The Metropolitan Police has apparently misled Press Gazette over the extent to which it used RIPA to spy on journalists as part of its Operation Alice investigation.
It emerged today that two more Sun journalists, in addition to political editor Tom Newton Dunn, had their phone records viewed during the Plebgate leak inquiry.
Press Gazette understands from well placed sources that the Met Police viewed the phone records of Sun crime reporter Anthony France and political correspondent Craig Woodhouse as part of the Operation Alice inquiry into Plebgate leaks. The force also apparently used satellite technology to track the movements of their phones.
There was no mention of this in the 57-page closing report into Operation Alice, which supposedly thoroughly summarised the Plebgate investigation. This only mentioned RIPA requests for the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and Newton Dunn.
The news that two further journalists from The Sun were targeted as part of the Plebgate probe (also reported today in The Times) contradicts a statement given to Press Gazette by the Met's press office and a Freedom of Information Act response from the force.
In November, Press Gazette asked the force whether RIPA was used to access the phone records of the Telegraph newsroom and of political editor Robert Winnett.
This was prompted by the fact that in a list of objectives for Operation Alice was written: "Identify the source of the information to The Sun and The Telegraph Newspapers and whether this emanated from the MPS." After The Sun's initial Plebgate front page in September 2012, the Telegraph exclusively published the police log detailing chief whip Andrew Mitchell's foul-mouthed tirade against a police officer outside Number 10 Downing Street.
In response to this query, Press Gazette was provided with a statement which appeared to state that the full extent of police use of RIPA against journalists during the investigation had already been outlined in the closing report.
The statement said: “We do not routinely confirm the individual cases where we make an application under RIPA.
"As part of Operation Alice the MPS took the unusual step of publicising a summary report of this investigation. That report confirmed where RIPA applications were made to obtain call data from a media organisation.
"Our use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice is outlined in this report."
When Press Gazette asked the same question in a Freedom of Information Act request the Met’s FoI team said: “The answer to your request is contained within an Operation Alice 'if asked' press line.” They then repeated the press statement quoted above.
The Sun newspaper is currently suing the Met Police via the Investigatory Powers Tribunal for what it sees as a clear abuse of RIPA to spy on the phone records of journalists who were not under suspicion of breaking the law.
Press Gazette understands the Met Police used RIPA to access the phone records of France over a week-long period and also of those who were in telephone contact with him.
This latest revelation comes after questions have been raised about the independence of the process by which the Met approved its RIPA surveillance requests against The Sun.
Under the current law police forces can sign off their own RIPA requests provided the “designated person” is not “directly involved” in the investigation
The Met said in September of the Plebgate RIPA requests: “In line with current practice, in this case the authorising officer was independent from the investigation team.”
Operation Alice was run by the Met's Directorate of Professional Standards. Press Gazette has discovered from a well-placed source that the RIPA telecoms records requests against The Sun during the inquiry were signed off by detective superintendent Paul Hudson who works in the DPS.
Sun insiders say the fact that DPS did not go to a superintendent from another department to sign off the RIPA requests draws into question the independence of the process.
A Met Police spokesman said today: “We do not routinely confirm the individual cases where we make an application under RIPA however as part of Operation Alice the MPS took the unusual step of publishing a summary report of the investigation. The scope of the report is detailed in para 1.7.
"The MPS is responding to complaints regarding its use of RIPA which are being investigated by the Investigatory Procedures Tribunal. As this investigation is ongoing it would be inappropriate to comment further on these matters at this stage.
"The authorising officer in this case was not working on, nor had ever worked on the Operation Alice investigation. As such it is accurate to describe that officer as independent from the investigation team and the decision making of the Senior Investigating Officer.
"The Office of the Interception of Communications Commissioner has conducted an investigation into police use of RIPA against journalist over the last three years. The report is due to be published this month."
Press Gazette was clearly led to believe in a Met Police statement that Operation Alice revealed the full scope of Met Police use of RIPA against journalists during Operation Alice.
We asked the press office, and submitted an FoI request, asking if the phone records of the Telegraph were also accessed as part of the Plebgate leak investigation.
We were told in no uncertain terms that this was not the case.
They made clear in a statement that any use of RIPA during this inquiry was summarised in the Operation Alice closing report, saying: "Our use of RIPA as part of Operation Alice is outlined in this report."
It looks like Press Gazette has been misled by the Met Police after it has emerged today that two more Sun journalists were targeted by RIPA as part of Operation Alice.
We already know that the Met shows a distinct lack of transparency when it comes to use of RIPA. Today's revelations draw into question the force's honesty on this subject.