Cracks are appearing in the dam of silence over police spying on journalists and their sources

One month on from Press Gazette’s first revelation that the Met Police had secretly seized the phone records of The Sun we have more questions than answers.

The Met declines to reveal how often it seizes the phone records of law-abiding journalists in order to expose sources who haven’t broken any law.

Amazingly, it appears to be so blasé about hacking journalists phone records that it keeps not special record of doing so.

But it insists the use of such powers is “appropriate and lawful”. Leading media law QC Gavin Millar QC disagrees.

He describes the use of RIPA against law-abiding journalists and their sources as "completely illegal".

Nearly 1,000 journalists, editors and press freedom campaigners also agree that if a policeman wants to see a journalists’ telecoms records (mobile or landline) they should ask a judge first. They’ve signed up to the Save Our Sources petition asking the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office to take action.

Will he? It’s not looking likely. His office's response to the Press Gazette campaign was to point out that it has  already announced an investigation into use of RIPA and that in any case he doesn’t keep details of individual RIPA requests.

That investigation was first announced in February and won’t appear until next April.

We know nothing about the scope of that investigation so don’t hold your breath on that turning anything up. There is very little detail in the IOCCO annual report about the scope of the 500,000 odd RIPA requests for telecoms data made by public authorities every year.

I’ve pressed the Met further. Trying a more conciliatory approach I sent this email to the force's press office:

Do you think there is any chance you will providing any comment on the issues raised by the Save Our Sources campaign?

Perhaps you might like to put a senior officer forward to talk more about police use of RIPA etc. ?

There is a huge amount of concern about RIPA surveillance of journalists and the suggestion that unauthorised contact between police officers and journalists has been somehow criminalised.

Myself and many other journalists find this tremendously sad and concerning. In the past journalists have seen their role as largely working hand in hand with police officers to solve crime and protect the public.

I think most police officers would agree that the media has an important role to play in helping the police solve crime. It is very difficult for this to happen when there is so little trust between police and journalists as currently appears to the case.

The Met said I should talk to Association of Chief Police Officers about this “important national issue” and I am currently trying to set up an interview with ACPO communications lead, Bedfordshire chief constable Collette Paul.

Nevertheless, Press Gazette thought Met Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe's monthly Q and A on Twitter would be a good chance to ask him about the issues raised by our campaign. During on hour of online chat he faced nearly 50 questions from various sources about the force's use of RIPA against journalists and he ignored every one.

In the meantime, the search for some accountability over police use of RIPA to spy on lawful journalistic sources goes on, as does the buck passing.

Since 2012, when the Metropolitan Police Authority was abolished, the Mayor of London has had responsibility for holding our largest police force to account.

Press Gazette asked him whether he would was concerned about the Met’s use of RIPA against The Sun. The short answer was no. And in any case, it’s not his job to regulate RIPA – such complaints should go to the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT). 

This is a secret court which hears complaints from people who think they have been spied on by public authorities using RIPA powers.

Privately, legal experts have told me that complaining to the IPT is a “waste of time”. It costs nothing to do it, and Press Gazette has urged any journalists who think they may have been spied on to have a go. But in the four years to the end of 2013 the IPT received 717 complaints about use of RIPA of which only six were upheld.

I’ve not met a single journalist, or non-journalist, who thinks that it is healthy for the police and other public authorities to secretly obtain the phone records of journalists who aren’t under suspicion of breaking the law. This isn't special pleading for journalists, it is for the whistleblowers who are being hunted down and punished by the Met and others for sharing what they see as an injustice with the public.

Everyone from the NUJ to the Society of Editors, from the editors of The Sun to The Guardian, agree that this is wrong and seriously unhealthy for a democratic society.

So why the dam of silence? My suspicion is that it holds up a flood of embarrassing information about public authorities' abuse of RIPA to spy on journalists.

We’ve already seen a new revelation of RIPA being used by Kent Police against journalists working for the Mail on Sunday to reveal entirely lawful contact with a confidential source.

More cracks will appear in the dam I am certain until the Met, and others, are swamped with what could turn out to be their own hacking scandal.

If you think public authorities should ask a judge before secretly seizing the phone records of law-abiding journalists, sign the Save Our Sources petition

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