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April 4, 2019updated 30 Sep 2022 7:36am

Financial Conduct Authority blocks FOI request on its use of spying powers to grab journalists’ sources

By Freddy Mayhew

The UK’s financial conduct regulator has blocked a freedom of information request by Press Gazette into its use of counter-terrorism spying powers to grab journalists’ call records and expose their sources.

Press Gazette asked the Financial Conduct Authority to reveal details of when it has used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) to access the sources of journalists working for UK-based news publishers over the five years since the FCA’s creation in April 2013.

We made the request after reporting in November last year that the regulator had grabbed six-years of call records from Daily Mail financial journalist Geoff Foster at the request of its French counterpart the Autorité des Marchés Financiers (Financial Markets Authority).

The AMF had been investigating Foster over allegations of insider trading relating to two “market report” articles published in the Mail in 2011 and 2012. It went on to fine him €40,000.

Foster, who is now retired, continues to deny the allegations and has appealed.

A spokesman for Foster and Associated Newspapers said: “This was a deeply troubling decision with serious implications for financial journalism which is currently under appeal to the Cour de Cassation in Paris.

“The FCA’s actions in using powers to obtain and hand over a journalist’s confidential call records are a particularly worrying aspect of this case.”

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In its reply to Press Gazette’s FOI request, the FCA said: “We are unable to confirm or deny whether we hold the information you have requested.

“This is because to confirm or deny that we hold it would, or would be likely to, prejudice the exercise by the FCA of its functions under the Financial Services and Markets Act 2000 and would, or would be likely to, prejudice the commercial interests of any person (including the firm in question).”

The regulator pointed to Section 31 (law enforcement) of the FOI Act, which it said offered a “qualified exemption” when disclosure of the information requested “would, or would be likely to, prejudice the exercise by the FCA of its functions” as a regulator.

Police use of RIPA powers to grab journalists’ call records first emerged following the Plebgate scandal in 2012, when the Met targeted Sun journalists to find the source of a story on the incident.

Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign, which followed the revelation, succeeded in changing the law to give greater protection to sources.

Attempts by Press Gazette to reveal more details of the Met’s use of RIPA to spy on journalists resulted in it being labelled “vexatious” and “annoying”.

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