A member of the London Assembly has called on mayor Boris Johnson to introduce a “public interest test” to prevent the Metropolitan Police from targeting whistleblowers in press leak investigations.
In a report published yesterday, Jenny Jones also accused Johnson – watchdog for the Met – of “turning a blind eye” to police abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to access journalists' phone records (Jones and Johnson pictured above, Reuters).
Press Gazette revealed in September that the Met had used RIPA to secretly obtain the phone records of The Sun's political editor and newsdesk as part of its Plebgate leak investigation.
Johnson initially defended the force's use of RIPA before admitting he hadn't studied the case "in great detail".
He performed a full U-turn later at a press ball, saying that the police should have to obtain "judicial approval" to access journalists' phone records.
In recent months, it has also emerged that the Met:
- Conducted more than 61 press leak investigations in the six years to the end of the Leveson Inquiry
- Kept more than 2,000 records relating to journalists on an anti-extremist database
- And accessed more than 1,700 News UK phone records mistakenly provided by Vodafone.
These abuses were highlighted in Baroness Jones’s report, in which she calls on Johnson, as Police and Crime Commissioner of London, to:
- Lobby Government for the complete reform of RIPA
- Ask far more detailed questions about the use of RIPA by the Met
- Dip sample the RIPA requests that are made to assess if PACE [the Police and Criminal Evidence Act] or other means could or should have been used instead
- Introduce a public interest test, assessed by someone independent of the police, which must be satisfied before a press leak investigation is launched, to ensure investigations are targeted at inappropriate media leaks and not whistleblowers exposing genuine wrongdoing in the police
- Retain the service of a retired judge who could advise the Met if they are to make applications under RIPA. This should stand until the Government reforms RIPA and introduces judicial oversight.
All 11 of Jones’s recommendations, which are also concerned with undercover policing, can be found in her Surveillance State report.
On the Met’s use of RIPA to obtain the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn, she said: “There are some occasions where the police may need to obtain material form a journalist.
"However, in those circumstances they can apply through section 9 of the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) which goes before a judge and means the journalist is informed and able to argue their case.”
She said that while the police use of RIPA in this case “complied” with the RIPA law as it is drafted, the act was “not intended to be used to obtain journalistic material”.
Jones added: “I believe the Met are bending the rules – they are sticking to the letter of the law but not the spirit, and at the same time expanding their powers.
“It is for the Mayor and others scrutinising the police to ensure the police do not overreach.”
Press Gazette has seen a letter from the Met’s assistant commissioner Cressida Dick, dated 6 October 2014, in which she told Jones that journalists’ phone records are not privileged material.
Dick said: “Communications Data [phone records] generated by Communication Service Providers [phone companies, for instance] are business records.
“They do not contain any details of what was said or written by the sender or the recipient of the communication.
“As such, the communications data retained by the Communication Service Providers do not contain any material that may be said to be of professional or legal privilege – the fact that a communication took place does not provide what was discussed, considered or advised.”
Jones also suggested in her report that the use of RIPA to find the Plebgate story leakers would put off other whistleblowers from coming forward.
“It is important for the public and the police that whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing have the confidence to come forward and not fear retribution for doing so,” she said.
“In these cases, where what has been exposed is in the public interest, it is not appropriate for the Met to go after the individual.
“The Mayor has been unable to provide me with a single example of the Met officer or staff who was happy with their treatment after they became a whistleblower.”
Jones has also asked Johnson to find out whether the Met have used RIPA to obtain the phone records of journalists in other press leak investigations.