Northern Ireland

Justice minister Naomi Long says ‘premature’ to set up independent inquiry into alleged PSNI surveillance of journalists

Concerns raised over surveillance of journalists and lawyers

Justice Minister Naomi Long said she took allegations of police surveillance of journalists seriously
Justice Minister Naomi Long said she took allegations of police surveillance of journalists seriously (Liam McBurney/PA)

Justice minister Naomi Long has turned down calls for an independent inquiry into allegations that the PSNI carried out surveillance on journalists.

During an assembly debate on Tuesday, the Alliance leader said she would not ‘rule out action’ in future after she faced calls to hold an independent probe into the snooping scandal.

Concerns have been raised over PSNI spy operations directed at members of the media deemed as “troublemakers”, with the force accused of trawling phone data of journalists every six months to establish if they had been in contact with police sources.

Details came to light through the London-based Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT), which is examining allegations that two investigative journalists, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney, were subjected to unlawful surveillance.

Ms Long was speaking during an assembly debate to consider an Opposition Day motion from the SDLP’s Matthew O’Toole calling for a public inquiry “into the alleged use of wiretapping and other unlawful practices against journalists”.

Ms Long said she shared concerns and was ready to support the Policing Board “in such actions as it feels are necessary”.

However, she added that “given the ongoing nature of the deliberations of the Policing Board and of the IPT it would not therefore be appropriate to act in advance of that work”.

Mr O’Toole welcomed “the broad consensus on the importance of a free press”.

“We know now that inappropriate surveillance happened of those journalists and there are very real concerns about the breadth and depth of the surveillance of others, journalists and lawyers, that is the core issue we are discussing here today,” he said.

The debate took place after PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher this week announced a review by London based barrister Angus McCullough KC into the use of surveillance against journalists, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.

His comments came as a PSNI report into the surveillance of journalists and lawyers is set to be presented to the Policing Board on Thursday.

In a statement, Mr Boutcher said there had been an “inaccurate interpretation” of documents disclosed at a recent IPT hearing.

He also said a list of eight redacted names referred to in one document are not journalists under surveillance, and “relate to a completely different matter”.

Mr Boutcher confirmed that a group of experts, including former police ombudsman Baroness Nuala O’Loan, Amnesty International’s Patrick Corrigan, and Daniel Holder, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), will support the review.

Mr Holder said that the recent clarification from Mr Boutcher does not “allay concerns” regarding the PSNI surveillance.

“It raises further questions regarding the breadth of ‘persons of interest’, the indirect surveillance of journalists’ sources, and in particular, if in part or whole the defensive operation was centred on seeking to limit accountability for human rights violations involving state agents,” he said.

“This was the context in the original arrests of Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney took place.

“There are questions that need urgently probed as to the extent officers, the Police Ombudsman, journalists and NGOs may have been targeted to seek to shield agents and handlers from accountability.”

Sinn Féin Policing Board member Linda Dillon said: “The practice of surveillance of journalists by the PSNI raises serious questions about police conduct, and also who else was targeted by these tactics.

“Were other journalists, NGOs or lawyers also surveilled?”