The Guardian, Independent and Times today condemned the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against journalists in editorials.
The Mail on Sunday, which was targeted under RIPA by Kent Police, The Sun, targeted by the Metropolitan Police while investigating the Plebgate scandal, and The Daily Telegraph have also spoken out in editorials over the last month.
The Guardian said that the use of RIPA to obtain journalists' sources "might – might – be right in some cases involving terrorism, national security or matters of life and death".
But referring to the Met Police's seizure of The Sun newsdesk and political editor's phone records, The Guardian said the Plebgate inquiry "was never of a gravity sufficient to justify encroaching on the rights of the press".
"The important thing was not the alleged behaviour; it was the status of the protagonists," it said. "Would investigators have gone to such prying lengths had the central figure been a London cabbie?"
Referring to The Mail on Sunday case, in which police used RIPA to expose judge Constance Briscoe as a source on the Chris Huhne speeding points scandal, the editorial said: "The behaviour of all fell short, to a criminal degree, but none created an emergency to justify trampling on journalistic freedoms.
"The police were under pressure to achieve results, but pressure and justification are quite different."
The Guardian said: "Journalists are not above the law, but they need its protections to play a legitimate role in our free society. Ripa as it stands fails to provide such protections. It must be changed."
The Times said that if it had been known in 2000 that RIPA "could allow the police to discover the identity of journalists’ sources in cases of minor public scandals, his bill might never have become law".
"This press, if it is to uncover the truth about how those in power behave, needs anonymous sources and whistleblowers to tell it what is really going on," the editorial said.
"If those sources believe that the journalists are themselves under surveillance, then it is much less likely that they will come forward, and much more likely that the truth will go unrevealed and the public will remain unaware."
The Independent also used its editorial to condemn police use of RIPA, and predicted that its use extended beyond the Plebgate and Huhne stories.
It said: "The knowledge that officers have used Ripa to bypass the inconvenience of journalistic privilege will confirm the notion that reporters and their sources are now regarded by some agencies of the state as fair game.
"The announcement that the Government's Interception of Communications Commissioner is to launch an inquiry into the practice is no less than is needed. For all that it becomes trite to talk endlessly of a free media as the guardian of democracy, these latest acts of interference by the state are a reminder that the balance between the three traditional elements of government and the fourth estate can be precarious."
The Mail on Sunday editorial this week said the RIPA law "was not intended to allow police secretly to obtain the phone records of a Mail on Sunday journalist engaged in a legitimate inquiry, and so discover the names of his confidential sources".
It added: "A free press cannot function without such confidentiality."
And The Sun's on Monday said:
Journalism wouldn’t exist without sources – people who tell us the stories you need to know about.
“A free press is fundamental to all of our other freedoms. And to have a free Press, reporters need to be able to protect the identity of their sources.
“When the police took the phone records of our man, Tom Newton Dunn, that was an assault on a free Press — and so on your freedom, too.
“Even the Lib Dems agree that the police should be banned from abusing anti-terror to spy on journalists.
“Freedom is under assault. Good on the Lib Dems for standing up for it.”
The Daily Telegraph said in an editorial last month said that news of the Met Police's seizure of Sun phone records "threatens the right of journalists to keep sources secret – and unless sources trust that their anonymity will be safeguarded as closely as possible, they will not come forward".
It said: "If whistle-blowers do not feel able to speak to the media then so many evils may remain hidden within our institutions. Good journalism holds the powerful to account and helps keep society open. Journalists must be free to do their jobs: it is not right that the police should behave in this manner."