Family links raise concerns over spooks

SENSITIVITIES over the surveillance of journalists have affected local title journalists more directly in the last month than ever before.

Security specialist Duncan Campbell has informally warned that attempts to cover and follow-up stories about the death of a Dewsbury teenager in a suicide bomb in Iraq and the disappearance of three mothers and their children from Bradford could attract the attention of security services – and not just those in the UK.

Enthusiastic, imaginative and legitimate journalistic efforts to produce background features to try to explain what has happened and why, does have an international context that could well attract interest from the “spooks” interested only in their counter-terrorism (“CT”) mission – and not just agencies from the UK. Think Mossad, CIA, and almost any other nation with the eavesdropping technology.

“If you’re making phone calls, going online or particularly using Skype to find sources you could use for such pieces, those exchanges are unlikely to be as confidential as you might hope,” said Duncan. “You could find yourself unwittingly doing some of the security services’ legwork for them.”

“Those listening to and perhaps stealing or exploiting your research could include agencies in the US and Middle East as well as GCHQ.”

“You should,” Duncan Campbell added, “be aware of this and you may want to alert anyone who seems helpful that they too should know that what you say to one another may not be as private as you would like.

“Think of it like being overheard while chatting on a train or in a pub (and how many of us have got stories ourselves that way?).”

Of particular interest could be connections of the families of the 17-year-old from Dewsbury and the mothers from Bradford, especially if such people are politically active, either in the UK or overseas.

Material produced by BBC Radio Leeds was used widely by network radio news programmes with Liz Green presenting an edition of the station’s breakfast show live from Bradford’s Centenary Square just days after both stories broke.

“While surveillance has previously seemed a concern for expert correspondents, especially those working on or specialist national titles, the international nature of incidents directly affecting families in West Yorkshire brings the concerns closer to home,” said NUJ joint president Adam Christie.

These wider implications were also brought to the attention of John McDonnell MP as a member of the NUJ’s parliamentary group during last month’s meeting of the union’s national executive council.

The emergence of the concerns came soon after the publication of the review into investigatory powers by David Anderson QC following concerns raised during the last parliament about journalists’ data being accessed to try to identify sources.

Clauses in the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act (Dripa) means that further legislation is needed to allay some of the greatest potential threats to journalism – and the parliamentary group will continue to lobby for, in particular, journalists to be informed when applications for access are made together with judicial oversight and a built-in appeals procedure.

The specific concerns for local journalists were circulated to the union’s newspapers council. Council member and Guardian father-of-chapel Brian Williams said it was important to learn from the Edward Snowden experience, adding: “If you are meeting a contact who wishes to remain anonymous (such as a whistleblower) do not take your mobile phone with you, and instruct them to do likewise.”

Duncan Campbell’s work as an investigative journalist specialising in security and surveillance came to wide attention in the 1980s with his work on BBC Scotland’s highly controversial Secret Society documentary series.

This report first appeared in News Leeds, the newsletter of the Leeds branch of the National Union of Journalists in July 2015.

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