Boris Johnson wants police to have to obtain "judicial approval" to access journalists' phone records in future.
The Mayor of London, who previously said he was "supportive" of the police's use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against journalists, told the London Press Club Ball last night that it is "crucial" that journalists should be able to protect their sources and give whistleblowers the confidence to come forward.
He said: "It is absolutely vital for our country and for this city that we protect free speech – and, if I can say something about one current controversy, it is of course right that the police should be able to investigate serious criminal matters.
"But it is also crucial that journalists should be able to protect their sources and to give whistleblowers the confidence to come forward and we will have to insist that in future the police will not be able to see a journalist's phone records without some kind of judicial approval."
Daily Mail proprietor Lord Rothermere also spoke at the ball, at the Royal Courts of Justice, saying that in the "current anti-press climate" there was "great danger of forgetting all the good work newspapers do and how vital their contribution is to the freedoms we enjoy in this country".
"So to our many critics I say this: remember that those freedoms are protected by a small and determined army who sometimes literally put their lives on the line to shine a light in dark corners of the world. And that army is under attack and undervalued as never before.
"So for the sake of our industry and for our democracy, I ask for more understanding and appreciation of the demands placed on Britain's journalists every day in their quest to establish the truth."
He said: "If we continue denigrating newspapers and undermining the work of the countless decent and honest journalists, not just in London but in every region, every town, we could end up destroying the very keystone upon which this country is built: freedom of speech."
As Mayor of London, Johnson has responsibility for holding the Metropolitan Police to account (the Mayor's Office for Policing and Crime replaced the London police authority in 2012).
Last month, Press Gazette asked him detailed questions about use of RIPA against The Sun. In a written response he said that he couldn't comment on operational issues but that he was broadly supportive of the Met's use of RIPA and that in any case he felt sufficient safeguards were in place.
And earlier this week, on his LBC programme, Johnson defended the Met's use of RIPA against The Sun – before admitting he hadn't "studied" the case "in great detail".
LBC's Nick Ferrari said he was “staggered” to hear that Johnson, a former Daily Telegraph and Spectator journalist, believes RIPA can be used to find journalists’ sources, while discussing the case in which the Met obtained the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor Tom Newton Dunn.
When the question over RIPA was first put to him on LBC, by Ferrari reading out a listener’s message, Johnson said: “I am concerned about this. And I want to look into this, because… it should not be possible, I don’t think, for the police just to go on fishing expeditions and see what journalists have been doing, who they’ve been calling.”
He pointed out that RIPA does not give public authorities power to read messages, just the ability to see see “when and where a contact was made”.
Asked by Ferrari if they should have that power, Johnson said: “I think when you are investigating a criminal case, and when there are… quite serious charges at stake, then the use of such techniques… I think may be justified."
Asked if the Met Police were right to go through Tom Newton Dunn’s phone records, Johnson said: “I don’t know what aspects of it they were investigating, there were obviously some serious-”
Ferrari said they wanted to know the source of his story. Johnson replied: “There were charges there that – there were suggestions there – that there was a conspiracy by armed officers at the gates of Downing Street…”
They were trying to find a source, Ferrari said, asking Johnson: “That’s acceptable in your world, is it?”
Johnson: “The police have a duty to try to use their… to track down…”
To go "fishing" through a political editor’s phone? Ferrari asked.
“Well… that’s where I think I might disagree. Was it fishing? Or were they trying to get to the bottom of the guilt or otherwise of… there were very serious charges here, which as I recall… involved the potential conspiracy by a group of police officers with weapons… to frame or defame a minister. Or alternatively that that minister had lied."
He added: "In either event it was a serious business. And if the police are within the law… as they seem to be…"
“I’m staggered that you think RIPA could be used for that,” said Ferrari, pointing out RIPA is an anti-terror act, which Johnson denied.
“I think it’s designed to create a framework… because obviously the state is very powerful, and it should not be able to look at what journalists are saying. It shouldn’t be able to look at the texts. What they can do, as I understand it at the moment, is look at when, where and how a call was made.
“All I would say, without going into the details of the particular case, and it might be in that case they went too far – I haven’t studied it, I’m afraid to say, in great detail – but if there are serious criminal charges at stake it seems to me that it is not unreasonable to use the powers that they have.”