Met accused of illegally accessing 20m News UK email records as it fights legal bid to return them

  • News UK handed over physical possession of 'back-up' tapes for 'political' reasons during hacking scandal
  • Company thought tapes were sealed in box with zip-ties until information disclosed in court
  • Met Police did not seek 'judicial approval' for access to tapes containing data from 2,000 systems
  • News UK alleges breach of agreement and unlawful access by Met
  • Met denies both claims, and says News UK 'caused' 20m emails to be deleted

The Metropolitan Police unlawfully accessed journalistic material contained on News UK's "back-up tapes" containing 20m emails, the company has alleged.

News UK, formerly known as News International, is suing the Met for "breach of confidence", claiming it broke an agreement by accessing the material as part of its investigations into journalists.

The publisher of the now-defunct News of the World, The Sun, Times and Sunday Times also alleges that the Met's access to the tapes breached the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) and the Criminal Justice and Police Act.

News UK alleges in legal papers, seen by Press Gazette, that the Met was given physical possession of a zip-tied box of the tapes for "political" reasons at the height of the phone-hacking scandal in the summer of 2011.

But it said the force needed permission from the company in order to access the materials.

In its response, the Met has denied breaching an agreement between the parties and said its actions were within the law.

The 500 or so tapes, which are the subject of a claim made by News UK in the High Court, contain 50 terabytes of data from around 2,000 News UK systems. 

News UK claims the data was deleted automatically from its systems via an "ageing off" process and that it made efforts to recover the material and inform the Met of this.

But the police force has alleged that the company "caused to be deleted" the data, which included 20m emails from before January 2008.

According to News UK's account, between 29 June and 1 July 2011 the company discovered that the data could be recovered and informed the Met.

On 11 July, it alleges that a legal representative for the company was asked by the Met's Detective Inspector Barney Ratcliffe "that for reasons which he agreed were 'stupid' — namely that there was a public and political need for the MPS to demonstrate that the MPS had control of the material (referring to the data on the 'backup tapes') — which would 'add grief' to the process of getting access to the material, the MPS wished the tapes to be kept in the physical custody of the MPS and, if necessary, taken back to NI (at Thomas More Square, Wapping) on a daily basis".

News UK said this was the case for a period, where the tapes were transferred between premises, before they came to rest with the Met. 

The company claims that under a "protocol" and then a "memorandum of understanding" between the parties, the Met would need permission to access the tapes.

It said: “The MPS expressly recognised that issues might arise under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the Contempt of Court Act 1981, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights… and in relation to legal professional privilege when material was made available by NI and NoW.”

News UK said it never consented to the Met being allowed to access the tapes or the data within them. It also said no agreement was made for the company to "waive any of its legal rights including those relating to journalistic material… legal professional privilege or the confidentiality of business information”.

According to News UK’s legal submission, the Met “could only lawfully secure access to the data on the ‘backup tapes’ with the written consent of NI”.

It claimed the Met’s access to the tapes breached agreements between the two organisations and the law under PACE and the Criminal Justice and Police Act.

“The MPS has no statutory or common law legal power to gain access to that data,” the claim form said.

“The MPS has wrongfully and egregiously interfered with the rights of NI in the ‘backup tapes’ and in the information contained thereon and has converted the ‘backup tapes’ to its own use. Further or alternatively has acted in breach of the terms agreed between the parties and referred to herein.”

News UK added: “At no stage in the history of these events has the MPS sought to obtain judicial authority to gain access to the data held on the tapes pursuant to the statutory framework provided by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 or at all.”

The Met is accused, “without lawful right, authority or the consent of NI accessed or attempted to access the data on the ‘backup tapes’ on at least three occasions and possibly, as will only become apparent on disclosure, more”.

News UK said it became aware of police accesses to the tapes during the hacking trial, in correspondence with the Met and in another legal case.

In its defence, the Met denied that News UK had made it aware of the existence of the back-up tapes and alleged that the company had deleted 20m emails.

The Met denied it had breached any agreement with News UK, saying that the company itself had "fundamentally breached" the "memorandum of understanding", which superseded the "protocol", in March 2013 by withdrawing its co-operation.

The Met said in its claim form that the company "had… waived legal rights, including journalistic and legal professional privilege, that it had disclosed to the MPS".

The police force also denied breaching PACE and any other laws. It said the Met had not taken possession of the tapes wrongfully, that this was done with the co-operation of the company and that the force now had a "duty" to retain the data.

It said: "The common law recognises the power (duty) of a constable to retain for use in court things which may be evidence of crime and which have come into possession of the constable without wrong on their part.

“Here, the backup tapes came into the possession of the Operation Weeting officers without any wrong on their part. They were seized by police officers on 12th July 2011 and afterwards for the purposes of the criminal investigation that they were then conducting.

“Even on the claimant’s case the backup tapes came into the possession of the officers without wrong on their part.

“The backup tapes were handled by the MPS thereafter as exhibits in the criminal investigation with a view to them being used for the purposes of criminal proceedings.”

The Met admitted that it had not sought "judicial authority" to access the documents. "But PACE and the common law, as is set out above, provide rights to constables that are exercisable without prior judicial authority.”

The current legal action was started by News UK in February this year with a letter to the Met. The company submitted a claim form to the High Court on 28 October.

News UK is seeking the return of the tapes, damages and costs from the Metropolitan Police.

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