Save Our Sources law passed by MPs, but concerns remain over lack of prior notification on records grabs

New rules to protect journalists’ phone records from secret snooping by police have been approved by the House of Commons and will go before the Lords in the coming days.

MPs approved a statutory instrument which brings into force a new Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice.

The new code gives specific protection for the first time to the call records of journalists. And it requires that police officers must seek the approval of a judge before viewing the telecoms records of a journalist in order to identify a source.

The new protections are intended as a stop-gap before legislation is agreed early in the next Parliament.

The law-change follows the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign, which was launched in September last year following news the Metropolitan Police had secretly accessed the call records of The Sun.

The new Code of Practice states that communications data is not subject to professional privilege (something which most journalists would dispute).

It also does not appear to require police forces to notify the journalists themselves of applications – only the telecoms providers.

The code says: “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 guidance also states: “The requirement for judicial oversight does not apply where applications are made for the communications data of those known to be journalists but where the application is not to determine the source of journalistic information. This includes, for example, where the journalist is a victim of crime or is suspected of committing a crime unrelated to their occupation.”

Associate director of campaign group Hacked Off, Evan Harris, who has been involved in lobbying for new curbs on policy spying powers said the changes do not go far enough.

He said: “The published code is very disappointing because of the higher threshold than occurs in PACE before judicial oversight is triggered, and there is an unnecessary bar on journalists being notified in all circumstances so they have no chance to put their specific arguments for protection of their sources to the judge."

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