Northern Ireland

PSNI make more than 800 applications for journalist and lawyer phone data

Snooping report presented to Policing Board

NUJ and Amnesty International  Protest at the  Policing Board on Thursday calling for an  inquiry into surveillance of journalists and lawyers.
PSNI snooping victim Barry McCaffrey joined a protest outside the Policing Board on Thursday PICTURE COLM LENAGHAN

The PSNI made more than 800 applications for communications data for journalists and lawyers over a 13-year period, the Policing Board has been told.

Details are contained in a report presented to members of the board on Thursday.

Policing Board chair Mukesh Sharma last night said the report by PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher did not provide members with the assurances it requires.

A similar report produced in April, which was not made public, was later criticised by board members and described as “vague”.

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher
PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher (Liam McBurney/PA)

Thursday’s meeting was held behind closed doors “due to pre-election guidance” and Mr Boutcher was not in attendance.

Members of the National Union of Journalists and human rights groups held a short protest outside the Policing Board HQ before the meeting.

In recent months concerns have emerged that PSNI spy operations have targeted members of the media deemed “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 of the scandal 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.

The pair made a complaint to the IPT in 2019 over their arrest the previous year in connection with an acclaimed 2017 documentary about the UVF sectarian murder of six men at the Heights Bar in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.

The IPT looks at complaints from people who believe they have been the victim of unlawful covert interference.

It recently emerged a third journalist, RTÉ's Vincent Kearney, may also have been snooped on.

Thursday’s report confirms that between January 2011 and March this year there were 323 applications for communications data relating to journalists who were victims, suspects or witnesses to crime.

The police claim that of that number, ten applications sought to identify a journalistic source using covert powers.

They also claim the “remainder of the applications did not seek to identify a journalist’s source and their profession may have been entirely unrelated to the request”.

Over the same period there were 500 applications for communications data relating to lawyers who were the victims, suspects or witnesses to crime.

It is not known how many individuals were the focus of the 823 communication data applications.

In advance of Thursday’s meeting, Mr Boutcher announced a review by Angus McCullough KC into the use of surveillance against journalists, lawyers and non-governmental organisations.

He confirmed 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, will support the review.

In a statement on Thursday Mr Sharma said the “report does not give the board all the assurance it needs”.

“The McCullough Review process may do so, and the board will receive updates as that work progresses,” he said.

“The board takes its human rights monitoring duties seriously.

“The emphasis we have put on police use of covert surveillance has contributed to the establishment of these arrangements.”

Mr Sharma said the board will continue to pose questions.

“The board awaits the conclusion of the McCullough Review and remains open to all courses of action to ensure there is proper accountability on these issues, and will continue to pursue the question of the use of police surveillance powers directly with the chief constable,” he said.

Speaking before the meeting Mr McCaffrey expressed concern that the PSNI review cannot compel former officers to co-operate.

“Only a public inquiry can compel former officers to come and tell what they knew,” he said.

“Somebody in authority within the PSNI authorised and allowed this to happen.

“The public needs to know who allowed it to happen.

“There needs to be a public inquiry because these former police officers need to be compelled to come and give evidence.

“Society needs to know what has been going on for 20 years.”

Earlier this week justice minister Naomi Long ruled out an independent inquiry at the present time.

Daniel Holder, who is on the expert panel, said “the issues at play here are of profound concern in a democratic society”.

“Far from being restricted to officer corruption there are significant questions as to whether these practices were part of the broader ‘national security’ approach of seeking to prevent information relating to past involvement of police informants in human rights violations coming to light,” he said.

“This was the context of the arrest and surveillance operation against Barry and Trevor.

“The concern is it may form part of a broader practice.”