The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s office (IOCCO) yesterday acknowledged the role of the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign in prompting an inquiry into police spying on journalists.
But in evidence to MPs, Sir Paul Kennedy declined to shed any more light on how widespread the practice was, pending the release of his report.
He revealed that all UK police forces have already responded to his request for details about the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to seize the phone records of journalists and sources. And he said that three inspectors were now involved in reviewing the evidence they have provided.
He said that his report would be published by the end of January.
A timeline published yesterday giving background on the IOCCO Journalistic Sources Inquiry notes the launch of the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign on 11 September. The IOCCO acknowledged the campaign on 17 September saying “we understand the concerns raised about the protection of journalistic sources so as to enable a free press”.
And on 5 October, the IOCCO launched its inquiry requesting information from all UK police forces the following day.
Kennedy yesterday told MPs that every police force had already got back to him with the information requested.
The apparent openness forces have shown to him contrasts with the wall of silence Press Gazette has met when asking police forces about their use of RIPA.
Every police force in the UK has rejected Freedom of Information Act requests from Press Gazette asking how many times RIPA has been used by them to obtain journalists’ phone records.
Paul Flynn MP (Lab) asked Kennedy why Press Gazette’s FoI requests have been rejected.
Kennedy said that he could see no reason for police not to disclose the information “if there was no national security element involved”.
Asked what protections are currently in place over RIPA used against journalists, Kennedy noted that in the current Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice (which governs the use of RIPA) there is no recognition of the importance of protecting confidential journalist sources.
He said: “The Home Office is well aware of this. They have said they are prepared to reform the code. We’ve encouraged them to expedite it. The code should contain special provisions for that kind of material.”
Police forces have indicated that they believe it is reasonable to use RIPA when investigating internal leaks to the media. There were more than 300 police media leak inquiries in the five years to 2011 and RIPA may have been used against journalists in many of these cases.
Home Secretary Theresa May has already promised new protections for journalistic material in a revised Code of Practice which is expected to go out to consultation imminently.
Kennedy invited journalists to make submissions about the new code.
Some 1,250 journalists and press freedom supporters have signed the petition which is addressed to the Interception Commissioner and states:
A free and open democratic society relies on whistleblowers to expose scandals and corruption in our public institutions.
The secret monitoring of journalists’ telephone records by public authorities risks turning Britain into a more secret state.
The Operation Alice closing report by the Met Police revealed the force used RIPA to secretly obtain the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and details of calls made to The Sun newsdesk. This information was used to track down and then sack three police officers accused of leaking information about the 'Plebgate' affair (even though the Crown Prosecution Service said they had no case to answer).
Urgent action is needed to find out how many times public authorities have used RIPA to obtain the phone records of journalists and to ensure new guidelines are in place to prevent this happening in future.
It is a well established legal principle that there is a huge public interest in the protection of confidential journalistic sources under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (freedom of expression).
If law enforcement authorities require access to confidential journalistic material (such as phone records) they should make a public request to the journalist or news organisation involved. And if neccessary they should argue the case before a judge in the procedure set out in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act.
The Save Our Sources campaign has attracted broad support from the entire journalism industry. Backers include: Sun editor David Dinsmore, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, the National Union of Journalists, the Chartered Institute of Journalists, the Newspaper Society and the Society of Editors.