Home Affairs committee chair calls for Interception Commissioner to be quizzed over police spying on journalists

The chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee wants the Interception of Communications Commissioner to be quizzed in Parliament over the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against journalists.

Keith Vaz MP (pictured, Reuters) said he will also be writing to Kent Police for a "full and complete account" of the force's use of RIPA to secretly obtain Mail on Sunday phone records.

This week Kent Police admitted to having used RIPA to help convict judge Constance Briscoe, the source of a Mail on Sunday investigation into Chris Huhne swapping speeding points with his wife, Vicky Pryce.

The story features on the front page of today's Mail on Sunday, and includes further details on the information obtained by police from news editor David Dillon and freelance Andrew Alderson.

It comes after Press Gazette reported in early September that the Metropolitan Police had used RIPA to obtain the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, as part of Operation Alice into the Plebgate scandal. Three officers lost their jobs after being identified as sources.

A Press Gazette campaign calling for the Interception of Communications Commissioner to ensure RIPA is not used in this way has so far been signed by more than 1,000 journalists, editors and press freedom campaigners.

As well as the front page and a double page spread on the story, The Mail on Sunday's editorial is largely devoted to the story.

“The phrase ‘Police State’ is often a cliché. But it is an outrage worthy of a Police State that rights granted by Parliament for combating terrorism can be used to breach the confidentiality of journalists’ sources,” it said.

The editorial accepted that RIPA should be used in some instances “to secure the safety of the nation”, but added: “[T]he 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 said news of this police use of RIPA threatened the nation’s “free press”, and said: “Newspapers must be able to keep their promises to protect the identities of those who trust them.”

The Mail on Sunday said that RIPA rules as they stand offer public authorities, which do not have to go to a judge to obtain this information, “too much power”.

“Unless we act to rebuild it, many scandals will simply never be exposed. We will become, by stages, a more corrupt and a more autocratic society,” the paper said.

“As in all cases of excessive power, all of us are potentially at risk. There have been several wrongful arrests and unjustified searches because of officious blunders. The phone records of thousands of innocent people have been wrongly seized.

“The police have proved beyond doubt that they are not fit to hold the excessive powers granted them by RIPA.

“As Keith Vaz urges in our pages today, those who have abused their powers should be required to account for themselves before Parliament.

“Parliament should take back those powers, and once again subject such surveillance to the scrutiny of independent judges.”

Writing in the newspaper, Vaz described news of the police using RIPA to obtain journalists’ sources as “deeply disturbing” and “a serious blow against press freedom”.

“Surveillance laws such as RIPA have been a matter of great concern to the Home Affairs Select Committee,” he said.

“So many ordinary citizens have been targeted as a matter of mistaken identity. For those affected this represents a serious invasion of privacy. Where you have the deliberate use of RIPA, as in the case of journalists from The Mail on Sunday being targeted, that is an even more serious matter.”

He added: “If this is where we are going to go with RIPA and this is how its power is being used, we need to know which police authorities are using it, the number of applications made and why. 

“As result of the case of The Mail on Sunday, I will suggest to the committee that we should call the Interception of Communication Commissioner to come before us and offer an explanation of the way in which RIPA is being used and how he holds to account those using RIPA.

“I shall also be writing to the Chief Constable of Kent to ask him for a full and complete account of what has happened.

“We will expect full cooperation. Citizens have a right to be concerned about legislation that is no longer fit for purpose.” 

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