PSNI accused of spying on journalists

Eight journalists working in Northern Ireland described as “troublemakers” have been under routine illegal surveillance by the PSNI, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London has heard.

On 8 May 2024, barrister Ben Jaffey, acting on behalf of two journalists in Northern Ireland, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney, claimed that the PSNI used unlawful covert surveillance in an attempt to unmask journalists’ sources.

Birney and McCaffrey were arrested in 2018 in an operation led by Durham Constabulary which had been tasked by the PSNI to investigate how they obtained information for a documentary on the UVF Loughinisland massacre.

In 2019, the two journalists won a court case which found the search warrants used had been “inappropriate”. The judge opined they had “acted properly” in protecting their sources in a lawful way and the PSNI later paid damages amounting to £875,000.

The journalists then filed a case with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) which examines complaints regarding covert surveillance and this has widened the story.

A Durham Constabulary minutes of a meeting with PSNI officers in November 2017, read before the tribunal on the 8 May hearing, states that the “unlawful disclosure” of PSNI information had been longstanding. The minutes files further claims that in 2007/2008, “telephone billing” may have been applied for in an attempt to establish who was leaking to journalists who were “always looking for a story”.

The file lists the names of eight people whose names have been redacted, all run through a “stand alone intelligence system”.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) Editor’s Code of Practice, in Clause 14, states: “Journalists have a moral obligation to protect confidential sources of information.”

It is understood information suggesting RTÉ Northern Editor Vincent Kearney might also have been subject to surveillance emerged during the disclosure processes related to McCaffrey and Birney’s case.

The BBC has written to the IPT about Kearney, a former BBC journalist, who believes his phone was monitored in 2011.

A BBC spokesperson has said: “We have instructed lawyers to write to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal about the alleged PSNI surveillance of telephone data linked to the work of Vincent Kearney during his employment with the BBC, in connection with a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme broadcast in 2011.

“We think that serious issues of public interest are involved, including in relation to the adverse effects that surveillance may have on journalistic investigations and freedoms.”

Chief Constable Jon Boucher spoke before the Policing Board on the matter on 15 May 2024 and confirmed that the PSNI intends to publish a public report on the extent of police surveillance of lawyers and journalists.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal case is due for full hearing in October 2024.

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