PSNI put group of ‘trouble maker’ Northern Ireland journalists under surveillance

Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

Journalists Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

THE PSNI operated surveillance operations against a group of “trouble maker” Northern Ireland journalists to see if they were in contact with potential police sources, a tribunal has heard.

Officers are understood to have accessed the phone bills of the unnamed group of journalists and cross-referenced them with police telephone numbers every six months in an attempt to discover the reporters’ sources.

The operation may have started in 2007/08 after the PSNI suspected officers were leaking information to journalists, and was still in place at the end of 2017, according to new documents disclosed by Durham Constabulary.

However, the scope of the investigation, and when it actually began and ended, remain unclear, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) heard.

The revelation came during an IPT hearing in London today into surveillance against The Detail editor Trevor Birney and former senior journalist Barry McCaffrey.

The IPT, which looks at complaints against the UK’s intelligence services, is investigating how three police forces, the PSNI, Durham Constabulary and Scotland Yard, sought to carry out surveillance against the journalists.

In 2018, Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney were unlawfully arrested in an operation involving Durham officers and the PSNI.

The arrests were in connection with their documentary, No Stone Unturned, into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.

Ben Jaffey KC, speaking for the two journalists, told the IPT the wider surveillance operation against the group of reporters, believed to include Mr McCaffrey, emerged after more than 600 pages of new police disclosure were received last week.

Most of the revelations came from disclosure by Durham Constabulary.

The disclosure showed the PSNI had a “defensive operation” against “a group of Northern Ireland journalists who have written unobliging things about the PSNI”, Mr Jaffey said.

He said the alleged operation “against a list of trouble maker journalists” is “obviously unlawful” and had not been previously disclosed to the tribunal.

It also emerged that the PSNI attempted to access cloud data from Mr Birney’s wife Sheila, and data from solicitor Niall Murphy, again in an attempt to identify the two journalists’ sources.

The new disclosure from Durham revealed that the Metropolitan Police obtained Mr McCaffrey’s communications data in June 2011.

However, Mr Jaffey said there may have been more authorisations and it remains unclear exactly which data was obtained.

The new disclosure showed that attempts were made to identify both journalists’ sources around the time they were working on the No Stone Unturned documentary in 2016.

Mr Jaffey said the Durham disclosure revealed that Mr McCaffrey was subject to at least one European Investigation Order in France, meaning that French authorities had to collect evidence in a criminal case.

An intelligence request was also considered to get flight details from Mr Birney’s computer for a work trip he and Mr McCaffrey took to France.

“It is just not possible for the tribunal to know how many times and in what circumstances Mr McCaffrey’s communications data was used to try and obtain his journalistic sources,” Mr Jaffey said.

He said that PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher had given an affidavit confirming the PSNI had complied with its duty of candour requirements “to the best of his knowledge and belief”.

He added that Mr Boutcher should give a supplementary affidavit, given the new disclosure that the PSNI secretly spied on an unknown number of journalists.

Mr Jaffey said there was no personal blame attached to Mr Boutcher and he may have been “inadequately briefed”.

Last week, it emerged that RTÉ journalist Vincent Kearney was allegedly placed under police surveillance when he worked for the BBC.

It is understood the PSNI may have attempted to identify sources of information for a Spotlight programme Mr Kearney presented about the Police Ombudsman’s Office in 2011.

Another IPT hearing will be held on July 18, ahead of a more in-depth hearing in October.

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey (third and fourth from left) outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London today. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey (third and fourth from left) outside the Royal Courts of Justice in London today. Photo courtesy Sarah Kavanagh

Speaking outside the tribunal today, Mr Birney called on Stormont’s Justice Minister Naomi Long to set up a judge-led independent inquiry into the wider surveillance of journalists in Northern Ireland.

He said the PSNI and Durham Constabulary’s practice of disclosing key documents just days before inquiry hearings is hugely frustrating.

“We were falsely arrested six years ago,” he said.

“The IPT began looking at our case five years ago.

“The PSNI have not displayed a duty of candour to the tribunal and that is very worrying.

“The Chief Constable should be ensuring that disclosure and answers to questions are provided instead of having to be dragged out of the PSNI.

“It is time for the justice minister to step in because clearly given what we have heard in court this morning this is an issue for all the ‘trouble making’ journalists mentioned.

“The PSNI cannot be trusted to be transparent with the tribunal and its own oversight body, the Policing Board.”

A PSNI spokeswoman said: "The Chief Constable continues to co-operate with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal and the Investigatory Powers Commissioner's Office who independently oversee the use of investigatory powers in the United Kingdom, ensuring they are used in accordance with the law and in the public interest."

"As legal proceedings are ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment," she said.

A spokesman for Durham Constabulary said: “We await the judgement of the Tribunal and will consider its findings".

"It would be inappropriate to comment further while proceedings are continuing," he said.

The Department of Justice has been contacted for comment.

Solicitor Niall Murphy described the revelations as “chilling”.

“The industrial-scale harvesting of sensitive journalistic communications data by the PSNI is akin to East German secret police in the early 1980s,” he said.

“I fear that this is the thin edge of a wedge, and that in time, a Kafkaesque systemic policy of police surveillance of journalists and lawyers will be exposed.”

Mr McCaffrey's solicitor John Finucane said: "Durham police have provided the legal teams with disclosure which points to PSNI undertaking routine and industrial-scale surveillance on a six-monthly basis against those journalists they criticised as 'always looking a story'.

"The PSNI stands accused of unlawfully going after journalists and their sources on numerous occasions over a prolonged period."

He added: "Journalism is not a crime despite the actions... of the PSNI, Durham and the MET".

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, said the evidence heard today was “explosive”.

“That such clearly unlawful acts appear to have been custom and practice in the PSNI would demonstrate a complete contempt for the principle of press freedom,” he said.

“There must now be full accountability.

“It is time for the Chief Constable to come clean about the extent of police spying operations against journalists, lawyers and others.

“Meanwhile, we would urge all journalists in Northern Ireland who suspect they may have been among those targeted by the PSNI for covert surveillance to lodge complaints with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal urgently.”

Daniel Holder, director of rights group the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said it was “jaw dropping that the PSNI were subjecting journalists to 'routine' and regular surveillance to harvest data over sources”.

"This was revealed by Durham Constabulary. There are serious questions as to why the PSNI themselves did not disclose this to the tribunal,” he said.

“If the PSNI were routinely spying on journalists, who else was subject to this?

“Were lawyers and NGOs (non-government organisations) also routinely spied on?”

Ian McGuinness, Irish organiser for the National Union of Journalists, said: "Writing a story about the PSNI and protecting your confidential sources whilst doing so is not a crime”.

“The NUJ is calling, yet again, for the PSNI to come clean,” he said.

"In particular, the force needs to state when it started spying on multiple journalists' phone data, who the journalists were, how many times each journalist was spied upon and must give a commitment that it will desist from doing this ever again, simply to uncover legitimate sources for stories.”

Dawn Alford, executive director of the Society of Editors, said she was alarmed by today's revelations.

"Unlawful surveillance of journalists does nothing for public confidence in policing and greatly undermines the ability of journalists to properly scrutinise and hold those in power to account on behalf of the public," she said.

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