300 police media leak probes in five years – forces refuse to reveal how many involved RIPA spying

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Police forces across the UK conducted 302 media leak investigations in a five-year period – many of which may have involved use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly view journalists' phone records.

The Metropolitan Police (commissioner Hogan-Howe pictured above, Reuters) and Suffolk Police have already said their use of RIPA to evidence journalists' phone records in leak probes was "proportionate" and "appropriate".

Press Gazette has asked all the forces concerned with the other leak inquiries about RIPA use against journalists in these historic, closed, investigations and has met with a wall of silence on the issue.

But analysis of police evidence to the Leveson Inquiry suggests that RIPA surveillance is a tool which forces would have used when investigating leaks to the media.

Some 151 of the 302 leak probes were referred to by nine chief constables in evidence to the Leveson Inquiry of 2011/2012, with Strathclyde Police alone conducting 45 in the five years running up to that point.

The second most prolific leak probe force was the Metropolitan Police, which Press Gazette revealed last week had investigated 38 alleged improper disclosures to the media.

A well-placed source with knowledge of police matters told Press Gazette that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act would have been used in the "vast majority" of the Met probes.

Police force Number of press leak investigations in five years to Leveson Inquiry
Strathclyde 45
Metropolitan 38
Avon and Somerset 20
West Midlands 15
Cumbria 11
British Transport 9
Suffolk 5
Northern Ireland 5
South Wales 3

As well as being asked to say how many press leak investigations their forces had conducted in the five years leading up to the Leveson Inquiry (figures right), the chief constables were also told to describe the systems and procedures they have in place to investigate.

One force provided a presentation to staff that mentioned RIPA, while others appeared to hint at the use of the act and said that specific departments – usually known as Professional Standards – deal with the investigations.

Several police submissions to the Leveson Inquiry made reference to the 2011 Without Fear Or Favour report, by Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary, which was commissioned by Home Secretary Theresa May in the aftermath of the phone-hacking scandal.

This revealed that in the five years leading up to 2011 police forces across the UK conducted 302 investigations into "inappropriate information disclosures" to the media. Of these, 58 resulted in action being taken and 63 were ongoing. In this period there were also 12 investigations into "inappropriate relationships" with the media.

Yesterday, Press Gazette contacted the nine police forces which disclosed press leak investigations at the Leveson Inquiry and asked whether RIPA was, would or could have been used in these probes to view journalists' phone records.

Every police force in the UK that has responded so far (41) has rejected Press Gazette's Freedom of Information Act requests for information on the use of RIPA against journalists. 

Some 26 have cited cost exemptions, 15 "national security" and five have so far failed to respond, despite the requests being submitted on 11 September and there being a 20-day deadline in law.

Three forces have now also rejected an FoI to disclose how many press leak inquiries have been conducted over the last ten years. City of London Police rejected on the grounds that it has recieved too many FoI requests from Press Gazette over the last 60 days, and Durham and North Wales forces cited cost exemptions, saying the information was not easily retrievable.

However, all UK forces have been told to provide information to the Interception of Communications Commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, on the use of RIPA against journalists after an inquiry was announced on 6 October following the launch of Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign and petition. Signed by more than 1,200 journalists and press freedom campaigners, it calls on the commissioner to ensure public authorities do not use RIPA to secretly obtain journalists' phone records.


Nine police forces, five years, 151 leak probes

Chief constable Stephen House (right) of Strathclyde Police told the Leveson Inquiry in 2012 of 45 press leak investigations conducted over five years.

Of these, one led to an officer being reported to the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service, 29 were unsubstantiated, eight were disproved and seven were, at the time, “subject to review in the event that further evidence may come to light”.

He told Leveson that the force's Counter Corruption Unit was put in place in 2002 to work closely with the press office to monitor "media reporting to identify, and try to prevent, incident of confidential information from being passed to the media from 'police forces'".

Strathclyde Police has since merged in to Police Scotland. A spokesperson said: “Sir Paul Kennedy is enquiring into the Police use of RIPA powers, the findings of which will be reported publicly. It would be inappropriate for Police Scotland to comment further”.

Metropolitan Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe revealed at the Leveson Inquiry that 38 suspected press leaks had been investigated over the five-year period.

According to a well-placed source, RIPA would have been used to seize phone records in the "vast majority" of cases.

Hogan-Howe revealed his force is "one of the few organisations which has established an independent command to deal exclusively with both overt and covert complaints and investigations".

His predecessors, Sir Paul Stephenson and Lord Ian Blair, also described the systems in place in their submissions, with the latter describing "examination of telephone records" as "the only proper way to deal with" press leak investigations.

A Met Police spokesperson said: "We are not prepared to discuss when, or when not, covert policing tactics have been used in an investigation."

Any suspected leak at Avon and Somerset Police is "robustly investigated", then chief constable Colin Port told the inquiry.

He said the force's Professional Standards Department Internal Investigations Unit carried out 20 probes in the five years leading up to the Leveson Inquiry.

On 14 occasions, no police leak was found, four led to disciplinary action, in one case “no offender has been traced” and the final investigation – into a leak to the Daily Mail in the Joanna Yeates murder story – was ongoing.

A document provided to the inquiry showed that the leaks investigation unit can use RIPA to investigate leaks (picture below).

Press Gazette asked Avon and Somerset Police whether RIPA had been used in these 20 investigations, and specifically whether it had been used to probe a media leak made during the Joanna Yeates murder inquiry of January 2011. That leak probe was prompted by a Daily Mail story which made reference to certain items of clothing being missing when her body was found.

A spokesperson said: "Former Chief Constable Colin Port’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry is a matter of public record, both the statement and the text of Mr Port’s oral evidence.

"The powers available to us under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) form part of the general array of tools available to the police.

"Comment on specific instances where such powers may or may not have been used would be inappropriate and in some cases expressly prohibited by statue."

West Midlands Police chief constable Chris Sims told the Leveson Inquiry 15 press leak investigations were conducted in his force.

The sources of the leaks were established in 11 of the cases, resulting in one written warning and one management action.

The force has so far declined to comment.

Met deputy commissioner Craig Mackey – who admitted earlier this month that, as a rule, RIPA would be used to obtain journalists' phone records rather than going through a judge – gave evidence on behalf of Cumbria Police, which he was chief constable of in the five years leading up to the inquiry.

He revealed that there were 11 press leak investigations in the period. In three cases, the leak sources were identified and disciplined.

The force has so far declined to comment.

British Transport Police chief constable Andy Trotter (right) – who this month defended police use of RIPA against The Sun and Mail on Sunday – revealed that nine press leak investigations had been undertaken in the five-year period.

In eight cases, the source of the leak was not found and in the ninth the leaker was given whistleblowing protection.

On the systems in place, he said: “Currently there is a proactive monitoring system in place to detect certain email addresses associated with media companies and monitor emails that enter or leave the organisation’s secure computer network. These emails are reviewed for potential leakage and investigated as appropriate.”

He added: “Should a leak be detected an investigation will be commenced by the Antiu-Corruption Unit. The team will carry out proportionate enquiries including business systems monitoring (when an individual or series of individuals may be responsible), telephone enquiries and , when necessary, deploy overt and/or covert tactics.”

Suffolk Police’s chief constable of the time, Simon Ash, told the Leveson Inquiry of a press leak inquiry that Press Gazette has since revealed involved use of RIPA to obtain the phone records of a former Ipswich Star journalist, Mark Bulstrode.

In the 2006 Bulstrode case, the journalist had approached the force with a story on the reopening of a rape case. Despite the fact the paper chose not to run the story on police advice, the force found the source of the leak and the staff member was spoken to. Ash appeared to describe this as "telephone work".

On the powers investigators had, he said: “The [Anti-Corruption Investigatory Unit] has the technical capability to research all force telephone systems to identify calls of concern. It also has the technical capability to covertly monitor any force computer to establish if any external communications are inappropriate.”

Ash also revealed four further press leak investigations in the years leading up to the Leveson Inquiry.  

The second leak investigation, also in 2006, related to a local media story that an officer had been caught drink driving. In this case, no suspect was identified.

In 2009, a third leak probe was launched, but no suspect identified, after a local media story about resourcing levels in Ipswich.

Two further investigations were undertaken in 2011. The first was launched after a local media story that an investigation was ongoing into a serving police officer “possessing images of child pornography”. No suspect was identified.

The second 2011 probe was launched after details of a force restructure were seemingly leaked. This led to more than one staff member being suspect, but there was judged to be “insufficient evidence to bring misconduct proceedings against any individuals”.

A spokesperson referred Press Gazette back to an FoI refusal letter. They added: "The letter is self-explanatory in relation to the timescales required to find this information, therefore we are unable to provide you with a response under a routine media enquiry directly to the press office."

Chief constable Matthew Baggott of the Police Service of Northern Ireland told the Leveson Inquiry his force’s anti-corruption unit in the Professional Standards Department had a “range of overt and covert investigative techniques”.

In the five years leading up to the inquiry, he said there were five press leak investigations.

Baggott said that in one of the cases an officer was fined after sending a text message to a journalist “providing his opinion on the anticipated level of disorder in a forthcoming operation”.

The second related to “an officer making allegations to a newspaper about the personal activities of their partner (also a police officer), in the context of a domestic dispute”. This resulted in reduced pay for the officer.

A third officer received a written warning for “providing unauthorised briefings to the press following an incident”.

In the fourth investigation, an officer was found not to have been in contact with the media and a fifth investigation was ongoing at the time.

The force has so far declined to comment.

South Wales Police investigated three suspected leaks in the timeframe.

Chief constable Peter Vaughan (right) said: “South Wales Police have a well resourced and dedicated Anti Corruption Unit who have high levels of capability and capacity to investigate issues of this nature.”

In a written submission he said the force had software allowing auditing of: internal computer systems, “handheld portable devices e.g. Blackberry’s”, “internal and external e-mails” and “telephone calls made into and out of the Force estate”. He also said it enabled: “Recording and auditing of texts and e-mails sent from hand held Blackberry’s”.

“The Anti Corruption Unit in appropriate circumstances will also use other forms of covert tactics to support investigations where the unauthorised disclosure of information is suspected,” he said.

“These tactics will include lawful business monitoring of telephone calls from landlines and other covert monitoring surveillance methods.”

He added: “The Anti Corruption Unit are proactive and conduct speculative auditing of our Force systems. This auditing can be directed at areas of vulnerability e.g. the auditing of which staff have accessed the computer details of a police incident which is likely to attract media attention e.g. the arrest of a local celebrity.

“It should be noted that the Anti Corruption Unit within South Wales Police have an excellent working relationship with the Independent Police Complaints Commission ("IPCC") and maintain structured communication with them at all stages of relevant investigations.”

He said that all three of the leak inquiries were launched “after information was received to suggest that following the arrest of a serving or a former officer’s arrest, certain information was leaked to the media”.

Two of the probes were unsubstantiated while the third was ongoing at the time.

The force has so far declined to comment.

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