The media backlash following news that the police spied on The Sun to track down three officers who leaked information about the Plebgate affair has continued to grow.
The Operation Alice report revealed last week that the Met had secretly obtained mobile phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and of calls made to The Sun newdesk. The request was made under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and internally approved by a Met police officer.
The action has already been condemned by Liberty, the National Union of Journalists, the Society of Editors and Index on Censorship.
Meanwhile, The Times has revealed that the Bureau of Investigative Journalism is filing a challenge at the European Court of Human Rights against state intelligence services intercepting the emails of journalists.
It follows on from the surveillance revelations of Edward Snowden.
It could lead to a ruling that RIPA contravenes the right to free express under the European Convention on Human Rights because it undermines the confidentiality of journalists’ sources.
THE savage Islamic State hacks off the heads of troublesome journalists. The civilised British state simply hacks their phone records….
A free society is protected by the ability of the Press to hold the authorities to account in public.
That's why secret-hoarding control-freaks and little Hitlers want to limit it.
And confidential sources are the secret of every big dirtdigging story.
Writing in the Independent Ian Burrell said today:
This action has significant implications for investigative journalism as whistleblowers realise that media assurances that their identity will be kept secret can be compromised by a simple police procedure which does not even require the authorisation of a judge – a nod from a superintendent makes the seizure of data under Ripa perfectly legal.
In this instance, there was no question of terrorism, just the embarrassment of police officers going to a newspaper over the "Plebgate" comments said to have been made by the MP Andrew Mitchell at the entrance to Downing Street in 2012.
Legal safeguards are supposedly in place to prevent such an outrage from happening. The Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 requires the police to go before a judge before gaining access to such data. Of course, the judge may well give them permission – but at least the media outlet being investigated would know what is happening and may provide legal representation in protest. But in this instance the Met avoided such a delay by using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa). It is an old piece of anti-terror legislation that allows surveillance if agreed by a policeman ranked superintendent or above. The Ripa may have made sense to the parliamentarians who voted for it in 2000, but it has since been greatly abused: local authorities have used it to snoop on residents committing minor misdemeanours such as littering. And now we have an instance of the police invoking Ripa in order to investigate potential whistleblowing within their own institution. That surely cannot be healthy.
It threatens the right of journalists to keep sources secret – and unless sources trust that their anonymity will be safeguarded as closely as possible, they will not come forward. If whistle-blowers do not feel able to speak to the media then so many evils may remain hidden within our institutions. Good journalism holds the powerful to account and helps keep society open. Journalists must be free to do their jobs: it is not right that the police should behave in this manner.