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  1. Media Law
August 4, 2015updated 05 Aug 2015 1:46pm

Police Scotland accused of unlawfully using RIPA to find journalistic source since March law change

By William Turvill

Police Scotland is facing accusations that it is one of two police forces to have unlawfully accessed phone records to find journalistic sources since March.

Last month it emerged that two UK forces have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act without judicial approval to find sources since the Save Our Sources stopgap law preventing this practice was passed.

The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO), which regulates the use of RIPA, revealed the incidents but did not name the forces or individuals involved.

IOCCO said it would be informing the journalists concerned if, on investigation, it found "wilful or reckless failure" by the forces.

The Sunday Herald has reported a source as saying that Police Scotland's Counter Corruption Unit was responsible and that the force is being investigated by IOCCO.

Police Scotland has refused to confirm or deny the report.

The newspaper reports: “It is understood the case may relate to a public interest story on a well-known murder. A figure who had helped the newspaper received a police ‘calling card’ after the article was published.”

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A Police Scotland spokesperson said: “IOCCO has clearly set out its rationale for not identifying organisations in its report, and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further.”

IOCCO has also released a statement saying it will not be confirming the forces it is investigating.

It said: “We made clear in our half-yearly report that we were in the early stages of investigating these breaches and determining whether any individual has been adversely affected by any wilful or reckless failure by any person within a public authority. If we establish that fact we will, in line with paragraph 8.3 of the code, inform the affected individuals of the existence of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) and its role to enable them to engage the IPT effectively.

“We did not name the two police forces and note that a media report relating to this matter has set out that “the policy of IOCCO is that it does not identify agencies where breaches have occurred”. This is simply untrue and misrepresents our position.

“It would be wholly inappropriate for us to name the two police forces whilst we are still in the process investigating fully these matters. Our primary concerns are to ensure that our investigation process is not prejudiced, that the privacy of those individuals who may have been adversely affected is protected and, that those individuals are able to seek effective remedy. Careful consideration has also had to be given to the fact that criminal investigations and legal proceedings are invariably active and we are not yet in a position to consider the impact or potential wider consequences of naming.

“The reason we chose to report these breaches at such an early stage of investigation was to ensure that the issue was highlighted nationally at the earliest opportunity to prevent further breaches from occurring. The National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) immediately responded to our concerns by issuing guidance on this matter to Chief Officers.

“We have no further comment to make at this time. It is important for all to allow a full investigation to be conducted into these matters.”

The scandal of police using RIPA to secretly obtain journalistic phone records to find sources erupted in September last year when it emerged that the Metropolitan Police had used the technique to find the source of The Sun's Plebgate story.

Press Gazette then exposed several other police forces using RIPA in this way and started the Save Our Sources campaign, which demanded that police forces be required to obtain judicial approval before doing this.

After six months had gained widespread support among journalists and press freedom campaigners. IOCCO also supported the demands of the campaign and a stopgap law was passed in March this year.

Press Gazette was recognised at the Paul Foot Award, Online Media Awards and Digital Media Awards for the campaign.

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