We need a judge-led inquiry into police spying on journalists and lawyers

In August 2018, documentary filmmaker Trevor Birney and myself, Barry McCaffrey, were arrested in early morning raids on our homes in Belfast, Northern Ireland.

Little did we know that our case would go on to expose how the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) and other UK police forces regularly spy on hundreds of journalists to try to identify sources.

We would later find out during police questioning that the investigation into Trevor and I was called Operation Yurta.

It followed a documentary we had made into the loyalist paramilitary murders of six Catholic men as they sat watching the World Cup final in a tiny country bar in Loughinisland, County Down, on the night of 18 June 1994.

The film had revealed evidence that some Northern Ireland police had actively colluded to protect the killers.

We were able to tell this story thanks to an anonymous whistleblower who had sent us a top secret police report which revealed that despite overwhelming evidence linking the killers to the murders, police failed to bring anyone to justice.

We were accused of breaking the Official Secrets Act because we had used a secret police file to expose the scandal.

Operation Yurta and how it all unravelled

During police questioning, it emerged that detectives had gone to the chief murder suspect and convinced him to make a statement against us claiming our documentary had damaged his professional reputation as a rat catcher.

Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey with relatives of the people killed in the Loughinisland massacre. Aiden O’Tool (centre in the purple jacket) was working behind the bar on the night of the attack and still carries a bullet in his kidney.
Trevor Birney and Barry McCaffrey with relatives of the people killed in the Loughinisland massacre. Aiden O’Tool (centre in the purple jacket) was working behind the bar on the night of the attack and still carries a bullet in his kidney.

Our arrests caused major public concern in Northern Ireland. Why were police arresting journalists instead of the killers?

In June 2019, Northern Ireland’s most senior judges cleared Trevor and I of any wrongdoing, ruling that our arrests had been unlawful.

We later received a public apology and substantial damages from the PSNI. 

At the conclusion of the case, we were advised to lodge a complaint with the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) to try to find out exactly what police surveillance had been used against us.

The IPT is the only UK court with the powers to investigate police and intelligence agencies.

We had no expectation that the IPT would either take up our case or that we would ever find out if we had been spied on.

It came as a complete shock when, on 16 March 2023, we received an email from the IPT informing us that it had been investigating our case in closed hearings for the previous three years.

The story took a bizarre twist when the IPT revealed that it wasn’t investigating if we had been under police surveillance in the run-up to our 2018 arrests, but instead it had uncovered a previous police surveillance operation against me five years earlier in 2013.

We now know that the PSNI unlawfully obtained my phone records in 2013 in an effort to identify what it believed to be a police source who had tipped me off about an investigation into police corruption.

Trevor Birney with Emma Morgan, whose father Adrian Rogan was killed when she was eight years old
Trevor Birney with Emma Morgan, whose father Adrian Rogan was killed when she was eight years old

In March 2023, we met our barrister Ben Jaffey KC for the first time.

We were frustrated that the IPT was concentrating on the 2013 case and would not investigate what surveillance we had been under at the time of our arrest in 2018.

We asked our barrister what chances we had of winning the case.

“You’ve got hold of a piece of string,” he said. “We don’t know how long it is or what we will find at the end of it if we keep pulling.’’

More than 12 months on, that piece of string has now revealed that I was the victim of police phone monitoring on five different occasions by three different UK police forces over a 10-year period.

Disclosure in our IPT case has also revealed that the PSNI conducted a spying operation to monitor the phones not only of journalists, but also police officers and lawyers.

The PSNI has been forced to admit that over the past 14 years it has applied for the phone records of more than 320 Northern Ireland journalists and 500 lawyers.

The PSNI did not listen into phone calls, but what they obtained was just as intrusive – details of everyone journalists and lawyers had spoken to on the phone, when they made the calls, and how often they spoke.

It would also have included a record of the location of mobile phones, showing where a phone – and its owner – was at any point in time.

Former PSNI assistant chief constable Alan McQuillan has gone public to confirm the spying scandal, telling the BBC: “This is so bad, so awful, there needs to be a public inquiry.

“In theory, this should have been focusing on misconduct by police officers and allegations that some officers were leaking information to journalists.

“But it then began to spread into monitoring the phones of journalists and lawyers.”

Barry McCaffrey with Aidan O’Toole (centre in the purple jacket), who was working behind the bar on the night of the attack. Extreme right is Patrick McCreanor, whose uncle Dan McCreanor and great uncle Barney Green were killed in the attack.
Barry McCaffrey with Aidan O’Toole (centre in the purple jacket), who was working behind the bar on the night of the attack. Extreme right is Patrick McCreanor, whose uncle Dan McCreanor and great uncle Barney Green were killed in the attack.

The PSNI only suspended its spying operation when our case became public in March 2023.

Earlier this month, PSNI chief constable Jon Boutcher announced the appointment of senior English barrister Angus McCullough KC to carry out a review of the PSNI spying scandal.

Crucially, this review will not have the powers to compel former police officers to give evidence.

There are now growing calls for the establishment of a judge-led public inquiry with powers to compel evidence from former police officers.

Many believe that Kier Starmer, who was previously a human rights advisor to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, may order that public inquiry if he becomes prime minister in July.

On 18 June, Trevor and I will travel to the tiny St Macartan’s church, 19 miles from Belfast, to join the families of the six men murdered in Loughinisland in marking the 30th anniversary of the atrocity.

No one has ever stood trial for the massacre.

We have no idea how much more string there is still to pull or what other spying scandals it may reveal, but we owe it to the memories of the six innocent people who were murdered in Loghinisland to keep pulling.


Adrian Rogan (34), Malcolm Jenkinson (52), Dan McCreanor (59), Barney Green (87), Patsy O’Hare (35) and Eamon Byrne (39) were murdered watching the World Cup finals in a bar in Loghinisland, County Down, on 18 June 1994.

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