Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said today that the police shold be banned from accessing journalists' call records without the permission of a judge.
Speaking at a press conference today he went further than Home Secretary Theresa May who has said that the code of conduct on use of spying powers should be strengthened to protect journalists.
And he said he wanted to see legal reforms to ensure that journalists are free he to "go after information, where there is a clear interest to do so, without fear of being snooped on or having all of their files rifled through without any justification".
Disclosures that a number of police forces used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to access details of reporters' private calls, in some cases revealing confidential sources, have sparked widespread calls for urgent reform of the legislation.
Home Secretary Theresa May has promised to publish a revised code "to make clear that specific consideration must be given to communications data requests involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists", adding: "I am clear that where the police hold sensitive powers, they must be used appropriately."
Asked at his regular Westminster press conference today whether he thought stronger protections were required, Clegg said: "There should be a public interest defence put in law – you would probably need to put it in the Data Protection Act, the Bribery Act, maybe one or two other laws as well – where you enshrine a public interest defence for the press so that where you are going after information and you are being challenged, you can set out a public interest defence to do so.
"Secondly, where the police ask for information which might reveal sources – privileged information – I think that shouldn't just be done on the say-so of a senior police officer, it should be done on the say-so of a judge.
"It is a big thing to say to the press in this country: we can demand where you got your information from and we don't even need to go to a judge."
He also called for jail terms for anyone found guilty of large-scale data theft, saying: "The penalties that exist at the moment are pathetic; a small rap over the knuckles and a £100 fine. There should be a custodial sentence attached to major data theft."
The Home Office has yet to begin its consultation on changing the surveillance code of practice for law enforcement bodies.