Barry McCaffrey: PSNI must come clean over spying operation against me and other journalists

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney speaking to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Wednesday. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney speaking to the media outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London on Wednesday. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

5.50am, Wednesday May 8, 2024, Greenwich, London.

I’m lying on a futon in a friend’s flat desperately trying to sleep. I’ve forgotten to mute my phone.

I’m woken by the familiar buzz of an early morning WhatsApp message. Before I open my eyes I already know who it is and what it’s about.

I receive dozens of WhatsApp messages from a confused Trevor Birney every day asking about a particular issue in our complicated case.

I often have to reply that I don’t understand the particular point in question either.

We are swamped in a Mount Everest of disclosed police documents and are desperately trying to understand what any of them mean.

We’ve been fighting this case for six years now and have visited more rabbit holes than Watership Down.

If we don’t understand what’s going on how will anyone else?

Here’s where we are

Yesterday at the Royal Court of Justice in London the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) saw new police documents that stated on November 15, 2017, Durham detective Darren Ellis and two of his colleagues held a meeting with two PSNI intelligence officers in Belfast.

The meeting had taken place at the direction of the head of the PSNI's Special Branch.

Mr Ellis was in Northern Ireland to investigate Trevor and myself for our documentary, No Stone Unturned, which revealed police collusion in the 1994 Loughinisland massacre.

This wasn’t just a ‘getting to know you’ meeting – the PSNI officers were there to tell Mr Ellis that they could provide intelligence on any Northern Ireland journalist he had an interest in.

How do we know this? Mr Ellis recorded every detail of what happened at the meeting in a diary entry.

The PSNI intelligence officers firstly explained to their Durham colleagues that they had routinely withheld information on massacres, including Loughinisland, from the Police Ombudsman – the organisation which investigates allegations of police corruption – with “PONI receiving what suited PSNI as they could not be trusted”.

Mr Ellis stated that the PSNI then explained that they had mounted a spying operation against myself and two other unnamed journalists in 2007/2008.

This brought the current number of PSNI surveillance operations against me to four.

Yesterday, just as the court was due to start, they admitted to a fifth.

But back to that meeting.

Mr Ellis wrote that the PSNI intelligence officers then revealed that they had a secret database of journalist phone records, which they updated on a rolling basis every six months.

“DS ****** confirmed that he is proactive in conducting what he described as ‘defensive operations’ by cross referencing with police telephone numbers on a six-monthly basis.”

The PSNI ran the names of eight journalists through their ‘standalone intelligence system’ and returned what Mr Ellis describes as ‘negative results’.

So, we now know that the PSNI was running a secret spying operation against journalists in Northern Ireland.

Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

What do we not know?

We do not know how many names are on this database or whether it was authorised by a judge or a senior police commander.

If it has been authorised then it should have been disclosed to our legal team.

We do not know how the PSNI got the numbers of journalists. We do know from disclosure in our case that my number was obtained from the police press office.

Every journalist in Northern Ireland has called the PSNI press office at one time or another.

Was every journalist’s number taken from the press office and put on this database?

We do not know exactly when this spying operation started or if it is still ongoing.

During the last six years, Trevor and myself have been blinded by endless conundrums like this.

We usually get disclosure in our case from the PSNI at the very last minute. It usually contains hundreds of pages.

I have often thought of taping them all together and making the world’s biggest black out blind as the vast majority of the pages are blacked out.

Ourselves and our legal team then have to desperately speed read hundreds of pages to try and decipher what has been going on.

It is like trying to complete a 1,000-piece jigsaw with a blindfold on.

The PSNI are masters at blacking out every tiny morsel of important information.

They even tried to redact the top-secret information that I was a journalist at The Detail.

Thankfully the IPT ruled this was one step too far.

Who has the answers?

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher can answer all these questions today – if he is allowed to.

By all accounts he is a decent and honourable man.

We believe that darker elements within the PSNI have failed to provide the Chief Constable with all the facts about this spying operation.

We certainly hope that is the case because if not then this attack on democracy and press freedom will continue.

No organisation can investigate itself. Especially an organisation which has now been exposed as spying on journalists and lawyers.

Who knows what important documents and files at PSNI headquarters are now smelling of smoke this morning?

The Policing Board and Justice Minister Naomi Long have an urgent duty to establish a public inquiry into this issue.

Society needs to know what’s been going on.

This isn’t just another Northern Ireland problem.

The Metropolitan Police Service (Scotland Yard to anyone over 50), Durham Constabulary, MI5, even the French authorities and the FBI in America have been revealed to have been involved at various stages.

If the PSNI has a secret spying system in place to monitor journalists, do other UK police forces use the same tactics?

Does the existing legislative framework on investigatory powers, claimed by the UK government to protect the sources and confidential information of journalists and lawyers, actually work in practice?

Where do we go now?

Our case at the IPT continues with no doubt more additions to the world’s largest black-out blind.

While the IPT has been crucial in lifting the stone on the PSNI’s industrial spying operation on journalists it is arguably not the authority that can provide the ultimate answers.

Only an independent public inquiry can restore the public’s confidence in policing.

The untold damage that has already been caused by this shameful attack on press freedom will only worsen if the Policing Board and Naomi Long fail to act urgently.

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