Report into PSNI surveillance of journalists criticised as ‘utterly vague’

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher. Photo by Jonathan Porter, Press Eye

THE PSNI will have to produce a new report into its surveillance of journalists after the first one was slammed as “utterly vague”.

The Policing Board's human rights adviser, John Wadham, will review the PSNI's original report, which is not available to the public, after several board members raised concerns about its clarity and detail.

The board's chairman, Mukesh Sharma, said it also asked the PSNI "to produce a further report which provides the board and the wider public with the necessary level of assurance".

In September, the board asked the PSNI whether police had conducted surveillance of journalists or lawyers since 2011, following revelations that the PSNI had secretly harvested data from a phone owned by former senior journalist with The Detail, Barry McCaffrey, in 2013.

Eight months after the board’s request, the PSNI provided board members with a report.

But at a board meeting today, several members said the report did not have sufficient detail.

Alliance board member, North Belfast MLA Nuala McAllister, said: “There was a lot of information that was just utterly vague at times.”

She added that the report did “not provide assurances to the Policing Board nor the public regarding the legality of the actions that did take place”.

Sinn Féin board member, North Belfast MLA Gerry Kelly, said that the report did not meet PSNI commitments to openness and transparency.

"I think we are now looking at another report to update the one we had, because I don't think it gave us or the public the assurance,” he said.

"The public want to know has the law been broken by the PSNI? That's the crux of the issue."

PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said that the board's human rights adviser John Wadham would be given access to the information behind the report and will report back to members in June.

"I do apologise for the frustration, but we are going to get there, and the access to the information is being given,” he said.

"I've made it very clear that John (Wadham) can have access to material he needs to see so he can reassure the board around this issue.

"We are very keen to ensure that we have a report that can be published (publicly), to work towards that with the board."

Mr Boutcher said the report was "a starting position."

"The report was the required start that could be shared across the board, with the understanding that John can see the material, and then we work out with John how we can make the information that you need to reassure you,” he said.

In a statement, Mr Sharma said: "The PSNI, and all policing services, have access to a range of intrusive surveillance powers.

"Whilst this work is now highly regulated, given recent revelations there is a public interest issue around whether powers have been used lawfully, proportionately and appropriately in the past, particularly in sensitive areas such as this."

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal, which looks into complaints around police surveillance, is investigating claims that police secretly spied on The Detail editor Trevor Birney and journalist Barry McCaffrey.

Three spying operations, including by the Metropolitan Police in 2011; the PSNI in 2013, and the PSNI and Durham Constabulary in 2018, have emerged during secret IPT hearings.

The operations were only uncovered after the journalists were falsely arrested in August 2018 over their documentary, No Stone Unturned, into the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) murder of six Catholic men in Loughinisland, Co Down, in June 1994.

Human rights groups Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) today reiterated their call for the board to hold an inquiry into covert surveillance by the PSNI against journalists and lawyers.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland Director, welcomed the board’s decision to ask the PSNI to produce another report.

“However, given the inadequacy of the responses from the Chief Constable, and in the interests of public confidence in both policing and accountability of policing, the board should now also move to exercise their powers to hold an inquiry into potentially unlawful use of covert surveillance powers,” he said.

Daniel Holder, Director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ), said: “This is a real test for the present era of policing accountability both for the PSNI and the Policing Board with its duties to hold the police to account.”

“Freedom of the press, including the fundamental of protecting sources, is a cornerstone of a democratic society protected by rights to freedom of expression under the ECHR (European Convention on Human Rights)," he said.

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