AddThis SmartLayers

Police monitored phone data of ‘troublemaker’ journalists, tribunal hears

Rodney Edwards 1Police have been accused of ‘Orwellian’ behaviour after a tribunal heard they undertook six-monthly trawls of the phone data of “troublemaker” journalists.

Details of spying tactics on reporters by the Police Service of Northern Ireland emerged at a sitting of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal in London last week.

The revelations emerged in the latest hearing of a case brought by two investigative reporters in Northern Ireland who believe thet were subject to unlawful covert intelligence by the police.

Evidence presented to the tribunal suggested that PSNI spying operations also extended to several other reporters operating in the region.

Since the hearing last Wednesday, Impartial Reporter editor Rodney Edwards, pictured, has revealed that he has been told that the PSNI had been monitoring his communications with the force.

Posting on X, he wrote: “Tonight, I’ve been informed by former police sources that senior members of the PSNI were allegedly monitoring my communications with them. Journalism is not a crime.”

The case follows the 2018 arrest of investigative documentary makers Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney as part of a police investigation into the alleged leaking of a confidential document that appeared in a film they made on a Troubles massacre.

The PSNI later unreservedly apologised for how the men had been treated and agreed to pay £875,000 in damages to the journalists and the film company behind the documentary.

However in 2019, the two journalists lodged a complaint with the IPT asking it to establish whether there had been any unlawful surveillance of them.

Last week, 600 pages of new evidence were disclosed to the tribunal ahead of a substantive hearing scheduled for October.

Mr McCaffrey’s counsel Ben Jaffey KC, revealed the existence of a note that made reference to what was described as a PSNI “defensive operation” against journalists in the region.

He said: “It appears to disclose the existence of what the PSNI call a defensive operation involving the cross-referencing of billing with police telephone numbers on a six-monthly basis of what appear to be a group of Northern Irish journalists who have written unobliging things about the PSNI.”

He added: “We don’t know when it started and we don’t know when it’s finished and we don’t know what it involves.

“But if this is what has been going on, we obviously say it’s unlawful to go and take a list of troublemaker journalists, get their billing every six months and cross-reference it with a list of police telephone numbers, and see if those journalists have got any new police sources is plainly unlawful.

“A defensive operation can only be what we say is a slightly Orwellian euphemism.”

The BBC has also joined the tribunal case amid claims one of its former investigative reporters, Vincent Kearney, was spied on by the PSNI.

Outside the Royal Courts of Justice after the hearing was adjourned, Mr Birney said it was clear that the PSNI was “absolutely obsessed with journalists and their sources”.

“I think we need to remind the PSNI and remind the authorities back in Belfast that journalism isn’t a crime, that journalists all over the world have sources and that is lawful and that is absolutely what journalists are there to do,” he added.

“But what we’ve heard this morning is incredibly worrying about the industrial harvesting of journalists’ phone data and I think that that is something that we really need to find out more about and we need to find out quickly.

The PSNI and other respondents in the case have been asked to respond to the issues raised ahead of a further review hearing in July.