Sun's RIPA lawyer: If media 'suspect' police have obtained phone records, court will investigate and order disclosure

The lawyer representing The Sun in its case against the Metropolitan Police's phone records grab has called on other media organisations who "suspect" wrongdoing to take forces to court.

Gavin Millar QC has revealed that the Investigatory Powers Tribunal is prepared to investigate suspicions – and will order disclosure from police forces.

Millar is working for News Group Newspapers in its case against the Met Police in the IPT.

The publisher of The Sun brought the case in the IPT after it emerged that the Met's Directorate of Professional Standards obtained journalistic phone records under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to find the source of the newspaper's Plebgate story. The IPT heard the case in July and has yet to deliver a judgment.

In this instance, The Sun was made aware of the fact its phone records had been obtained under RIPA because this information was revealed in the Met's Operation Alice closing report. 

However, this was a rare disclosure. The Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO) – the RIPA watchdog – revealed earlier this year that 19 police forces obtained the phone records of 82 journalists over a three-year period.

IOCCO did not reveal the names of these 19 forces, and most of the 82 journalists whose records were obtained are unaware of this.

Speaking at the Protecting the Media conference in London yesterday, Millar revealed that an IPT judge questioned why the court had heard no similar cases in the past.

And Millar said that if media organisations "suspect" their journalists' records may have been obtained in this way they should ask the IPT to investigate.

Millar said: “In the course of the hearing, he said to me: ‘Why don’t journalists bring cases here like this, why is [this] the first time we’ve had this sort of case here?’

“I said because I [know] a lot of investigative journalists who suspect these powers have been used against them. But they can’t, by definition, do more than raise a suspicion, and that disinclines them to bring a case here.”

Millar added: “He said: ‘Tell journalists and media organisations to bring cases based on suspicion.’

“And there are a few floating around at the moment. If you suspect, through a coincidence of circumstances, that this has happened to your journalist, pay a few quid and put the application in.

“And what he said to me is: ‘I will order disclosure by the police or the agency involved, or the facts of the case, will order all the documents to be disclosed to us, and if appropriate to you, and witness statements and disclosure and so forth… And I won’t think ill of you if you’ve reached the wrong conclusion – if your suspicion turns out to be all fabricated.’”

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