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  1. Media Law
July 9, 2015

Non-vexatious weekly becomes second force to score RIPA FoI victory over Thames Valley Police

By William Turvill

The Information Commissioner has judged that a single information request by the Newbury Weekly News to Thames Valley Police could not be judged to be "vexatious".

Earlier this week, the force was told by the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) that it could not rely on a section 14(1) exemption to refuse an Freedom of Information Act request from the Oxford Mail asking about its use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain journalistic phone records.

And now the ICO has made the same ruling following an appeal made by the Newbury title.

The newspaper has told how it was branded “vexatious” and said its single request was part of a campaign of “unreasonable persistence” by the media.

Thames Valley Police now has 35 days to either disclose the information or use an alternative FoI exemption. Previously, police forces have said they could not answer questions from Press Gazette and others on the subject because of cost exemptions or “national security”.

Press Gazette, with the backing of lawyers acting on a pro-bono basis, has challenged various FoI rejections made by nine police forces – including “vexatious” exemptions – to the Information Commissioner and is awaiting a response from the body.

In his challenge to the ICO, reporter William Walker said: “That other news organisations have written similar requests should be incidental to the final decision as to whether to disclose the information.

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“Each FoI request should be treated on an individual basis and not automatically assumed to be part of a group of FoIs.

“The single request made by myself was on a matter of genuine interest – that of the protection of confidential sources for journalists.

“As such this should not represent a ‘vexatious’ request by its very definition – nothing in the request is designed to annoy, or irritate or cause offence, but rather shed light on an area of important public concern.”

On 5 February, after the release of a report into police use of RIPA to identify journalistic sources conducted by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, he asked the force: “Please provide information detailing the number of incidents whereby the use of Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act was used to identify journalistic sources by Thames Valley Police. In each case please specify the publication the journalist belonged to and the name of the journalist and/or position at the newspaper. Also provide the reason for the use of the power and the outcomes if any.”

Thames Valley Police is one of five police forces – along with the Met, Essex, Suffolk and Cleveland – known to have used RIPA to find journalistic sources.

In 2008, the force bugged a car to spy on Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer as part of a leak investigation.  

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