The National Union of Journalists is encouraging its 17,000-plus members, and others, to tell the Home Office that its draft Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act code of practice is "not enough".
Released earlier this month by the Home Office, the draft has been widely criticised for saying that police should continue to be allowed access to journalists’ phone records without any outside approval.
Not only does it make clear that police forces can continue to sign off their own RIPA requests for journalists' telecoms data, but it emphasises that such records are not privileged.
The new code merely requires police forces to make a note of the fact they have accessed a journalists’ phone records.
The consultation was promised by Home Secretary Theresa May in October to address concerns raised about the police accessing the phone records of journalists who were not under suspicion of breaking the law.
Today, Press Gazette called on journalists to respond to the Home Office consultation of the code of practice, which is open until 20 January.
And the NUJ has produced a draft letter addressed to the Home Office, which it is urging members and non-members alike to fill in a send in.
The letter, which can be downloaded here, says:
RIPA – code amendments are not enough, the government needs to change the law.
The new draft code of practice for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) allows the police and other authorities to continue to access journalists’ communications without any independent process or judicial oversight.
The NUJ has a long history of campaigning for the protection of journalistic sources and material. The NUJ's code of conduct includes the following clause: A journalist must protect the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work.
The draft code of practice denies journalists an opportunity to defend the confidentiality of their sources, and information that deserves to be in the public domain won’t see the light of day as a consequence. The damage to public trust in journalism is immense. The NUJ believes that RIPA powers have been systematically abused and the law must change.
RIPA should not be used to undermine existing protections specified in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) or the Contempt of Court Act which has provisions on professional secrecy for journalists, lawyers and others.
We hope that this consultation will encourage parliament to simplify and clarify the legal framework and we would welcome legislative proposals that provide enhanced protections for confidential sources and materials. Amending the code of practice is not sufficient.
Without new legislation there is a severe risk to press freedom and the continued abuse of RIPA will detrimentally prevent NUJ members investigating and reporting on local, regional, national and international issues in the public interest.
The NUJ is calling for changes to include:
- An independent and judicial process
- Automatic and mandatory prior notification of requests
- Mechanisms to challenge an application and the right of appeal
- New primary legislation to replace the existing powers and offer a "shield law" for journalists
Media organisations and journalists are wholly opposed to the back door access to journalistic material that RIPA has given police and other authorities. Members of the public demonstrably support the need to see curbs on police powers. According to an Ipsos MORI poll for the Evening Standard on October 2014 only one in five people think the police should be free to trawl through the phone records of journalists to identify their sources, and 67 per cent said the approval of a judge should be obtained before such powers are used in an attempt to discover a source.
The NUJ is urging the government to think again on the RIPA code of practice and address the existing problems by introducing new primary legislation to safeguard journalists and their sources.