Police laid surveillance trap for journalists

  • 28 Feb 2024

Tim Dawson, IFJ deputy general secretary, reports from the Investigatory Powers Tribunal hearing where grave breaches by the PSNI over journalists’ surveillance and attempts to uncover a source have been disclosed.

Northern Irish police laid a trap for two journalists whose source they hoped to unmask. The reporters’ electronic communications were monitored, ahead of a dramatic dawn raids on their homes. These were designed to provoke the journalists to contact their suspected source, who was themself, under electronic surveillance. 

That was the case laid out by Ben Jaffey KC, representing NUJ member Barry McCaffrey at an Investigative Powers Tribunal, held at the Royal Courts of Justice on 28 February 2024. 

The journalists had worked on the 2017 film No Stone Unturned, which named the main suspects of the 1994 Lochinisland massacre. In this, loyalist paramilitaries fired into a crowded pub, killing six and injuring five. 

In 2018, McCaffrey and his colleague Trevor Birney’s homes were raided, and the journalists were arrested on suspicion of offences under the Official Secrets Act. Two years later, the High Court in Belfast held that the arrests were wrongful, and ordered that they be paid compensation.

The hearing was not able to proceed beyond the applicant’s initial argument, however, because significant new evidence had been shared with McCaffrey’s legal team just a few hours earlier. This evidence, described as comprising 78 pages, documents a period after 2010, when McCaffrey’s communications were secretly surveilled by the Metropolitan police in relation to an unrelated case. Jaffey alleged that the PSNI had obtained a copy of the resulting data and analysed it anew – in breach of the Investigative Powers Act.

The court was also told that for a period, PSNI was intercepting the electronic communications of a third party in connection with this case.

Lord Justice Singh, presiding, allowed an adjournment, in the hope that the legal teams could reach agreement about extra time to consider recently disclosed evidence.

The hearing generated considerable interest, partially because it is relatively rare for investigatory powers tribunals to be heard in public. This novelty was evident in an unusual reporting restriction. Members of the press were asked not to share details of the hearing for five minutes after the delivery of any statement, to allow for applications for more stringent restrictions to be laid during course of proceedings.

This case is also likely to inform the imminent consideration by MPs of the implementation of the 2017 Investigatory Powers Act. 

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