Confirmed: Met Police obtained phone records of three Sun journalists as part of Operation Alice

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The Metropolitan Police has admitted to using Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly obtain the phone records of three Sun journalists and the paper's newsdesk as part of its Plebgate investigation.

Previously, the force told Press Gazette and others that its "use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice" was "outlined" in the investigation's 56-page closing report.

Published in September 2014, this revealed that telecommunications data was taken, under RIPA, from the phone of political editor Tom Newton Dunn and The Sun newsdesk to find its sources.

When later asked whether other phone records were obtained, the force said: “We do not routinely confirm the individual cases where we make an application under RIPA.

"As part of Operation Alice the MPS took the unusual step of publicising a summary report of this investigation. That report confirmed where RIPA applications were made to obtain call data from a media organisation.

"Our use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice is outlined in this report."

The same statement was issued in November when Press Gazette asked, via the Freedom of Information Act, whether the phone records of The Daily Telegraph were targeted under RIPA.

However, in January, Press Gazette and The Times separately established that two other Sun journalists, crime reporter Anthony France and political correspondent Craig Woodhouse, were also targeted.

The Met did not confirm this at the time, but has now done so through its watchdog, Boris Johnson – who, as Mayor of London, is head of the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC).

As part of Mayor's Question Time, Green London Assembly member Jenny Jones made a number of information requests to Johnson.

Jones also asked Johnson whether he believed the Met had misled Press Gazette in response to questions about RIPA. He said it had not.

Jones, who is also a member of the House of Lords, said: “At best, the Met isn’t painting the full picture and at worst has been deliberately misleading about their use of RIPA on journalists.

"The Met has been using its surveillance powers to snoop on journalists and the Mayor is content to turn a blind eye, rather than standing up for civil liberties.“

In his responses, the Mayor:

  • Refused to provide a copy of Met information provided to the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office as part of its inquiry into police use of RIPA to find journalists' sources
  • Confirmed that three Sun journalists' phone records were secretly obtained by the Met as part of Operation Alice
  • Refused to confirm that satellite technology was used to "track the movements of journalists' phones" as part of this investigation
  • Confirmed that the phone records of The Daily Telegraph were not obtained under RIPA as part of Operation Alice
  • Denied that the Met had "misled" Press Gazette in response to questions about uses of RIPA not mentioned in the Plebgate closing report.

Below are a selection of questions Jones asked Johnson, with his responses.

Jones: "In light of the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO) recommendation that police forces should require judicial approval to access journalistic records under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, will the Metropolitan Police be seeking to do this in the coming months, before this becomes law? Please explain how the system will be adapted in light of the recommendation."

Johnson: "I am pleased that the IOCCO has agreed with my call for judicial approval of this kind. It is now for national procedures to be formulated.

"The MPS are party to these consideration and will work in tandem with the national ACPO policing lead to ensure this is delivered."

Jones: "Please provide a copy of the Metropolitan Police's submission to the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office as part of its inquiry into police use of RIPA to find journalistic sources?"

Johnson: "The MPS response to IOCCO contains operationally sensitive material and would not be disseminated in public, the IOCCO Inspection was carried out by Inspectors visiting the force and physically looking at applications and authorities given under RIPA.  The findings contained within the report do take account of the MPS submission."

Jones: "How many journalists' phone records were accessed by the Metropolitan Police as part of Operation Alice?"

Johnson: "The phone records of three journalists were accessed by the MPS as part of Operation Alice.  There are now complaints being investigated by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, who will examine in detail these applications.  As such it would be inappropriate to comment further."

Jones: "Please confirm that the Metropolitan Police accessed the phone records of the three Sun journalists as reported in the press?"

Johnson: "Please see my response [above]."

Jones: "Was any communications data associated with The Daily Telegraph also obtained as part of Operation Alice?"

Johnson: "No."

Jones: "If, as part of Operation Alice, the Metropolitan Police Service used RIPA to obtain the phone records of journalists and media organisations beyond those detailed in the investigation report, would you accept that the below statement issued to Press Gazette by the Met press office and through an FOI response, is misleading?

"We do not routinely confirm the individual cases where we make an application under RIPA. As part of Operation Alice the MPS took the unusual step of publicising a summary report of this investigation. That report confirmed where RIPA applications were made to obtain call data from a media organisation. Our use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice is outlined in this report." 

Johnson: "No. The MPS does not routinely confirm individual cases where an application is made under RIPA."

Jones: "Please confirm whether the Metropolitan Police used satellite technology to track the movements of journalists' phones as part of Operation Alice?"

Johnson: "In order to maintain operational effectiveness the MPS will neither confirm nor deny where sensitive police tactics may be used."

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