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October 12, 2014updated 14 Oct 2014 12:26am

Success in sight for Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign as Home Office promises new RIPA controls

By Dominic Ponsford

The Home Office has said that measures could be in place before Christmas to stop police spying on the phone records of law-abiding journalists.

The news comes a month after Press Gazette launched the Save Our Sources campaign in response to the revelation that the Met Police had viewed the phone records of The Sun in order to find and sack three officers accused of lawfully leaking information about the Plebgate affair.

In has since emerged that Kent Police targeted journalists working for The Mail on Sunday. And on Friday Press Gazette revealed that a journalist working for the Ipswich Star had also had his records viewed by police.

None of the journalists whose phone records were viewed by the police were under suspicion of breaking the law.

Press Gazette has submitted a Freedom of Information request to every police force in the country asking them how many times they have used RIPA against journalists. More than 30 forces have so far refused to answer the question.

A Home Office spokesman said: "A free press is fundamental to a free society and the Government is determined that nothing is done which puts that at risk. Communications data is an absolutely critical tool used by police and other agencies to investigate crime, safeguard national security and protect the public.

"There are measures in place to ensure that police powers to access this data are not abused.

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"We have also been working to strengthen the relevant code to ensure extra consideration should be given to a communications data request involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists.

"We anticipate that the revised code will be published in draft this autumn and, following a full public consultation, will be laid in Parliament before Christmas."

But the Mail On Sunday went further with its extensive coverage yesterday reporting:

Home Secretary Theresa May will drive through a new law to stop officers snooping on reporters unless they are investigating serious crimes. And she will ensure that they need approval from judges or watchdogs for the intrusive surveillance – which at the moment can be approved simply ‘on the nod’ from colleagues.

However it the official Home Office guidance remains unclear about whether that code will require that data requests involving journalists must go before a judge.

The Home Office is currently only saying that the code of practice will be strengthened to ensure extra consideration is given to a communications data request involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists. The department says this would mean that the data request is still approved internally by a police officer who weighs up whether the intrusion is justified.

Speaking on Sky News, Justice Minister Simon Hughes said he thinks that in future police forces should require the approval of a judge before being able to access journalists' phone records in a criminal investigation.

He said: "The principle has to be a) freedom of expression, b) journalists have a job to do and there is a public interest defence available to all journalists so you would be able to argue that case.”

The Interception of Communications Commissioner has already announced an inquiry into police use of RIPA against journalists in response to the concerns raised by Press Gazette in the Save Our Sources campaign.

And last week the Liberal Democrat conference formally backed the Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign and adopted new protections for journalists from state surveillance as official party policy.

When the new communications code goes out to consultation Press Gazette will be urging the government to ensure it states clearly that law enforcement authorities must seek the permission of a judge before viewing the phone records of journalists.

So far nearly 1,200 journalists, campaigners and concerned individuals have signed the Press Gazette Save Our Sources petition.

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