A change in the law to protect journalists and whistleblowers from state snooping has become official Liberal Democrat policy.
The move comes a month after the launch of the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign to stop police and other public authorities secretly grabbing the phone records of law-abiding journalists.
The party’s conference yesterday overwhelmingly backed a motion which called for new public interest defences in various piece of legislation (including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers and Computer Misuse Acts) to “protect responsible journalism”. The amendment also calls for the protection of “legally privileged and journalistic material from requests for telephone and other records”.
The legal change is aimed at stopping the police from secretly grabbing the phone records of law-abiding journalists, as they have done with The Sun and Mail on Sunday.
The motion was proposed and drafted by Dr Evan Harris, a former MP and associate director of campaign Hacked Off.
He said: “The Liberal Democrats, just like my organisation [Hacked Off} believe there is much more that can be done to enhance press freedom; especially in the areas of public interest journalism and investigative journalism.
“And there are two areas in which this amendment can do that.
“First is RIPA, and the lack of safeguards for journalistic material, including confidential sources and indeed for legally privileged material. The report of Operation Alice into the Plebgate affair revealed, as it had to do because it had to be published, that the police had got the phone records, both the mobile phone and the desk phone, from Tom Newton-Dunn, the Political Editor at The Sun.
“Now it’s unlikely they’d have found many friendly calls to and from Liberal Democrats. But that’s not the point. There is no judicial oversight or indeed any oversight for the police for that decision.
“The police authorised themselves to do that, something they cannot do under PACE and should not be allowed to do under RIPA. There must be greater safeguards.
“And the Press Gazette, the trade journal, has run a superb campaign called ‘Save Our Sources’ that I want the Liberal Democrats to sign up to, that calls for there to be safeguards to protect journalistic sources.”
“The second area dealt with in this amendment are public interest defences. For example in the Computer Misuse Act, which would mean that when Sky News hacked into the computer of the ‘canoe man’, who you may remember faked his death to get insurance money, they would not have been threatened with the chilling impact of a police investigation.
“Similarly with the Bribery Act. The Sun, which occasionally does good investigative journalism – should do it more often – and it ran an operation to expose fraud at a magistrate’s court in London where a clerk was letting people off speeding tickets. And they ran the risk of a police investigation because they were effectively breaking the Bribery Act and had no statutory defence.
If the News of the World, instead of their thousands of innocent victims of hacking, had hacked the phone of Jimmy Savile to expose him when the police were failing to do so, then they should not have faced for that example the threat of a police investigation. But there is no public interest defence.
“There is a public interest test for prosecutors, and that’s good, but that comes after in many cases police investigation, after arrest, after interviews under caution, after the deployment of search warrants – and that is chilling.”
Liberal Democrat blogger Stephen Tall told the conference: “The best journalism is an essential safeguard for us all, holding power to account. This amendment aims to encourage more of that high-quality journalism. By ensuring reporters and their editors (and their proprietors) know that when they are acting in the public interest they should not fear the tentacles of the state.
“But it's about more than just that – it's also about extending that defence to those ordinary members of the public who want to stop a wrong from continuing but bare also in fear of their jobs, their livelihoods, unless they can do it without fear of exposure.”
Deputy Prime minister, and leader of the Liberal Democracts, Nick Clegg has said he fully supports the Harris amendment.
He said: “Whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing need to have the confidence that their anonymity will be respected, otherwise they will not come forward. And journalists need assurance that they will not be hounded by the police for publishing material which is in the public interest.”