The Oxford Mail has become the latest news organisation to be branded "vexatious" for asking questions about police use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act against journalists.
Thames Valley Police has dismissed a Freedom of Information request under section 14(1) of the Act – despite the fact it was submitted, on behalf of the newspaper, by the force's own press office.
The Newsquest daily asked Thames Valley Police press office whether the force has used RIPA to secretly obtain journalists' phone records over the last three years. This comes after a report from the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) revealed that 19 forces have used RIPA in this way over that period – but did not name them.
The newspaper joins Press Gazette, the Guido Fawkes website and several individual journalists in being branded "vexatious" for asking similar questions.
Guido Fawkes and others were accused this month of "working collectively" with Press Gazette when asking questions of the Met on this subject.
Thames Valley Police used RIPA to secretly bug conversations between Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer and a policeman in 2008. At trial, the case against Murrer was thrown out. There was no suggestion that money had changed hands for stories.
Thames Valley Police, the Metropolitan Police, Essex/Kent Police and Suffolk Police are the only forces to have openly admitted using RIPA to secretly obtain journalists’ phone records. Cleveland Police also appeared to admit doing so in a document mistakenly released to Press Gazette.
However, only the Met and Essex/Kent Police are known to have done so over the last three years, and so the other 17 forces reported by IOCCO to have used RIPA in this way are unknown.
Every police force across the UK has been asked by Press Gazette to supply information provided for the IOCCO report, but all those to have responded has rejected the FoI request under section 14(1), branding it “vexatious”.
The Oxford Mail has asked Thames Valley Police three times, under FoI, since last October whether it has used RIPA to target journalists
The Mail reports that it has uncovered a document showing its first FoI request, which Thames Valley said it could not afford to respond to under disclosure rules, was defined as a Tier 1 case. It said this is defined as “having a likelihood or impacting upon the reputation of Thames Valley Police, ie media/politically motivated, designed to undermine confidence in policing…”
After the IOCCO report was published in February, Oxford Mail assistant editor Jason Collie asked the Thames Valley press office to:
- Confirm or deny if they are one of the 19 forces that has used RIPA to access information/records about journalists and who they contact
- If it is a confirmation, how many cases
- If it is a confirmation, is one of these cases the Murrer case
- What is the breakdown amongst journalists – national, regional/local/freelances?
The press office told him in response that it did not hold the information and that, therefore: "The below will be treated as an FOI request so the appropriate information management advice is given."
After the FoI was rejected as "vexatious", Collie told Press Gazette he has written to Thames Valley's Police and Crime Commissioner asking that, in light of the public interest in the story, he intervenes and compels the force to answer the newspaper's questions.
Collie said: "Even before you get into the public interest merit of the police releasing the information, surely it has to be a nonsensical position to reject an FoI claim on the grounds it is vexatious when your own press office is who submitted it against the instructions of the newspaper concerned."
Thames Valley Police's ACC John Campbell said: “Thames Valley Police has followed national guidance in response to RIPA enquiries and is consistent with other Forces across the country.
"We will continue to use powers regulated by RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) appropriately.
"The Government will consider the recommendations in the report and will instruct Forces of any subsequent changes to legislation accordingly.”