Big Brother' police seized news agency phone records

Hyde: seizing records “smacked of ‘Big Brother meets control freak’

A police force that secretly seized a news agency’s phone records to try to identify its sources has handed them back after being threatened with legal action.

The chief constable of Thames Valley Police was due in the High Court to answer allegations that confidential data belonging to the Readingbased INS News Group had been improperly obtained by detectives.

But solicitors for the police have agreed to meet INS’s key demands and to pay reasonable legal costs.

According to INS editor Neil Hyde, a superintendent in charge of the force’s Professional Standards Department has also given a sworn undertaking that information gleaned from the telephone records would be destroyed and not used by detectives.

The out-of-court settlement was hailed as a victory by Hyde, who said: “Seizing our phone records from BT smacked of ‘Big Brother meets control freak’ and we were determined to thwart this interference in the basic rights of a free press.

“We found out by accident that police had twice gone in secret to Crown Court judges for orders to force BT to hand over records of all calls made by INS over a period of almost a year. They suggested they were investigating criminal activity, an allegation which has never been put to me or the agency and which, if it is meant to relate to INS in some way, is of course, completely unfounded.

“They were desperate to find the identities of police officers and others they thought might be giving information to INS,” he added.

Hyde claimed the police had been running a secret investigation into the agency – codenamed Operation Virid – since 2001.

Detectives made two applications to Reading Crown Court – in camera – to obtain judges’ orders to seize lists of all numbers called by INS from January to October 2001. Similar records were seized for periods in 2002. The agency had no knowledge of what had happened until last August, when an officer tipped off Hyde.

INS’s lawyers, Schillings, contacted Thames Valley Police demanding to know the authority for obtaining the phone records.

Hyde said police at first cited the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, then the Official Secrets Act and the Prevention of Corruption Act.

“We were then told that there had been a mistake and the documents had actually been seized under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

Hyde claimed phone lines into police stations were tapped, officers’ computers were specially programmed and even a spoof incident was created to try to locate police officers who were giving information to INS.

A Thames Valley Police officer suspected of providing information to the news agency has been dismissed after an internal disciplinary hearing.

Hyde said: “The officer involved admitted to his bosses from the outset that he regularly talked to INS and other news reporters. He denied throughout the three-day hearing that he had done anything wrong.”

A police spokeswoman told Press Gazette: “We will not be commenting at this stage but may do once we’ve seen the article.”

By Jon Slattery

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