Campaign group Liberty joined the chorus condemnation over police spying on journalists’ phone records as more evidence emerged of "intrusive surveillance" by UK law enforcement against journalists.
Press Gazette revealed on Tuesday how police had secretly obtained the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn (pictured above) and The Sun newsdesk in order to find and sack three officers who leaked information about Plebgate.
Legal director of Liberty James Welch said: “The police and other public bodies massively overuse their power to get details of who we’re calling or emailing – almost a quarter of a million times last year.
“This overuse is hardly surprising when there’s no requirement for prior authorisation from a judge.
“The unfettered use of this power to investigate journalists’ sources is particularly concerning to those who value free speech – free and fearless journalism is essential in any democracy.”
The Met Police has said it is “not prepared to discuss” how many times it has secretly obtained journalists’ phone records under RIPA. Such requests are improved internally by the police, without going to a judge.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner's annual report reveals that public authorities made more than 500,000 RIPA requests for communications data last year, but it does not reveal if any of these involved journalists.
The Office of the Surveillance Commissioner’s Office monitors intrusive surveillance under the Police Act 1997 which involves interference with property or wireless telegraphy.
The OSC annual report reveals that in the year to April 2013 some 2,440 such authorisations for intrusive surveillance were authorised (most of which internally). But in the 243 cases were “prior approval” was required by the OSC, one of these involved “confidential journalistic material”.
Press Gazette has asked both Commissioners if they are aware of any other instances where RIPA has been used to obtain the telecoms records of a journalist or a news organisation. Press Gazette has also asked if any consideration is given to the protection of confidential journalistic sources in the use of RIPA and other intrusive surveillance against journalists.
The Office of the Surveillance Commissioner does not reveal a postal address or telephone number.
Press Gazette received an automated response to our email enquiry saying: "We will not look at any request unless it comes directly from the Senior Responsible Officer of a public authority, RIPA Coordinators, or from the CAB (or equivalent) of a law enforcement agency…Your original e-mail will not be progressed further."
The Society of Editors, National Union of Journalists and Index on Censorship have all condemned the use of RIPA by the Met to out The Sun’s Plebgate sources.
The three officers concerned were cleared by the Crown Prosecution Service because it said a jury would be likely to decide that they acted in the public interest.