When Press Gazette first highlighted the fact the Met Police accessed the phone records of The Sun in order to find and punish three internal leakers, the reaction was pretty much universal condemnation.
- December 1, 2016
- August 9, 2016
- May 11, 2016
I have yet to find anyone (inside or outside journalism) who thinks it is healthy for democracy, a free press or whistleblowers themselves that police are able to do this.
Since Press Gazette launched the Save Our Sources campaign it has been revealed that the police also accessed the phone records of law-abiding journalists working for The Mail on Sunday.
Suffolk Police also looked at a journalists’ phone records purely in order to find an officer who had leaked him a story.
In recent years police forces around the country have conducted more than 400 official investigations into media leaks.
Press Gazette's suspicion is that they used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to access journalists’ phone records in many of these cases.
Police forces have certainly given every indication that they feel they are 100 per cent within their rights and the law to do so.
Home Secretary Theresa May told The Mail on Sunday back in October that action would be taken to control police use of RIPA against journalists.
On 10 December, we found out exactly what the action was when a new draft code of practice on use of RIPA was published.
When this code is finalised and agreed by Parliament it will have the force of law – so it is a big deal.
The new protections she promised in it are a crushing disappointment.
First of all, bizarrely, the guidance states that journalists’ phone records are not privileged information.
The Home Office does not appear to understand that the mere fact someone has called a journalist is about as a privileged a piece of information as you can get because it identifies them as a source.
In The Sun case, the police secretly looked at the phone records of both the newsdesk and political editor Tom Newton Dunn in order to find and punish three confidential sources.
The Crown Prosecution Service said that the police officers acted in the public interest by placing information about the Plebgate incident in the public domain and it refused to prosecute them.
The new RIPA guidelines would do nothing to stop similar abuse happening in the future.
The new code merely states that officers must pay “special consideration” to the proportionality of accessing journalists’ phone records, and make a record of when they do so.
The new code enshrines in law the right of law enforcement agencies (everyone from the police to your local council) to secretly view journalists' phone records on the say so of a senior officer.
This means it is a virtual certainty that the next time a cabinet minister publicly calls one of the police officers who risk their lives to protect him a “fucking pleb” it will remain a secret.
It also makes it a good deal less likely that future whistleblowers will leak stories like the Rotherham child abuse scandal.
Andrew Norfolk and The Times stepped in and ensured that action was taken to protect hundreds of girls who had been ignored and failed by the police and public authorities. His reporting of the Rotherham scandal was largely based on a leaked 2010 serious case review.
The courts have made it clear that any public official who leaks information to a journalist without authorisation has potentially broken the law.
We know RIPA has been used to track down whistleblowers inside the police. It could also be used to shut down media sources throughout public life.
If you care about investigative journalism and the brave public sector sources who make much of it possible please take a moment to respond to the consultation on the RIPA code of practice which closes on 20 January 2015.
You can also sign the Press Gazette Save Our Sources petition, which is now also addressed to Theresa May (as well as the Interception Commissioner).
The petition states simply that police forces must seek the permission of a judge before viewing the phone records of a journalist.