Police forces and their revealing silence over use of RIPA to spy on journalists

Press Gazette’s carpet-bombing of UK police forces with Freedom of Information requests has so far failed to get a single further admission of using RIPA against journalists.

But the answers have been revealing in their own way.

Most forces so far (22) have cited cost as the reason for refusing to reveal whether they have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly grab the phone records of journalists and/or news organisations.

Cambridgeshire revealed that it had made 800 RIPA applications in a 10-year period.

Is it really possible that it would take an FoI officer more than 18 hours at £25 per hour to review 800 RIPA applications to see if they applied to journalists? (The cost limit on answering an FoI request is £450).

Police forces have to keep detailed records of RIPA applications for the benefit of the Interception of Communications Commissioner. They must be held on a database. It is really impossible to search that database for words like “journalists”, “reporter” and “newspaper”?

Police forces should be aware that viewing the phone records of a journalist raises issues under Article 10 of the Human Rights Act (freedom of expression). So such RIPA requests should be put to a higher standard of scrutiny. The fact that forces appear to keep no particular record of RIPA requests against journalists suggests this has not been happening and they are just lumped in with all the others.

Some forces (12) have declined to answer the FoI altogether citing “national security”. But this can’t be right. The fact that police forces use RIPA is no particular secret (as shown by the fact that Cambridgeshire and other forces have shared their total).

And surely they aren’t suggesting that journalists in particular are a threat to national security?

A further 12 forces have yet to answer Press Gazette’s FoI request.

In the meantime, forces are to face further questions from both the Interception of Communications Commissioner and the Home Affairs Select Committee over their use of RIPA against journalists.

I hope they have more success getting answers than we have.

My suspicion and fear is that many journalists who have published information about police matters found through unofficial sources will have had their phone records pulled in order to track down their sources

If so, the police forces that have done this will have a huge amount of explaining to do.

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