Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger has called on the UK’s “fractured press” to defend its “sacred oath” to protect sources.
And he warned that journalists can’t complain about police secretly viewing journalists’ call records and yet "shrug their shoulders" at the state surveillance capabilities revealed by Edward Snowden.
Rusbridger was speaking at a panel debate held at City University last night entitled: "How can the secret state learn to live with the fourth estate?"
The debate was held a week after Parliament approved new stop-gap legislation to ensure that police attempts to view journalists’ phone records in order to identify their sources must now be approved by a judge.
The law-change follows the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign.
Rusbridger and National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet both warned that sources remain at risk because applications to view phone records will be made to telecoms providers without notice to news organisations themselves.
But former senior civil servant Sir David Omand, who was involved in drafting the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act surveillance legislation, said he believed there was no possibility of notifying journalists about requests to view their phone records. He said this was in part because foreign spies often pose as journalists.
Former British Transport Police chief constable Andy Trotter completed the panel and said he could see no reason why all contact between journalists and public officials was not on the record.
Rusbridger defended the importance of confidential sources as one of the foundations of a free press.
He said: “We have to keep reminding ourselves and other people why as journalists we understand that much if not most of the information that that we receive of value comes from people who are not authorised to talk to us. Or who can talk more honestly if they can talk secretly.
“They may be whistleblowers, they may be people who are simply trying to inform the public honestly – and we know that they may risk a lot to do that, risk losing their jobs, their livelihood or their freedom.
“Journalists who are working abroad risk much more. If they are working in oppressive countries they may be risking torture, imprisonment or even death.
“That’s why this sacred oath that we give sources is as close to anything that we as journalists have as a sacred oath. Because when it is done in the public interest society as a whole benefits from these conversations and these relationships.”
Rusbridger warned that there are insufficient protections in place for data about communications, rather than the content.
“For far too long officialdom distracted us with assurances that it’s all okay, we don’t listen in to phone calls or look in at the content of letters or emails without proper judicial oversight," he said.
“But this stuff called metadata – the who, what, where when of our lives – is always glossed over by politicians.
“These phones that we carry around are tracking devices, they are listening devices, they are windows into who we know, what we search form, who we meet, who we want to meet, when we meet – this metadata of our lives is all contained in these phones. None of that requires any kind of warrant but does give a pretty complete picture of our lives.
“How many journalists have woken up to that yet, how many journalist can use proper encryption to do there best to protect their sources? If we can’t aren’t we also to some extent culpable?”
Rusbridger warned that the UK press is currently "fractured" in the wake of phone-hacking, the Leveson inquiry and the many arrests and trials or journalists.
And referring to the actions of Sun publisher News Corp, he talked about ”a newspaper company that handed over all its staff’s private emails, millions and millions of them, over to police and then ran for cover”.
Against this backdrop he said: “We have to have common values as an industry… We have to develop a common idea of what the public interest is. And that common idea of what the public interest ought to be embedded in all laws that affect journalists.”
He said: “You can’t shrug at Snowden and then be outraged when the Metropolitan Police decides to search through your phone records to find out who your source was.”
On the developing debate over surveillance and the protection of journalists’ sources, he said: “Whatever government gets in…this is just the beginning of the fight that is ahead.”
Former director of GCHQ Omand said it was long-standing practice for spies to pose as foreign journalists working in the UK.
He said: “It would not be surprising if there was interest in the sources of intelligence officers posing as journalists.
“That’s a very minor part of intelligence activity, but I mention it because we can’t – without breaching European Human Rights Law – have one law for journalists working for British newspapers and another law for those working for foreign news organisations.
“Giving journalists the opportunity to defend these orders frankly does not seem very sensible.”
And Omand also told the story of a how newspaper planted a mole in his former government department in order to make copies of “sensitive ministerial documents”.
He said: “I was left feeling as if I had been the subject of a covert operation by a hostile intelligence agency that had deliberately planted a spy in my department to satisfy the demands of a newspaper for sensational stories.
“Was I justified in trying to find out the source of the journalist?
“Does the [Press Gazette] Save Our Sources campaign mean that in those circumstance I just sit back and tolerate a member of my staff behaving corruptly?
“The public needs to know that those who work in public service can be trusted with confidential information. Good government is impossible without trust.
“That too is a public interest and a mighty strong one in my point view to weigh alongside the protection of journalists’ sources.”
Trotter also rejected the suggestion that news organisations should be given the opportunity to argue the case against the disclosure of journalists’ call records.
He said: “If one is investigating a journalist, it is like we are investigating any potential criminal – we don’t normally notify them that’s what we are going to do.”
Ultimately, Rusbridger warned, journalists may need to go back to pre-digital methods of communication.
“If you have a source who could be vulnerable then don’t go and meet him or her with your phone in your pocket, don’t speak to him or her on the phone, don’t email them. You have to go back to stone-age methods of paper and pencil and stuff like that. Meeting in dark corners of parks.”
Omand added: “And don’t forget the people who really after your sources if they are overseas are oppressive regimes and they can do this too and do.”