Fourth police force used RIPA against journalist, to bug reporter's car, and it also seized agency phone records

A police force used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to bug a journalist's car - but has denied using it to obtain a news agency's phone records.

Thames Valley Police bugged part-time Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer's car in December 2006 to find the source of leaked stories about the force.

Murrer was charged with conspiring to commit misconduct in a public office after a police officer allegedly leaked her confidential information, but evidence against her was ruled inadmissible after a five-day legal battle at Kingston Crown Court.

The Crown formally offered no evidence on seven out of eight counts on the indictment. The judge was asked to enter formal not-guilty verdicts on count eight.

A judge decided that her right to do her job as a journalist had been breached under the European Convention on Human Rights and evidence against Murrer, her police contact and a private detective could not be used in any trial.

It has now emerged that the bugging was done under RIPA. A spokesperson for the force said: “In order to prevent and detect crime, police officers require evidence from a number of sources, some of which through covert means. 

"RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) is a regulatory framework around a range of investigatory powers including surveillance. RIPA is designed to ensure the powers are used lawfully and in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It also requires, in particular, those authorising the use of covert techniques to give proper consideration to whether their use is necessary and proportionate.”

Meanwhile, the force has denied using RIPA to obtain the phone records of Reading-based INS News Group in 2002 - because the act did not allow phone record seizures until January 2004.

Thames Valley Police initially told INS this was done under RIPA. However, when it was pointed out by INS lawyers that RIPA did not allow this, the force cited the Official Secrets Act, the Prevention of Corruption Act and then said it used the  Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) unlawfully - i.e. without a judge's approval. It has now emerged that it used the Data Protection Act.

Because it obtained the phone records improperly, Thames Valley Police's chief constable was due to appear in the High Court. But the force settled out of court, agreeing to INS's key demands and paying reasonable legal costs.

INS editor Neil Hyde (pictured) said a superintendent in charge of the Thames Valley’s Professional Standards Department had given a sworn undertaking that the information gleaned from the records would be destroyed and not used by detectives.

"Seizing our phone records from BT smacked of 'Big Brother meets control freak' and we were determined to thwart this interference in the basic rights of a free press,” said Hyde after the out-of-court settlement was made.

"We found out by accident that police had twice gone in secret to Crown Court judges for orders to force BT to hand over records of all calls made by INS over a period of almost a year. They suggested they were investigating criminal activity, an allegation which has never been put to me or the agency and which, if it is meant to relate to INS in some way, is of course, completely unfounded.

"They were desperate to find the identities of police officers and others they thought might be giving information to INS."

The editor said that the police had been running a secret investigation into INS starting in 2001, codenamed Operation Virid. He had been tipped off that the records were obtained by an officer.

Hyde said that Schillings, acting for INS, asked police on what authority they had obtained the records. They initially cited RIPA, then the Official Secrets Act and the Prevention of Corruption Act.

INS were then told a “mistake” had been made and the documents had been taken under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE), which requires a court hearing.

Hyde claimed phone lines into police stations were tapped, officers' computers were specially programmed and even a spoof incident was created to try to locate police officers who were giving information to INS.

A Thames Valley Police officer suspected of providing information to the news agency was dismissed after an internal disciplinary hearing.

Hyde said: "The officer involved admitted to his bosses from the outset that he regularly talked to INS and other news reporters. He denied throughout the three-day hearing that he had done anything wrong."

Asked by Press Gazette last week whether RIPA had been used in this case, Thames Valley Police revealed that part one, chapter two, of the act, which enables the seizure of phone records, was only enacting in January 2004, so could not be used.

“In 2002, there was an internal investigation relating to a Thames Valley Police officer and his communication with the media,” a spokesperson said.

“During this investigation, a number of covert methods of policing were utilised.

“As a result of that investigation, the officer was dismissed for communicating information to the media given to him in his role as an officer.”

On the use of RIPA in general, they added: “In order to prevent and detect crime, police officers require evidence from a number of sources, some of which through covert means.

“RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) is a regulatory framework around a range of investigatory powers including surveillance. RIPA is designed to ensure the powers are used lawfully and in a way that is compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

“It also requires, in particular, those authorising the use of covert techniques to give proper consideration to whether their use is necessary and proportionate.”

Thames Valley Police, along with all other UK forces, has been told by the Interception of Communications Office and the Home Affairs Select Committee to provide details of the use of RIPA against journalists.

But Thames Valley told Press Gazette it "does not record the occupation, as a matter of course, when acquiring data under RIPA".

Previously, the Metropolitan Police has admitted to obtaining the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor, Tom Newton Dunn. Kent Police has also admitted to using RIPA to obtain Mail on Sunday phone records. And Press Gazette revealed on Friday that Suffolk Police had used RIPA to obtain the records of an Ipswich Star reporter in 2006.

Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign has been signed by more than 1,000 journalists and press freedom campaigners.

Last week the Home Office said a consultation would begin shortly over changes to the RIPA code of practice which will provide greater protection for communication between journalists and their sources.

Press Gazette will be lobbying for a rule-change to ensure that all police requests for journalistic material must go before a judge.

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