Agenda reveals council has power to spy on journalists

Buss: surprised by bugging threat

Town halls could have the power to spy on journalists, according to a footnote discovered in a council agenda.

Worthing BoroughCouncil, in West Sussex, has revealed that journalists could apparently be subject to covert surveillance, according to recently published documents.

The council says it has just brought in national guidelines contained in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. This raises the possibility that journalists across the country could be under threat from council snoopers.

The council cabinet published a paper titled Surveillance Policy and Procedure this week. Under a section headed Confidential Information it said: “Some information is likely to be particularly confidential or sensitive, including confidential journalistic material. Where such information is likely to be obtained, the authorisation should only be granted in exceptional and compelling circumstances.”

Worthing Herald editor Jon Buss said the report came as a surprise to him and commented: “We are very concerned at the can of worms that this opens. I didn’t realise that little old Worthing Council took matters of surveillance and bugging so seriously. It’s more like MI5 than a borough council.

“We are responding by firing in a lot of questions to them and we will be very interested to hear the answers. If they ever wanted to bug our offices, they would be wasting their time because they probably know already the kind of conversations we are having about them.

“If they consider someone giving confidential information to the press as a potential crime, then that could be something they could order surveillance for.”

Buss said there were concerns that such surveillance could be used to track down the source of damaging leaks to the council. Over the last year his paper has run a series of stories highlighting alleged bullying, sexism and racism at a senior level in the council.

The council guidance states that surveillance should only be used if “necessary for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime or for preventing disorder”. But another concerned local journalist said: “Isn’t that the job of the police?” Worthing Council assistant director of legal services, Bill Johnson, said council use of covert surveillance was “fairly rare” and involved matters such as prevention of fly tipping and benefit fraud.

He said: “Councils across the country do this from time to time. All we are doing is updating our policies in this regard.”

Johnson said that the section on confidential journalistic sources was included as part of the code to warn officers that they needed to be “particularly careful if they are considering monitoring journalists”. He also commented that the council was just following Home Office guidance and said: “It’s a fairly standard thing.”

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By Dominic Ponsford

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