Journalists have been encouraged to make Subject Access Requests to find out whether police forces have secretly accessed their phone records under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
Police Scotland has come under pressure this month after the Sunday Herald reported that it was one of two forces to obtain journalistic records without judicial approval since the law was changed to prevent this in March.
The stopgap law was passed six months after the launch of Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign. It came into law after the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) agreed with the campaign's call for forces to require judicial approval before accessing journalistic records.
Last week BBC journalist Eamon O’Connor revealed that a “very dependable source” has told him he was targeted by Police Scotland.
He suspected this was in relation to an investigation he’d conducted into a murder inquiry “screwed up” by the force. This weekend, the Sunday Mail reported that its journalists may have also been targeted because it too had investigated the Emma Caldwell murder inquiry.
Police Scotland has refused to confirm or deny the allegations. IOCCO, which is investigating two forces for unlawfully accessing journalistic phone records without judicial approval since the law change, has also refused to do so.
IOCCO said that it will inform the affected journalists if, on investigation, it finds "wilful or reckless failure" by the forces.
O’Connor told Press Gazette that Police Scotland said he should make a Subject Access Request, under the Data Protection Act, to find out whether his records have been grabbed.
And Paul Hutcheon, the Sunday Herald’s investigations editor, has advised that any other concerned journalists do the same.
In a blog, headlined "Save your sources", he praised Press Gazette’s “sterling” work on exposing police use of RIPA and campaigning against it. Hutcheon said that the “row” over the alleged unlawful breach of the Save Our Sources law by Police Scotland “will rumble on, but a wider question is whether Police Scotland used this tactic before March”.
In February, an IOCCO report – in part prompted by the Save Our Sources campaign – revealed that over a three-year period, 19 police forces had made 608 applications for communications data to find journalistic sources. It revealed that 82 journalists’ phone records were accessed. The 19 forces were not named.
Hutcheon said: “Any journalist who writes about the single force and is concerned their phone records/texts may have been accessed can respond in a constructive way.
“A Subject Access Request (SAR) gives citizens a qualified right to all information held on them by ‘data controllers’, which includes public bodies.
“I suggest journalists who have written public interest stories on Police Scotland click on the following link and print off the form: http://www.scotland.police.uk/assets/pdf/138327/141809/request-for-access-to-information”
He advised that in the “any other information box” journalists ask for all applications for communications data relating to them, the results of applications and all information held about them by the force’s Counter Corruption Unit.
SARs cost £10.