PSNI to publish report on surveillance of journalists

Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right)
Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney accused the PSNI of spying [PA]

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is to publish a report in June on “the extent” of its surveillance of journalists and lawyers.

It comes after Chief Constable Jon Boutcher met the leadership of the Policing Board to discuss the issue.

The board described the talks as “constructive”.

In a statement, it said revelations emerging from a court case in London was causing damage to public confidence in policing.

"The chief constable has confirmed the board will be provided at its June meeting with a report on the extent of the surveillance of legal professionals and journalists," a statement from the board said.

“This will be made public.

“The chief constable shares our concerns and has advised that he intends to develop an additional review mechanism to examine and address the issues raised.”

The board is seeking assurances the police have acted “lawfully and proportionately”.

Earlier, two human rights organisations called on the board to launch an inquiry.

The letter from Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) follows developments in a case involving reporters Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney.

Last week, a hearing in London heard claims the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) subjected other, unnamed “troublemaker journalists” to routine phone surveillance.

Letter sent by two human rights organisations
Two human rights organisations have called for an inquiry into police surveillance [BBC]

The letter stated that public confidence in policing wasbeing undermined by a “pattern of potential unlawful activity”.

“It now appears that there was routine surveillance of the phone data of journalists, and possible surveillance of the spouse of one journalist as well as their lawyer," it said.

“Public disquiet at the intrusive, covert and possibly unlawful use of surveillance powers by the PSNI is considerable.”

The two organisations urge the board to establish an inquiry under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000.

They further point out that a report on the full extent of PSNI surveillance activity should be published “in the interests of transparency”.

'Opportunity for PSNI leadership'

Nuala McAllister
Alliance Policing Board member Nuala McAllister says she would support an inquiry [PA Media]

Alliance Party Policing Board member Nuala McAllister said on Wednesday she would support an inquiry, but that could not be proposed until a full meeting of the board which would not take place until June.

Ms McAllister said there was an opportunity for the police to be on the “front foot” in its response.

“The chief constable does have an opportunity here, because he is still relatively new, he was not around when all of this was taking place,” she told BBC Radio Ulster’s Good Morning Ulster.

“There is an opportunity for the PSNI leadership to say ‘okay what happened in the past was wrong, it shouldn’t have taken place, moving forward these are the steps in place that we are taking’."

Ms McAllister added: "We also need to ensure that there is public confidence because when it does come to the press, the press need to have that freedom to actually conduct their role too without this fear that they may be essentially spied on."

The Alliance MLA also said the Policing Board must be "honest and transparent".

"Unless we get that how do we actually allay all of those concerns that I have and many other Policing Board members do have?”

People Before Profit assembly member Gerry Carroll has called on Justice Minister Naomi Long to order a public inquiry.

“This obvious and blatant interference with journalism should be a watershed moment," he said.

“The public needs to know how deep the rot goes."

The talks on Wednesday involve Mr Boutcher, Policing Board chairman Mukesh Sharma and vice-chairman Brendan Mullan.

Mr Boutcher has previously stated he will not speculate “about what might or might not have happened in the past” while the Investigatory Powers Tribunal case is ongoing.

It is due to go to full hearing in October.