Tuesday 27 September 2016

Phone-snooping furore places GSOC in the public spotlight once again

Published 19/01/2016 | 02:30

Former GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien
Former GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien

The revelations about snooping on the phone records of journalists is the third major controversy to engulf the embattled garda watchdog in just two years.

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It comes on the back of the garda "bugging" scandal and the tragic death by suicide of a garda sergeant who was under GSOC investigation.

Take the "bugging" affair. GSOC hired experts to do a sweep of its offices on the back of rather flimsy indicators that it may have been bugged.

It was a decision which, when details leaked in February 2014, threatened to irreparably damage GSOC's already fraught relationship with the force.

The matter was compounded by the issuance of a statement which was interpreted as suggesting garda involvement.

Mutual distrust between both organisations reached an all-time high, with rank and file gardaí calling for the head of then GSOC chairman Simon O'Brien.

An official inquiry ruled there was no basis for the bugging suspicions.

The failure of GSOC management to ensure a garda sergeant was informed he had been cleared of any wrongdoing in a case where a woman was killed by a passing vehicle is another sign of poor judgment.

The officer took his own life a day after being exonerated, unaware of the outcome. Given the pressure gardaí must feel under when investigated by GSOC, it is inexcusable that those found innocent are not immediately informed.

On the back of these two scandals, the phone-snooping furore has once again placed GSOC in the public spotlight.

By law, phones records should only be accessed for the purposes of the prevention, detection, investigation or prosecution of a serious offence, the safeguarding of the security of the State, and the safeguarding of human life.

This is the law GSOC used to trawl the phone records of reporters who allegedly received leaks from the probe into the death of model Katy French.

While leaking by gardaí is defined as a serious offence, it is questionable whether this particular investigation warranted the infringement of the rights of journalists to protect their sources.

GSOC's media handling of the current controversy has also been pretty mind-boggling. Indeed a spokeswoman told the Irish Independent last week she was "not authorised" to make any comment.

Even general queries on GSOC procedures were ignored, as were requests for interviews with any of the watchdog's three commissioners.

This lack of accountability is simply breathtaking.

Irish Independent

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