Thursday 27 October 2016

Do I have to resort to using a 'burner' after garda watchdog got my phone records?

Herald reporter Conor Feehan
Herald reporter Conor Feehan
Garda Ombudsman office

News that the Garda Siochana Ombudsman Commission has been trawling through my phone records, and those of another journalist, not only angers me, but should anger all those who believe in free speech.

I consider it an attack on me as a private citizen, on my livelihood and my right to work.

People have a right to bring complaints to GSOC, and I have no problem with that - but the manner in which GSOC go about their business is something that now has to be questioned.

After all, it was a mighty high horse they straddled and preached from two years ago when they had suspicions that their own phones were being tapped by gardai.


But that doesn't seem to have stopped them picking through my phone records, pulling out the personal numbers of my family and friends, putting two and two together and getting eight.

We have to stand up to practices that feel like they belong in East Berlin in the 1950s, not just as journalists but as a people who believe in a free press.

The right of a journalist to protect their sources is one that has been defended for as long as printing presses have been stamping ink onto newspapers.

In any democracy there is a need for press freedom to inform the public of what is going on in the world.

Sometimes it is straightforward. You report what you see, what witnesses and spokespersons tell you, and the information that comes from official press offices or the emergency services.

Other times it is more complex. People may have information that they know is in the public interest but they want to remain anonymous to protect their personal safety, their job, a relationship or a reputation.

The job of a journalist is to take this information when it is supplied to them, verify it independently and possibly print it if it is indeed in the public interest.

The assurance that is given is that the journalist won't reveal the source. It is a relationship built on a trust that journalists have gone to prison to defend in the past.

Recently I received information that my mobile phone, and possibly an email account, were accessed by GSOC as part of their investigations into a complaint made by a member of the public.

The person claimed a member of the force gave the media information about him.

On the face of it, it appears that the garda watchdog accessed my phone records for a period of time in 2013 and picked through every telephone number I was in contact with, or who was in contact with me, and then went through a process of finding out from all these numbers who might have supplied me with information.


The time and money spent on this task must have been enormous. On any day I make and receive scores of calls on my phone both in work and in my personal life.

All of these numbers must have been investigated by GSOC, teased out, examined, identified, checked and labelled.

My wife's, my parent's, my brother's, my sister's and everybody else's numbers had the heat of a GSOC spotlight on them for all I know.

One of the first things that struck me on hearing that my phone records may have been accessed, was just how paranoid GSOC must be.

First, they assumed someone had supplied me with information that might concern this member of the public. Secondly, they jumped to the conclusion it was a garda.

I know gardai. I know gardai not only because I deal with them every day of the week through work, but because I have friends who are gardai.

I know lots of other people too. People from all walks of life.

I have a life outside of work, as does everyone, and I have friends outside of work, as does everyone. Some of my friends are gardai, an organisation I have massive respect for - my grandfather was a garda who joined the force as it was being first established.

What annoys me most is that friends of mine have been contacted by GSOC for no more reason than their phone numbers were on my phone, and they have been asked questions.

Am I living in a modern progressive democracy, or am I living in some sort of Communist regime where Big Brother is monitoring my phone and email and at any moment I might get a tap on the shoulder from some sort of Stasi officer?


Worse still, could any of my friends or family get a similar tap on the shoulder to be asked to explain why they know me and what we have discussed in the past?

And where does the ability of journalists, not just me, in doing their job lie in the light of all of this? Who will contact a journalist if they think that, despite an assurance from the reporter that they will remain anonymous, GSOC or some paranoid busybody could start trawling the journalist's phone looking for them, wondering what they had for breakfast?

Maybe that would suit the State - a distrust between the public and journalists.

Maybe now I have to resort to disposable mobile phones, multiple SIM cards, pay-as-you-go anonymity - just like Nidge, Fran and Elmo in Love/Hate - just like a common criminal.

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