Northern Ireland

Snooping scandal: Chief constable has questions to answer

Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) speaking to the media outside Belfast High Court. (Peter Morrison/PA Wire)
Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) speaking to the media outside Belfast High Court. (Peter Morrison/PA Wire)

The Police Service of Northern Ireland was supposed to be different. The RUC had such an appalling record – consistently subverting basic principles of law and justice – that it should not have been difficult for the PSNI to do better.

So today’s Irish News revelations about the naked abuse of power by the PSNI are not only shocking, they are gravely disappointing.

They threaten to undermine public confidence in policing, and give ammunition to those who wish to drive a wedge between the police and the policed.

The PSNI has not only let itself down, it has let down the community it is there to serve.

Today’s story also demonstrates the PSNI has wilfully undermined one of the basic principles of any democratic society – the freedom of the press to hold to account those who wield power over us.

Without integrity and accountability, the PSNI becomes just another armed organisation in a society which already has too many of them.

Northern Ireland was a police state for most of its history, the foundation of the PSNI was supposed to put an end to that.

The gravity of today’s revelations – that the PSNI appallingly searched the phone records of a respected journalist investigating allegations of police corruption - will make reasonable people question how far policing has really moved on, and whether the PSNI itself is fit for purpose.


Snooping scandal: Police secretly search journalist's phone records

Snooping scandal: Freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy

The chief constable, who is ultimately responsible for the reputation of his force, needs to come clean about what has happened here, and to make amends.

And there needs to be an independently-led ‘truth and reconciliation’ style process which puts into the public domain cases where the PSNI has abused its power to protect itself.

If the reputation of the PSNI is to be salvaged and rebuilt, it must be open and honest.

Public bodies have a history of trying to cover things up, buying time in the hope that people will either get bored, or move on to another scandal in another place.

But inevitably the truth will out, and the damage done is invariably much greater than facing up to the transgression at the time.

One thing is certain, the PSNI has made a fundamental error in taking on Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.

They are tenacious journalists, with an enviable reputation for leaving no stone unturned in pursuit of the truth. They aare scrupulously impartial, and they have done society here a great service in bringing to light injustice.

For their pains, they have endured injustice themselves. Barry McCaffrey put his current situation succinctly.

He said the police knew there was a legal process to follow if it wanted access to his material. “It deliberately chose to ignore this and treat me as a criminal suspect. Journalism is not a crime.”

He went on to question the relationship between the police and the media. “Once again we find the PSNI treating journalists as the enemy.”

That is a phrase that will ring true with journalists across the north.

Everyone knows that policing is a difficult job, and all but a few recognise that it is a necessary one.

But policing works only with the consent of the society it serves. Anything that erodes the trust necessary to secure that consent fundamentally undermines policing itself.

The gut response in PSNI HQ will be the circle the wagons and hope that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal pulls its punches.

Delay and obfuscation is a common PR trick.

But being defensive destroyed the RUC and it has already damaged the PSNI.

Openness is the only viable course here and rebuilding trust with the media is an essential part of that. Over to you chief constable.

* Tom Collins is a former editor of The Irish News and former senior teaching fellow at the University of Stirling