Met says seizure of journalists' phone records to identify Plebgate sources was 'appropriate and lawful'

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The Met Police has confirmed that it obtained journalists’ telecoms records under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act without recourse to a judge.

It was revealed in the Met’s Operation Alice report this week that the Met obtained the mobile phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and also telecoms logs of calls made to The Sun newsdesk. Both were obtained by without the knowledge of the journalist concerned or the publisher.

The information enabled the Met to identify three officers who had directly and indirectly given information to The Sun about the incident on 19 September 2012 when then Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell swore at officers outside 10 Downing Street.

The seizure of the telecoms logs was approved by a police officer.

The Sun yesterday said that use of RIPA to identify journalists’ sources "circumvented normal safeguards".

On previous occasions when UK police have sought access to journalistic material they have done so under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which requires that officers must argue the case for disclosure before a judge and allows the media to make representations.

The Met revealed today: “As part of this investigation the telephone data was applied for and authorised under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

“In order to obtain such an authority under RIPA officers must demonstrate that it is proportionate, legal and necessary.

“In line with current practice, in this case the authorising officer was independent from the investigation team.

“RIPA was the most appropriate and lawful means of obtaining this data that was essential to progressing a criminal investigation into allegations of corruption, specifically that police officers were conspiring to bring down a Cabinet Minister.

“Managing collateral intrusion was considered at every stage.”

The Sun said yesterday that it will be writing to  Lord Justice May, the Interception of Communications Commissioner, “to ask him to examine how many times and with what justification these authorisations have been made against the media and whether he intends to issue any guidance on the media’s right to keep their phone records safe”.

The seizure of telecoms records helped the Met identify and sack three police officers found to have disclosed information about the Plebgate affair.

The Crown Prosecution Service ruled in November 2013 that it was not in the public interest to prosecute the three officers because “a jury is likely to decide that it was in the public interest for the events at the gate to be made public”.

The National Union of Journalists, Index on Censorship and the Society of Editors have all condemned the Met’s use of RIPA to identify confidential journalistic sources.

Executive director of the Society of Editors Bob Satchwell said it was 'heavy handed misuse of power which was designed to fight terrorism not whistleblowing or journalists".

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