BBC to contact tribunal over claims journalist was spied on by police

The BBC has instructed lawyers to contact a specialist tribunal over claims one of its investigative reporters was spied on by police.

The corporation said the allegations relate to former BBC journalist Vincent Kearney and his work on a 2011 Spotlight documentary that probed the independence of Northern Ireland’s police watchdog.

Mr Kearney, who is the current Northern Editor at RTE, said he is determined to find out what happened.

The claims emerged as part of a case already being examined by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) into allegations two other investigative reporters working in Northern Ireland have been subject to unlawful covert surveillance by police.

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Journalists Barry McCaffrey (left) and Trevor Birney (right) were awarded damages (PA)

In 2018, Barry McCaffrey and Trevor Birney were controversially arrested as part of a police investigation into the alleged leaking of a confidential document that appeared in a documentary they made on a Troubles massacre.

The Police Service of Northern Ireland later unreservedly apologised for how the men had been treated and agreed to pay £875,000 in damages to the journalists and the film company behind the documentary.

In 2019, Mr Birney and Mr McCaffrey lodged a complaint with the IPT asking it to establish whether there had been any unlawful surveillance of them.

The tribunal is also probing two other instances of police surveillance against Mr McCaffrey in 2013 and 2011. It sat for a brief hearing in February and is due to resume its work later in the year.

It is understood information suggesting Mr Kearney might also have been subject to surveillance emerged during the disclosure processes related to Mr McCaffrey and Mr Birney’s case.

A BBC spokesperson 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 2011 Spotlight programme examined allegations that the independence of the office of the Police Ombudsman had been compromised and that it was not investigating complaints about police misconduct, including allegations of collusion, with sufficient rigour.

Ombudsman Al Hutchinson rejected claims his investigations lacked independence. He resigned in January 2012.

Commenting on the claims of police surveillance against him, Mr 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.”

Last month, the PSNI delivered a report on surveillance of journalists and lawyers to its oversight body, the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

However, the document on surveillance practices will not be made public.

The board’s human rights adviser will be granted access to material the report is based on, and PSNI Chief Constable Jon Boutcher has committed to the production of a second report, which will be made public.

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Seamus Dooley, assistant general secretary of the National Union of Journalists, called for a full inquiry into the surveillance claims (PA)

Mr Boutcher told the Policing Board on Thursday that the force would “absolutely cooperate” with all due process in examining and scrutinising the case.

He said: “This morning I was aware of allegations that the BBC are now making to the IPT, a body by the way that I supported in the past to make sure policing and police forces are transparent.

“I am aware there are concerns about Vincent Kearney the journalist.

“Vincent Kearney, I have enormous regard for him professionally and personally.”

The National Union of Journalists welcomed the intervention by the BBC.

Seamus Dooley, NUJ assistant general secretary, called for a full inquiry into the claims.

“Vincent Kearney is a journalist of the utmost integrity,” he said.

“His investigation into the Office of the Police Ombudsman was an outstanding example of public service journalism with significant consequences. It raised fundamental questions about the operation of an independent office and the manner in which the office was being operated.”

Mr Dooley added: “The fact that Vincent Kearney’s programme was about the Office of the Police Ombudsmen makes the apparent decision to place him under surveillance in order to uncover sources all the more disturbing.”

On a separate issue, Mr Dooley also raised concerns about the PSNI practice of trying to obtain footage secured by media outlets by seeking court production orders.

“This suggests that, despite improved communications and relationships, the leadership of the PSNI has yet to fully comprehend the independent role of the press and the vital importance of source protection,” he added.

Amnesty International and the Committee on the Administration of Justice (CAJ) also welcomed the BBC decision to contact to tribunal.

Patrick Corrigan, Amnesty International’s Northern Ireland director, said the move was a “step in the right direction”.

“We urge other journalists and media outlets to make complaints to the tribunal if they are concerned of secret surveillance by the PSNI,” he said.

“Freedom of the press, including the right to protect sources, is a cornerstone of any rights-respecting society.

“We are determined to get to the bottom of this police spying scandal, to discover how widespread this practice has been and to ensure it never happens again.”

Daniel Holder, director of CAJ, added: “This issue of the extent and lawfulness of PSNI surveillance on journalists, lawyers and potentially other members of civil society really needs nailed now.

“Full accountability for these practices in the recent past is the only way of ensuring they do not continue to happen.”