PSNI criticised after ‘utterly vague’ answers on covert surveillance of journalists

Police in Northern Ireland have been criticised by members of the Northern Ireland Policing Board for providing “utterly vague” responses to questions about its use of covert surveillance against lawyers and journalists.

The policing board asked the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to produce a report on its monitoring of journalists and lawyers after it emerged that the PSNI had carried out covert surveillance against two journalists who exposed police corruption.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) heard in February that journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey had been subject to police phone surveillance between 2011 and 2018 as part of police attempts to identify their confidential sources.

The PSNI delivered a report on its use of covert surveillance to the policing board on 11 April 2024, six months after it was requested by the police watchdog.

The report has not been made public despite calls from the human rights group Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) for the PSNI to be held publicly accountable for its use of covert surveillance powers.

The human rights groups said they fear that the pattern of covert and intrusive surveillance against journalists and potentially others such as lawyers and activists goes much further than the incidents revealed so far at the IPT.

Surveillance report ‘not well received’

PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher told a public meeting of the Northern Ireland Policing Board that the PSNI had to demonstrate that it was accountable and transparent in its use of covert surveillance powers. The force has acknowledged that it unlawfully accessed McCaffrey’s phone data in 2013.

But board member Nualla McAllister, a member of the Alliance Party, told the police chief that his report “was not well received” by the board.

She said it contained information that was “utterly vague” and would not provide assurance to the policing board or the public over the legality of the PSNI’s actions.

Boutcher told the board that the report was a starting point and that the PSNI would provide the board’s human rights adviser, John Wadham – who has security clearance – with more detailed information.

He said the PSNI had been working with independent surveillance regulator the Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office (IPCO), and that he had to make sure he did not “vandalise issues around national security”. The board heard that the PSNI would work on a public version of the report.

Policing chair Mukesh Sharma said in a statement that the policing board had asked Boutcher to provide a further report that would provide the board and the wider public with the “necessary level of assurance”.

“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,” he said.

Call for inquiry

Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice said Boutcher had failed to provide adequate answers to questions asked by the board in September 2023 and was right to be criticised.

The groups urged the policing board to exercise its formal powers under the Police (Northern Ireland) Act 2000 to secure full disclosure by the PSNI.

Speaking after the Northern Ireland Policing Board meeting, Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, said the chief constable’s report “fell short” of the board’s expectations of transparency.

“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 added. 

Daniel Holder, director of the 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 European Convention on Human Rights,” he added.

The Investigatory Powers Commissioner’s Office is due to inspect PSNI’s surveillance operations at the end of April.


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