Suffolk Police has become the third force to admit using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain a journalist's phone records.
Former Ipswich Star reporter Mark Bulstrode was targeted after he questioned the force about the re-opening of a rape investigation.
After being warned that reporting the case could jeopardise the investigation, the Star chose not to publish the story – but officers still used RIPA to trawl through Bulstrode's mobile phone records and find his source.
Bulstrode, who now works for the BBC, obtained the records police held on him through a subject access request under the Data Protection Act. This was reported by the Star and other newspapers at the time, in December 2006, but it was not known police had obtained the records through RIPA.
Suffolk Police defended the action at the time, saying: “There was concern that the disclosure of information could have jeopardised an investigation into a serious crime, potentially resulting in an offender evading justice.”
The force today confirmed to Press Gazette that it had used RIPA to obtain the records.
This follows revelations that the Metropolitan Police and Kent Police obtaining the phone records of The Sun and The Mail on Sunday respectively under RIPA. The Sun's newsdesk and political editor's phone records were taken as part of the Met's Operation Alice, which was investigating the Plebgate scandal, and three officers lost their jobs as a result. The Mail on Sunday's news editor, David Dillon, and freelance Andrew Alderson, had their records grabbed by police investigating judge Constance Briscoe as a source of the paper's story on Chris Huhne's speeding points.
Earlier this week, Suffolk Police – along with Norfolk Police, which it shares some departments with – rejected a Freedom of Information request for details on RIPA being used to obtain journalists' phone records. Citing cost grounds for the refusal to answer, the FoI team revealed that "almost 4,000 applications for communications data" have been granted between the forces over the last two years.
The Bulstrode incident was referred to by chief constable Simon Ash, who retired from the force last year, in his submission to the Leveson Inquiry.
“When I arrived in Suffolk there had been an investigation involving covert techniques into leaks to the local media,” he said.
“This had concerned the suspected inappropriate disclosure of information to the media by a serving officer. Editors of the local newspapers became aware of the investigation and reacted negatively.”
Ash revealed that the force undertook five investigations into leaks to the press between 2006 and 2011.
On Bulstrode's case, Ash referred to “telephone work” carried out in order to identify a detective constable. He said: “Whilst contact between the officer and the journalist could be proven there was no evidence of actual disclosure. No misconduct case was brought against the officer due to a lack of evidence.”
Press Gazette understands that the officer involved was spoken to about the leak but not formally disciplined.
Asked to comment on the case this week, joint assistant chief constable for Norfolk and Suffolk Police Sarah Hamlin said: “Police use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) is subject to guidance and strict codes of practice.
“Where it is necessary for the purpose of preventing or detecting crime, or preventing disorder, the police will use the power given to them by the RIPA to obtain and disclose communications data.
“We will not comment on individual cases however I would like to assure the public that great care is taken to ensure RIPA is only used where there is justification for a specific investigation, and in a way that is both proportionate and compatible with human rights.
“Such actions are subject to regular inspections by the Interceptions of Communications Commissioner (IOCCO).
“Suffolk Police together with all other forces has recently been contacted by the IOCCO inquiring about the use of RIPA powers to determine whether the acquisition of communications data has been undertaken to identify journalistic sources. Suffolk Police will be open and transparent about the use of RIPA and co-operate fully with this inquiry.”
Bulstrode declined to comment, but said at the time: “My understanding is that police are only able to access phone records when they suspect a crime has taken place. Clearly, that is not the case in this situation and I don't believe they were justified.”
Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign, which calls on the Interception of Communications Commissioner to prevent public authorities from secretly obtaining journalists' phone records under RIPA, has so far been signed by more than 1,000 journalists and press freedom campaigners.