Cleveland Police used anti-terror powers to spy on two Press Association journalists, an internal review by the scandal-hit force has uncovered.
It brings the total number of journalists known to have been unwittingly snooped on by Cleveland Police to five.
Staff reporter Tom Wilkinson and photographer Owen Humphreys were both targeted after critical stories were published in July 2013 about a senior civilian officer’s resignation.
At the time the Independent Police Complaints Commission said it was “completely unacceptable” for Ann Hall, the assistant chief officer, to quit ahead of a disciplinary hearing for alleged misconduct.
Press Association covered the story.
It has since emerged that the force applied to use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on Wilkinson’s phone over four days, grabbing call records and location data.
RIPA was used to ascertain who owned a particular mobile phone number, which was later found to belong to Humpheys, but his call data was not tracked, police have said.
Cleveland Police also admitted spying on the phone of Northern Echo reporter Graeme Hetherington as part of the same investigation.
Chief constable Iain Spittal said: “Following a ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal earlier this year that in 2012 Cleveland Police had, in a small number of instances, used RIPA authorisations unlawfully the force launched a review of all such authorisations dating back to that time.
“As part of this ongoing work we’ve found three additional instances of RIPA being used on journalists, two from PA and one from the Northern Echo, in 2013 in what was a disproportionate manner.
“When such evidence is found we will, as we have here, contact those affected and give them full details.
“We will also, as we have here, offer our full apologies.”
Hetherington was also targeted a year earlier in 2012 – alongside colleague Julia Breene and Daily Mirror reporter Jeremy Armstrong – as Cleveland Police hunted the source of information leaks to the press.
The force also monitored the entire Echo newsroom for two days as part of its investigation.
Investigatory Powers Tribunal judges ruled in January that Cleveland Police’s use of spying powers against former officers Mark Dias and Steve Matthews had been “unlawful” and in breach of their right to privacy under the European Convention on Human Rights.
Cleveland Police and Crime Commissioner Barry Coppinger has said an investigation into the force’s use of RIPA is continuing and that its results would be published.
He told the Echo: “I want to reiterate my firm belief that a free press is essential for any democracy and journalists must be allowed to go about their work without unlawful intervention by the police or anyone else.”
Wilkinson said he had covered many stories about Cleveland Police in his 16 years with the Press Association, including the news conference in January at which the force announced it was scrapping its Professional Standards Department in the light of its unlawful use of RIPA.
“In some ways I am not surprised that the force monitored my phone,” the 44-year-old said.
“But it was still unpleasant to find out, almost four years after the fact, that they have used anti-terror laws to snoop on me, merely for doing my job.”
Peter Clifton, editor-in-chief at Press Association, said: “PA is appalled by this flagrant breach of our journalists’ human rights – their right to privacy and their right to protect sources.
“It also rides roughshod over the PA’s right to go about its business in an entirely legitimate and professional way.
“Tom and Owen are shocked and disgusted by this abuse of police power, and PA shares their dismay at the way two such respected journalists have been treated.
“We will seek further legal advice, and we will also be keen to investigate if other police have used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to illegally spy on other PA staff, and journalists more widely, in this way.”
The Society of Editors said it welcomed the fresh apology from police but called for more to be done to ensure journalists are not treated as criminals.
Ian Murray, Society of Editors deputy director, said: “The use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act by numerous forces to access journalistic material is now as well known as it was unsurprising. In the majority of cases, the legislation was used as a means of reputation management rather than exposing criminality.”
He added: “The police and our elected officials need to understand that journalists are not criminals and should therefore not be treated as such.
“Accessing journalists’ call records should be a rare exception for police rather that the rule it seems to have become in recent years and any further attempt to prosecute, convict and imprison anyone involved in obtaining, gathering and disclosing information irrespective of the public interest should be vigourously opposed.”
Cleveland Police’s data grab was carried out before Press Gazette’s campaigning helped to bring about a change in the law, meaning police now must seek judicial approval for applications to view telecoms data which could identify a journalistic source.
Prior to the introduction of the Save Our Sources amendment in 2015, police signed these off these request themselves.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner revealed in February 2015 that police forces around the country had used RIPA to access the call records of 82 journalists over the previous three years in order to identify their sources.
The Commissioner has never revealed which forces, or journalists, were involved.
Successive attempts by Press Gazette to find out more information about police surveillance of journalists using the Freedom of Information Act have been rebuffed by police forces around the UK.
Other examples of police forces known to have abused surveillance powers in order to find journalists’ sources include the following:
- The Met Police accessed the calls records of three Sun journalists and The Sun newsdesk in order to find out which officers leaked information about the September 2012 Plebgate incident. The officers did not break the law and the Crown Prosecution Service decided they acted in the public interest
- Kent Police used RIPA to obtain the phone records of Mail on Sunday news editor David Dillonand freelance journalist Andrew Alderson.
They were targeted as part of an investigation into judge Constance Briscoe to find out whether she had lied about speaking to the press over the issue of Cabinet minister Chris Huhne swapping speeding points with his wife Vicky Pryce
- Suffolk Police used RIPA to obtain the phone records of then Ipswich Star journalist Mark Bulstrode after he qustioned the force about the re-opening of a rape investigation.