Former Met Police commander Kevin Hurley was elected as the Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey in 2012. Here he explains why he is bacing Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign
I have spent decades in the front line of public service, more recently taking political office as the independent, elected Police and Crime Commissioner for Surrey.
I served for 30 years in the police, from Constable up to Metropolitan Police Commander. I've also served for 40 years in the reserve armed forces, including two deployments to Iraq. During the course of my career I have, on a number of occasions, spoken up publicly about injustices done to others by our state.
I launched the Gurkha rights campaign, openly challenging the MoD and sponsoring the first passport application by a Gurkha serviceman. I blew the whistle in Parliament and in the press that British soldiers were being killed and maimed in Iraq for want of basic equipment they should have been given. I submitted evidence to the Chilcot inquiry about catastrophic failures of planning and human rights abuses by British military personnel. More than once I was threatened by superiors – in the police and the military, about speaking up.
That was ten years ago. What we have seen in the decade since, is that the kind of pressure to keep quiet that I faced was just the thin end of the wedge. What is now being highlighted by Press Gazette's Save Our Sources campaign, is the creeping escalation in the state's ability – and more worryingly its inclination – to silence you in defence of its own interests.
The release of the Operation Alice report has brought these issues into much needed focus. RIPA – an Act of Parliament originally intended to protect our national security and economic interests – used to compromise a journalist's sources by the back door and without external scrutiny, for no reason other than to defend the reputation of the Metropolitan Police Service as its leaders struggle to deal with a bitter but ultimately trivial political spat. No lives were at stake. No money had changed hands. Indeed the CPS declined to pursue prosecutions because they believed the Constables in question would ultimately have been found by a jury to be acting in the public interest.
Of course the police and other agencies should have powers to pursue criminality, corruption and abuse within their own ranks and across society. However, this must be done with the most careful regard to the wider public interest, something that we as Police and Crime Commissioners are here to represent. Seizing journalistic material is a serious decision indeed, one with significant consequences for our country as a whole. Such a move must be subject to debate and challenge in court if it is to have legitimacy.
Leveson and the various associated police investigations are already damaging the whistleblowing culture in our public services. There are 100 Metropolitan Police officers spending their days investigating journalists. More than 60 reporters have had their collars felt. The use of RIPA powers to pursue journalists' sources is a deeply concerning escalation of that activity.
Think about what it means to a Metropolitan Police Constable. Are they more likely to blow the whistle on wrongdoing? To put their career and family lives on the line? Of course they aren't. Intentional or not, the message from on high is quite clear – talk the to the press and we are prepared to go to any lengths, even use counter-terrorism legislation to find you and discipline you, regardless of the public interest.
What does it mean to a reporter? If Leveson, Elveden and Tuleta hadn't done enough to make them think twice about pursuing stories in the police, armed forces or other public bodies, the unchecked use of RIPA powers to compromise their ability to protect their sources certainly will.
What does it mean to politicians and other public service leaders? Frankly I think some bad eggs are probably sleeping a lot better at night knowing that the moral courage of public servants and the ability of the free press to do its job are under such concerted pressure.
What does it mean to you? This is an issue that affects the police who keep you and your family safe. It affects the NHS that cares for your family when they are sick and in need. It affects the social workers who protect the vulnerable, the armed forces who fight our wars, our prison and probation officers who keep criminals from reoffending against us. It affects the care homes looking after our elderly. It affects every key public service.
Think of what whistleblowing and the free press have revealed in the past. Our sons and daughters sent to war without the equipment to keep them safe. Mothers, fathers, grandparents sadistically abused in rotten care homes. Institutional failure and corruption in the NHS. Whistleblowing by conscientious, morally courageous public servants protects you and your family. You need to care about it.
I urge you to sign the Press Gazette petition to save journalists' sources – let’s turn the tide against the threat to our public servants' ability to speak out when things go wrong and stand up for the public’s right to know about it.