Snooping scandal: Journalist Barry McCaffrey should never have been subjected to PSNI scrutiny

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey

Our revelation today that the Police Service of Northern Ireland secretly searched the telephone records of the respected Belfast journalist Barry McCaffrey can only be a matter of the utmost concern and has major implications at a range of levels.

As our coverage sets out, Mr McCaffrey, a former Irish News reporter, was covertly targeted by detectives in 2013 because he was investigating the background to serious allegations that a senior PSNI officer had received payments from a private company.

It is beyond doubt that Mr McCaffrey was looking into issues which were profoundly in the public interest, but it has now been established that the response of the police was to furtively access his phone data in what must be regarded as a completely unacceptable attempt to discover his private sources.

This was a blatant abuse of power by individuals in positions of great authority, and it is essential that all those involved are held to account and made to offer a full explanation of their disgraceful actions.

Journalists are in no sense above the law, and are completely covered by the stringent legislation on privacy and defamation, but they have a vital role to play in establishing the truth about what is happening behind the scenes in any responsible society, and the idea that their entirely legitimate work should be the subject of undercover state surveillance is repugnant in every way.


Snooping scandal: Chief constable has questions to answer

Snooping scandal: Police secretly search journalist's phone records

​​PSNI admits it should have told Loughinisland journalists about review which criticised handling of their arrests

​​PSNI admits it should have told Loughinisland journalists about review which criticised handling of their arrests

It will be noted that Mr McCaffrey only came to the attention of the police because he put an open and completely reasonable query on behalf of The Detail website to the service's press office about an official probe into the conduct of an assistant chief constable, Duncan McCausland, involving claims of bribery and misconduct in a public office.

Instead of offering assistance to Mr McCaffrey, detectives took the sinister decision to trawl through his personal communications and try to establish to whom he may have been speaking in the course of his professional research.

Mr McCausland strongly denied all wrong-doing and was never charged before he eventually brought a formal complaint to a London-based statutory body known as the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).

Just before a public process was due to start in December, 2022, the PSNI settled the case and admitted it had broken its own intelligence rules, and the same IPT is due to commence a hearing into Mr McCaffrey's complaint in the coming months.

It cannot be ignored that, after the shocking and at that stage undisclosed events of 2013, Mr McCaffrey and his colleague Trevor Birney were both treated disgracefully by the PSNI after they attempted to put a firm spotlight on evidence that elements within the former RUC had been involved in collusion with the perpetrators of the massacre of six innocent men as they watched a World Cup match in the Heights bar at Loughinisland in Co Down in June, 1994.

Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney helped to produce the acclaimed 2017 documentary No Stone Unturned, directed by Oscar winner Alex Gibney, which broke new ground by naming the main suspects in the loyalist atrocity.

The homes of both journalists were subsequently raided in an unprecedented manner while an office used by Mr Birney was also searched in a huge operation involving up to 50 police officers.

After prolonged legal action, which comprehensively exonerated the two journalists, the PSNI in 2020 agreed to pay both Mr McCaffrey, Mr Birney and a related production company damages of almost £900,000.

The present chief constable, Simon Byrne, who was not in charge during the McCausland and Loughinisland debacles, also offered an unreserved apology to Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney.

While we are considering shocking episodes which date back a decade, it should be acknowledged that they have only now emerged and must call central aspects of the credibility and reputation of the PSNI into question.

Mr McCaffrey should never have been subjected under any circumstances to PSNI scrutiny for simply asking questions about what was happening within the highest structures of the force.

Policing goes to the heart of everything which has transformed our society since the Good Friday Agreement, and it has to be acknowledged that the outworking of the 1999 Patten report, which facilitated the launch of the PSNI and all the progress which has followed, has been hugely positive in most respects.

However, no one ever envisaged that our new police service, recruiting from all sides of our divided society and enjoying the endorsement of our main political parties across the board, would direct its massive resources against campaigning journalists.

The ruling of the IPT on the case brought by Mr McCaffrey will be urgently awaited and it must be expected that it will confirm, once and for all, that the freedom of the press is a cornerstone of democracy.