Promised law change heralds victory after six-month campaign to protect journalists' sources from state snooping

Six months after Press Gazette launched the Save Our Sources campaign we can today declare a tentative victory.

The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have accepted the recommendation of the Interception Commissioner that legislation is needed to curb police spying on journalists’ phone records.

News from Nick Clegg this morning that measures are set to be included in the Serious Crime Bill means that a new law ensuring that police must ask a judge before viewing a journalists’ phone records should be on the statute book before the May general election.

This is exactly what we have asked for so has to be hugely welcomed.

The Office of the Interception of Communications Commissioner (IOCCO) cited the concerns raised by the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign when it launched its investigation into police spying on journalists in October.

Since September, Press Gazette has published more than 100 articles on this issue, more than 1,700 have signed the Save Our Sources petition and last month around 100 editors (including those of every Fleet Street title) signed a joint letter of protest.

As my granny used to say, "there’s many a slip twixt cup and lip", and Press Gazette will be keeping up pressure until the new legislation is on the statute book.

But it looks like the legitimate concerns of the journalism industry have been listened to and acted on.

The casualness with which the Met Police admitted viewing the phone records of The Sun and Tom Newton Dunn as part of the Plebgate leak inquiry suggested that this was the tip of the iceberg.

Now we know that police surveillance of journalists and their sources was just as widespread as we feared.

The Interception Commissioner only asked police forces to look back three years in their records.

In that time there were 608 applications to view phone records which involved finding out the identities of journalists’ confidential sources.

Some 80 per cent of these involved Operation Elveden, so fall into a slightly different category – because the journalists themselves were under suspicion of committing a criminal offence.

But even if we disregard those, there were 124 RIPA applications for telecoms records involving journalists who (as far as we know) weren’t under suspicion of breaking the law.

Bearing in mind that forces will have looked through weeks and months of journalists’ calls records in each case, this means thousands of sources will have also had their privacy invaded.

According to the Interception Commissioner, these included 19 regional newspaper journalists, seven freelances and three broadcasters.

Police forces appear to have been ignorant of the overriding public interest in protecting journalists’ sources under Article 10 of the European Convention of Human Rights and extensive UK case law.

The Interception Commissioner’s report condemns the “poor quality” of the surveillance applications (which were signed off by the forces themselves remember) and the fact they gave little consideration to Article 10.

The report spares police forces’ blushes by only giving us headline figures and no detail.

So we still don’t know the extent to which the Met spied on other journalists in order to track down and punish the lawful Plebgate whistleblowers.

But the broad picture the Interception Commissioner paints is shocking enough.

He said most of the police spying on journalists involved leaks of information from within the forces concerned.

Typically, a journalist would call the press office for a comment on some controversial disclosure and this would prompt an investigation from the force's Professional Standards department.

Then, the force would use powers passed by Parliament to fight terrorism and serious crime to trawl through the journalists’ phone records in order to find which officer had spoken to him.

As we know from the Operation Alice closing report, the police will go to extreme lengths to track down and punish those who have been in contact with a journalist. One officer sacked over Plebgate leaks lost their job after police traced a call to the Sun newsdesk back to a hospital where the officer’s housemate worked.

There are parallels between police abuse of RIPA and the hacking scandal.

Journalists’ interception of mobile phone messages has led to 26 being arrested and four (so far) being sent to prison.

The police interception of journalists’ phone records has been in clear breach of European law.

So far there has not even been an apology or any admission of wrongdoing.

The Association of Chief Police Officers said today: “We welcome the clarity the IOCCO report gives us on a number of complex points of law. We note the recommendations and will work with the Commissioner’s Office and the Home Office on our future approach.”

They may be "complex points of law" to ACPO, but for nearly everyone else it is clear as day that it is not healthy in a democracy for police forces to secretly view the phone records of law-abiding journalists in order to find and punish lawful sources.

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