Thames Valley Police has again refused to confirm or deny whether it has used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to spy on journalists.
The Oxford Mail has revealed that the force has now rejected its request on the grounds that law enforcement would be compromised by disclosure.
The Mail, as well as the Newbury Weekly News, previously had a Freedom of Information request rejected by Thames Valley Police on the grounds that its questioning was “vexatious”, under section 14.1 of the act.
However, the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) rejected this excuse and ordered that the force disclose the information or find another exemption.
The latest rejection was made under section 31.3 of the FoI act. The force conceded the public interest in releasing the information, but said this was outweighed by the needs of operational law enforcement.
Jason Collie, the Oxford Mail’s assistant editor who has now moved to the London Evening Standard, made the request for the newspaper. He told Press Gazette he has now appealed the latest rejection.
Thames Valley Police is one of a handful of forces known to have used RIPA to spy on a journalist. In 2008, it bugged a car to find a source of Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer.
Thames Valley Police has previously rejected a Press Gazette FoI on the same topic under section 31.3 also.
The Thames Valley rejection – which applied a number of additional exemptions – is the subject of an appeal lodged to the ICO. Press Gazette also challenged rejections made by eight other forces.
Under the headline “Public Interest Considerations”, the Oxford Mail rejection letter said: “Disclosing information that is held in response to this request, would lead to better public awareness into the intricacies of RIPA legislation and applications submitted under Part 1 Chapter 2 of RIPA.
“The use of RIPA to identify journalistic sources is not without controversy. The mere existence of the IOCCO inquiry shows how serious the issue is.
“Disclosure of the information held, or facts around that, would give far greater detail than that published in the IOCCO findings, which would enable an even more accurate and informed public debate.
“Releasing specific details of investigations would ensure that anyone affected by those investigations, but currently unaware of that fact, would be empowered to take steps to either protect sources or journalistic material.
“It would also enable better informed public scrutiny of a forces use of RIPA in different circumstances (in this case communications data and identification of journalistic sources).”
But it added: “By releasing information held would compromise the effective delivery of operational law enforcement. Tactics could be compromised which could hinder the prevention and detection of crime.
“This extends to the protection of witnesses and victims in those investigations, who are likely to be identified either by the disclosure, or by small pieces of information which can be linked to other data available via the public domain, either by those who wish to frustrate any such investigation or identify such individuals.
“There is a public need that IOCCO powers and regulatory actions continue to remain effective. The relationship between Chief Officers and IOCCO is enshrined in statute. It operates in a confidential environment. To maintain its effectiveness there must therefore be a mutual expectation of confidentiality.”