THE PSNI accessed a former The Detail journalist’s phone while he was investigating potential corruption in the force.
Barry McCaffrey, one of Northern Ireland’s most respected journalists, said he was stunned to learn that his phone was compromised over a period in 2013.
At the time, Mr McCaffrey was investigating allegations that a senior PSNI employee was in receipt of payments from a private company.
Mr McCaffrey was informed earlier this year that his phone had been accessed, although details of the case can only now be revealed.
He and The Detail editor Trevor Birney have branded the revelations as “shocking and disturbing” and an “attack on the freedom of the press”.
“All journalists working in Northern Ireland have to ask themselves if they too have been subjected to similar treatment and the impact on press freedom,” Mr McCaffrey said.
The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), an independent judicial body which deals with police surveillance concerns, has been sitting in secret for more than two years to look at the case.
It will hear a complaint from Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney at a hearing later this year.
The journalists were falsely arrested in August 2018 over their documentary No Stone Unturned into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.
The High Court in Belfast later found that the warrant issued for searches of the documentary makers’ homes and offices and the seizing of journalistic material was unlawful.
The investigation into the journalists was dropped with substantial damages paid to both men and a public apology by PSNI Chief Constable Simon Byrne.
As a result of the case, legal counsel for the journalists asked the IPT about any invasive action taken against them by the PSNI, Durham Constabulary and the intelligence services during the No Stone Unturned investigation.
It can now be reported that police accessed Mr McCaffrey’s phone years before the No Stone Unturned probe.
When asked about the revelations, a PSNI spokeswoman said: “As the matter is subject to ongoing legal proceedings, it would be inappropriate to make any comment at this time.”
During his time at The Detail, Mr McCaffrey was known for his meticulous reporting, including an analysis of how nearly one in five former RUC officers who took a severance package under the Patten policing reforms were later re-employed by the PSNI as civilian workers.
Mr McCaffrey said he was alarmed to learn that his phone had been compromised.
“To find out that the PSNI accessed my phone data in 2013 without my permission was a shocking discovery for Trevor and myself,” he said.
“I had no idea until very recently that my phone had been compromised in this way.
“The PSNI knew full well that there was a legal process it should have used if it wanted access to journalistic material. It deliberately chose to ignore this and treat me as a criminal suspect.
“Journalism is not a crime. Asking the PSNI questions about alleged police corruption does not make me or any other journalist a criminal.
“Once again, we find the PSNI treating journalists as the enemy. There appears to be a very worrying culture within the PSNI towards journalists in Northern Ireland, one in which we are seen as criminals to be pursued.
“All journalists working in Northern Ireland have to ask themselves if they too have been subjected to similar treatment and the impact on press freedom.
“In July 2020 Chief Constable Simon Byrne publicly apologised to Trevor and me telling us that he would make sure this wouldn’t happen to journalists again.
“All the time the PSNI had already driven a coach and horses through the professional working relationship between police and journalists.
“We had hoped our days in court were behind us, but we are determined to get to the truth of the PSNI actions and to hold those responsible to account.”
Mr Birney said the revelations will lead other journalists to question if their phones have also been accessed.
“Journalists in Northern Ireland learn to work under the suspicion that the PSNI or other intelligence agencies are monitoring their phone calls,” he said.
“To discover the PSNI was covertly monitoring Barry’s phone data while he worked for The Detail is a shocking and very disturbing development in our case.
“What we’ve been told amounts to an egregious attack on the freedom of the press by the PSNI.
“We hope the Investigatory Powers Tribunal is both an open hearing and will be able to get to the truth of what the PSNI have been doing to journalists over the past decade and more.
“We’d realised during our Judicial Review that the PSNI had us under surveillance in the lead up to our arrest. But now we learn that they were monitoring Barry’s phone 10 years ago.
“In 2014, the PSNI had refused to state publicly if they’d bugged journalists’ phones, hiding behind the usual excuse of national security.
“Thanks to the work of our legal teams, that excuse has been stripped away. What we’ve seen so far can only lead to a serious consideration of the relationship between journalists and the PSNI.”
Mr Birney’s solicitor Niall Murphy said: “We can confirm that complaints were made to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, at the conclusion of the judicial review which held that the search warrants and arrests of the journalists were unlawful.
“The IPT considers complaints under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA).
“It considers allegations of unlawful intrusion by public bodies, including the intelligence services, the police and local authorities and investigates alleged conduct by or on behalf of the intelligence services whether or not it involves investigatory powers.
“We look forward to the full hearing of this matter before the tribunal, which we expect will be convened before Christmas.”
Mr McCaffrey’s solicitor John Finucane said the complaint was significant.
“My client successfully overturned the lawfulness of the PSNI’s decision to arrest him in 2018, and highlighted acts designed to intimidate and restrict the freedom of the press,” he said.
He said the complaint should be heard in an open hearing.
“It is not only a matter of significance for my client, but a matter of huge public interest as we seek to ensure the freedom of our press and the rights of journalists," he said.