Save Our Sources law comes into force: Police now banned from viewing journalists' call records without OK of judge

Police officers are now banned from secretly obtaining the call records of journalists without getting outside approval from a judge.

The House of Lords this week approved a statutory instrument requiring law enforcement agencies to obtain judicial approval to view journalists’ telecoms records in cases where they are trying to identify their sources.

And the Home Office today confirmed that the new rules are now in force.

This major reform of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) follows the six-month Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign.

The campaign was launched after it emerged in September that the Met Police had viewed the phone records of The Sun, and the paper’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn, in order to find and punish officers accused of leaking information to the paper about the Plebgate affair.

The campaign helped prompt the Interception Commissioner to launch an inquiry which found police forces had used RIPA to secretly view the phone records of 82 journalists in order to identify their sources in the last three years.

Up until now such requests have been signed off internally by police forces themselves. The Interception Commissioner found that forces had ignored the Article 10 (freedom of expression) considerations which give a high level of protection to journalists’ sources under European Law. And he called for a change in the law to provide judicial oversight of telecoms requests to find journalists' sources.

The new Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice (which is now underpinned by law) gives explicit protection to journalists’ and their sources for the first time in RIPA.

It states: “Issues surrounding the infringement of the right to freedom of expression may arise where a request is made for the communications data of a journalist.

“There is a strong public interest in protecting a free press and freedom of expression in a democratic society, including the willingness of sources to provide information to journalists anonymously. Where an application is intended to determine the source of journalistic information, there must therefore be an overriding requirement in the public interest…”

The new rules also state: “In the specific case of an application for communications data, which is made in order to identify a journalist’s source, and until such time as there is specific legislation to provide judicial authorisation for such applications, those law enforcement agencies…with powers under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) must use the procedures of PACE to apply to a court for a production order to obtain this data…”

The new rules are intended to be a temporary solution before new legislation is passed early in the next Parliament.

Because applications for communications data will be made to telecoms providers, rather than the journalists themselves, news organisations will not have the opportunity to argue against the police case for disclosure.

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