RIPA's lack of a journalistic exemption exposes serious failing by Parliament

The threat that the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) poses to journalists’ sources is a damning indictment on Parliament. They could have built in a journalistic exemption. But they didn't.

It seems that neither the Lords nor the Commons were competent enough to foresee that the Bill could conflict with journalists’ existing rights under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 and the Contempt of Court Act 1981.

These two laws protected journalists' information and sources from state interference. And in the main, they worked.

Jack Straw was the Home Secretary who introduced the RIPA Bill. He said at the time: "None of the law enforcement activities specified in the Bill is new.

"Covert surveillance by police and other law enforcement officers is as old as policing itself. So too is the use of informants, agents, and undercover officers.

"What is new is that for the first time the use of these techniques will be properly regulated by law, and externally supervised, not least to ensure that law enforcement operations are consistent with the duties imposed on public authorities by the European Convention on Human Rights and the Human Rights Act."

I wonder what he’d make of that statement now. Either he was badly advised, or naïve enough to think that RIPA really would introduce a system of "proper regulation" rather than allow councils and other authorities to target the public, and more latterly, the media.

Lord Phillips of Sudbury admitted that Parliament mishandled the Bill at a Parliamentary meeting in London in November 2003.

He described its passage through Parliament as a nightmare, and said: "The House of Lords gave more time to scrutinising RIPA than the House of Commons, and no-one in the House of Lords fully understood all of RIPA's intricacies."

It’s not too late for Parliament, or the ECJ, to correct the errors which pose such a grave threat to investigative journalism. That’s way the Press Gazette’s campaign is important.

And maybe now is the time for Straw to explain why his bill didn't include a journalistic exemption. After all, the Data Protection Act – passed two years earlier, in 1998, has one. And so did a section of the Children and Young Persons Act 1993.

In the meantime journalists can take simple steps to protect themselves if they’re working on a sensitive story:

1.    Create an anonymous, private (not company) dropbox where contacts can place information.

2.    Use a paper contacts book (remember them?).

3.    Use a pay-as-you-go phone, and pay for it with cash.

You can also download a free copy of my eBook, Stop Snoopers for the rest of this week.

Cleland Thom runs media law refresher courses.

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