journal in an interview.
Though the phone hacking scandal and the investigations that followed were hugely damaging to the reputation of the tabloid press in the U.K., in a perverse way, Burke believes the trials that followed may have raised the standing of journalists.
Juries, and the wider public, were given a greater appreciation of the role of the press in investigating and revealing abuses that might not otherwise have come to light. In the U.K., that has included massive abuse of expenses by MPs, exposure of a child sex gang and the phone-hacking scandal itself, which was revealed by The Guardian newspaper.
The experience, though, has weakened the power of the press, in Burke’s opinion. Fewer journalists are prepared to take risks to investigate stories and public officials are more frightened to leak information to reporters.
Burke never represented anyone on the specific allegation of phone hacking, a practice he says no one sought to defend.
“Even the journalists involved, while they were probably not aware it was illegal, they knew it was a breach of the code.
“I think [after the trials] the press were left in no doubt that hacking phones is a no-go area. Whatever means they have to break stories, they can’t do that.”
The trials of journalists and their sources over the past few years in the U.K. was a rare example, says Burke, of a series of cases that assumed an importance beyond the seriousness of the crimes alleged, clarifying a moral as well as legal line for the country.
“It went to the heart of the way Fleet Street operated for a period of time and whether it was acceptable,” he says.
Perhaps the most memorable case of Burke’s career, aside from the News International inquiry, made headlines more for the identity of the defendant than the seriousness of the crime.
On the face of it, it seemed like an open-and-shut case. REM guitarist Peter Buck, at the time one of the world’s most famous rock stars, was charged following an alleged “air rage” assault on two stewardesses on a British Airways flight.
Buck’s legal team, led by Burke, claimed the combination of taking a sleeping pill and drinking “small amounts” of wine had caused a reaction known as “non-insane automatism,” and he had not intended to commit an offense. He was cleared after a trial in which U2 singer Bono volunteered as a character witness.
The Cayman Islands seems an unlikely place, then, for a lawyer of Burke’s background. But he says it is more than the sunshine that draws him back to the territory.
His association with the islands began with one of the most intriguing cases of his career, the Euro Bank trial.
The money laundering trial of four bank employees unravelled when it emerged the lead investigator was secretly working for MI6 and was using a mole, code-named “Warlock” to gather intelligence on the bank – information that was not disclosed to the defense team.
It later emerged that “Warlock” had destroyed evidence linking him to the British Secret Services at their request.
“As the case developed, it became increasingly clear it wasn’t all as the prosecution said it was,” recalls Burke.
Like the News International trials, Burke believes this was an example of over-reach on the part of the investigators. Euro Bank was viewed, he says, as an easy target for demonstrating that the jurisdiction was tidying up its act, transitioning from a “money pit” to an efficient, modern jurisdiction.
“They took their eye off the ball and the Chief Justice stopped the case as an abuse,” he said.
Burke also successfully defended Lyndon Martin, the MLA and part-time journalist charged in connection with the Operation Tempura investigation.
The trial was memorable for many more important reasons, but the incident that sticks out in Burke’s mind is his cross-examination of Desmond Seales, the late editor of the Cayman Net News.
“He is the only man who ever stuck his tongue out at me, when I was cross-examining him. He did it when I turned my back, and the jury told on him,” he recalled.
The 58-year-old says he is happy to be back in the Cayman Islands, this time for an extended period of time.
“I’ve been coming back ever since the Euro Bank trial,” he says. “I love it here. The cases are difficult, but there is something about doing it in the sunshine that makes it a bit easier than hacking to the Old Bailey in the snow and rain.”