BBC instructs lawyers over allegations of police surveillance of journalist

Lawyers acting for the BBC have written to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) over allegations that one of its journalists was subject to police surveillance.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) is alleged to have spied on journalist Vincent Kearney during his work on a 2011 Spotlight documentary investigating the independence of the police watchdog in Northern Ireland.

Kearney, currently the northern editor at RTE, said journalists must be free to carry out their work without fear that the police may secretly attempt to identify their sources. He said he was determined to find out what happened.

The allegations emerged during a hearing by the IPT in February following a complaint from journalists Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey that they had been subject to unlawful surveillance by the PSNI after making a documentary that exposed police failures to investigate the murder of six innocent people by a paramilitary group.

Durham Police, working with the PSNI, raided the journalists’ homes and the film production company, Fine Point Films, as part of a “covert strategy” to identify the source of a leaked document.

The chief constable of the PSNI apologised for the unlawful raids and agreed to pay damages of £875,000 after the journalists were exonerated in 2019 by the Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland.

Following this, the journalists asked the Investigatory Powers Tribunal to investigate whether they had been unlawfully subjected to police surveillance.

Phone and email surveillance

During a hearing in February, the PSNI acknowledged that it unlawfully accessed McCaffrey’s phone data in 2013. McCaffrey’s phone was also subject to surveillance by the Metropolitan Police in 2011 and it emerged that Durham Police attempted to obtain access to Birney’s work emails in 2018.

L-R: Barry McCaffrey, Grahame Morris MP and Trevor Birney outside court in February 2024

Disclosures made during the case suggested that Kearney had also been subject to police surveillance while making a documentary for the BBC’s Spotlight series.

A spokesperson for the BBC said: “We have instructed lawyers to write to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal about the alleged PSNI surveillance of telephone data linked to the work of Vincent Kearney during his employment with the BBC, in connection with a BBC Northern Ireland Spotlight programme broadcast in 2011.”

“We think that serious issues of public interest are involved, including in relation to the adverse effects that surveillance may have on journalistic investigations and freedoms,” the spokesperson added.

The claims relate to Kearney’s 2011 Spotlight documentary, The whistleblower and the watchdog, which reported on the crisis in the Police Ombudsman’s Office and investigated how the work of the PSNI watchdog had become infected by internal difficulties.

Kearney said: “The programme investigated allegations that the independence of the Police Ombudsman had been compromised and that it was not investigating complaints about police activities with sufficient rigour.”

The programme resulted in calls for the resignation of the ombudsman at the time, Al Hutchinson, and he announced his intention to step down shortly after it was broadcast.

Kearney said: “I am concerned that the police may have attempted to identify sources of information within a programme that was actually about the independence of the office of the Police Ombudsman.”

“Journalists must be free to carry out their work without fear that the police may secretly try to identify sources, and I am determined to find out what happened,” he added.

Policing Board probe

The latest allegations come as the Northern Ireland Policing Board is conducting a probe into allegations that the PSNI has carried out surveillance on lawyers and journalists by accessing their phone data to identify their sources.

The PSNI’s chief constable, Jon Boutcher, handed a confidential report to the Policing Board in April at the request of board members.

We are extremely concerned that the revelations to date in this case point to a much wider pattern of covert police surveillance of journalists and other human rights defenders
Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International

The report, which has been passed to the Policing Board’s human rights advisor, John Wadham, is understood to suggest that the PSNI may have been involved in up to 18 incidents of surveillance against journalists and lawyers. 

The Law Society of Northern Ireland has also written to Boutcher asking for an explanation of disclosures in the report, including “the statutory or other authority under which any such surveillance operations were undertaken”.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, urged other journalists and media organisations to make complaints to the IPT if they were concerned about surveillance by the PSNI. 

“We are extremely concerned that the revelations to date in this case point to a much wider pattern of covert police surveillance of journalists and other human rights defenders,” he said. “Freedom of the press, including the right to protect sources, is a cornerstone of any rights-respecting society.”

Daniel Holder, director of the Committee on the Administration of Justice, said there was a need for full accountability. “This issue of the extent and lawfulness of PSNI surveillance on journalists, lawyers and potentially other members of civil society really needs to be nailed now,” he said. 

Jon Boutcher told the Policing Board in April that he would provide a public version of the report.

The IPT is due to continue hearings into allegations of unlawful surveillance against Birney and McCaffrey later in the year. 

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