The Metropolitan Police does not appear to know how many times it has seized the phone records of journalists and news organisations.
The Met made nearly 95,000 requests for telecoms data under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act last year.
Communications between journalists and their sources are given special protection under government guidelines on the use of RIPA and are also protected under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (freedom of expression).
Press Gazette asked the Met via a freedom of information request how many times it has targeted the telephone records of journalists using RIPA. This was prompted by the revelation the Met seized the phone records of the Sun, and of its political editor Tom Newton Dunn, in order to find and sack three police officers accused of leaking information about the Plebgate affair.
The FoI request was rejected on cost grounds, with the Met conceding (rejection letter below) that it does not appear to keep a specific record of when journalists and news organisations have been targeted under RIPA.
The system used to record RIPA applications for communications data has no way of searching automatically for the individuals [sic] profession.
“Therefore the only possible solution would be to manually review all RIPA applications made within the specified time period.
“We estimate that the cost of complying with this request would exceed the appropriate limit. The appropriate limit has been specified in regulations and for agencies outside central Government; this is set at £450.00. This represents the estimated cost of one person spending 18 hours [at a rate of £25 per hour] in determining whether the MPS holds the information, and locating, retrieving and extracting the information.”
This suggests that no record is kept of the profession of people or organisations targeted under RIPA.
This is despte the fact that the “Interception of communications code of practice” says, in the "Special rules on interception with a warrant": “Particular consideration should also be given in cases where the subject of the interception might reasonably assume a high degree of privacy, or where confidential information is involved.
"Confidential information consists of matters subject to legal privilege, confidential personal information or confidential journalistic material. For example, extra consideration should be given where interception might involve communications between a minister of religion and an individual relating to the latter’s spiritual welfare, or where matters of medical or journalistic confidentiality or legal privilege may be involved.”
It also specifies in the code: “Confidential journalistic material includes material acquired or created for the purposes of journalism and held subject to an undertaking to hold it in confidence, as well as communications resulting in information being acquired for the purposes of journalism and held subject to such an undertaking.”
Previously the Government’s surveillance watchdog, the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office (IOCCO), appeared to suggest that police use of RIPA to spy on journalists may have been unlawful because such powers should only be used to detect criminality, rather than for internal disciplinary proceedings.
The IOCCO said in a statement it said that RIPA enables a number of public authorities to secretly seize communications data from telecoms companies in order to investigate “criminal activity”.
The Crown Prosecution Service ruled that police officers the Met tracked down via RIPA had acted in the “public interest” so could not be charged.
The IOCCO said: "[P]olice cannot use their powers within the act to acquire communications data to obtain evidence to then merely make an officer or member of their staff subject to an internal discipline hearing.
“So, should it be determined there are insufficient grounds to continue the criminal investigation or insufficient evidence to initiate a prosecution within a criminal court, it will, with immediate effect, no longer be appropriate for the police force to obtain communications data under the act.”
The IOCCO said it was unable to provide details of how many times the police and other agencies had used RIPA to secretly obtain journalists' call records. It also said it was not a "public authority" and was therefore exempt from FoI rules itself.