Draft Investigatory Powers Bill weighs the scales of justice against protection of journalists' sources - Press Gazette

Draft Investigatory Powers Bill weighs the scales of justice against protection of journalists' sources

The proposed new legislation governing state surveillance is a big improvement on what went before as far as journalists go.

But the draft Investigatory Power Bill goes nowhere near far enough in terms of protecting the confidential sources and whistleblowers that an open society depends on.

It is good that judges will now have the final say on whether police should be allowed to access a journalist's, or a news organisation's, call data. Previously, the police approved these requests themselves.

And at least the Government now appears to accept that journalists' communications records are privileged (another first).

But such requests will still be made secretly, to the telecoms and internet service providers. So judges will only hear one side of the argument and not hear the balancing public interest case for protecting journalists’ sources.

There is a danger that under the new regime the scales of justice will he hopelessly lopsided.

Any public official who gives unauthorised information to a journalist is potentially breaking the law, so could be the subject of a criminal inquiry.

As we saw with the Plebgate case, once a police force has the call records of a journalist and a news organisation it is a relatively simple process of deduction to work out who their sources are. In that case, the data requests led to three police officers who lawfully gave information about a matter of public interest to The Sun being being sacked.

The new legislation needs to explicitly state that in all but the most extreme cases, the call records of journalists who are not themselves under suspicion of breaking the law should be off limits.

Yes, journalists speak to terrorists and criminals. Society would be more ignorant if they didn’t.

And the ability of public officials to speak directly, and secretly, to journalists is a necessary safeguard against cover-ups and corruption.

Without public sector whistleblowers we would not know about the Rotherham child abuse scandal, MPs’ expenses or the police failure to investigate the hacking scandal first time round.



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Author: Dominic Ponsford

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette