Chief Constable Jon Boutcher said: “Recently there has been extensive inaccurate reporting relating to documents disclosed in proceedings in an Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). 

“Normally, I would make no comment regarding ongoing tribunal proceedings however, in this instance, the inaccurate interpretation of the documents has given rise to serious public concern about the use or abuse of police powers. The reporting is continuing, and it is unsustainable for me as Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) to make no comment. I want to put the record straight and correct the inaccurate assessment of these documents. 

“The public concern arises from the misinterpretation of documents made available in redacted form at the Tribunal, at least one of which was subsequently published. 

“One document refers to what is described as a ‘defensive operation’ conducted by the PSNI. Media outlets and commentators have interpreted this term to mean that the routine and covert surveillance of journalists in Northern Ireland took place and in particular, the monitoring of their phones. This interpretation is wrong.

“The term ‘defensive operation’ was the description given at a meeting by a PSNI Professional Standards Anti-Corruption officer to describe a routine Professional Standards practice.

“One of the tasks of PSNI’s Professional Standards Department Anti-Corruption Unit (PSD) is to detect and deter any illicit or illegal communications by police officers and staff. Corruption in any form is a hugely serious matter. Leaking information to the media can endanger police operations and put lives at risk. 

“One method of identifying and deterring illegal contact with journalists is for PSD to carry out periodic checks on phone calls made from police telephone extensions and police-issued mobile phones. The numbers called are checked against the numbers held by PSNI for journalists. There is nothing covert about this procedure.  The journalists’ numbers are either ones that are publicly available or are ones that the journalists have themselves supplied to PSNI as contact numbers. If an unexplained call is discovered, PSD send an email to the user of the PSNI extension, asking for an explanation.

“To further reassure people, this practice is absolutely not about identifying 

whistle-blowers, for which there are very clear legal protections for those who are motivated to make public interest disclosures. However, if a police officer or staff member is involved in serious criminality, we have a duty to the public to investigate this. 

The document that refers to a ‘defensive operation’ also contains a list of eight redacted names. Members of the media have speculated, incorrectly, that those are the names of journalists being targeted through surveillance. In fact, the names relate to a completely different matter. The names are not those of journalists. For obvious reasons of privacy, and to protect police operations, those names have not been made public.

“There has also been speculation from further disclosure of IPT material that the PSNI similarly targeted lawyers through unlawful surveillance. The speculation arises from the disclosure of two pages of notes handwritten by an officer from Durham Constabulary. The notes cover a variety of topics. The officer wrote down two initials, followed by an indecipherable word that begins with the letters ‘ph’. On the following page (with several other notes in between), he wrote the words, ‘legal, proportionate and necessary’. From these pieces of information, journalists appear to have concluded that the monitoring of the telephone of a journalist’s legal representative was considered to be lawful.

“The notes themselves do not give any suggestion that surveillance of a lawyer’s phone was being considered. We have checked with the officer who wrote the notes who has confirmed that the interpretation is entirely wrong and no such activity occurred or was considered.

“I have decided to issue this statement to provide clarity regarding these disclosures. The documents described have been made available in unredacted form to the IPT, which will consider them fully at its hearing in October. I ask that this process be respected.

“In addition to providing this clarity on documents issued through the IPT, a report on the PSNI use of covert investigative powers in relation to journalists and lawyers (outside of the issues being examined by the IPT) has now been shared with the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

“The report has been written in such a way as to enable its release for publication, to provide further reassurance to the public about the PSNI use of surveillance powers. I do not intend to make any further comment on the ongoing IPT proceedings or the contents of the report issued to the Board.”

Chief Constable Boutcher concluded: “To add further reassurance, and in line with my statutory duties to report to the Board, I have also appointed Angus McCullough KC to conduct an independent review of any PSNI use of surveillance against journalists, lawyers and Non-Governmental Organisations or any groups that have special status. His role will not extend to anything that is currently within the scope of the IPT proceedings. 

“The terms of reference of the ‘McCullough Review’ will be published. To provide public confidence in this review a group of respected experts and stakeholders will be consulted about these terms of reference to ensure the commissioning of the review – and thereafter its work - properly examines any additional relevant matters of concern. The group and its members are not accountable for this independent review; that sits entirely with me as Chief Constable; their role is to advise and provide direction to the work of the reviewer.   

It is intended that the Group of Experts and Stakeholders will consist of:

  1. Baroness Nuala O’Loan
  2. Martha Spurrier BL
  3. Patrick Corrigan, Northern Ireland Programme Director at Amnesty International UK
  4. Daniel Holder, Director of Committee on the Administration of Justice
  5. Alyson Kilpatrick BL, Chief Commissioner of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission
  6. David A Lavery CB, Chief Executive of the Law Society of Northern Ireland
  7. Seamus Dooley, Assistant General Secretary of the National Union of Journalists

“Angus McCullough KC is recognised as a leading Special Advocate in practice in the United Kingdom.  It is proposed that he would engage closely with the reference group in performing his role.

“Mr McCullough KC will provide a public-facing report of his findings when the review is finished and during this work he will be available to the Northern Ireland Policing Board to report on the progress of the review.”