Reading the Met Police’s final Freedom of Information Act rejection letter to Press Gazette, five months after our first, a crushing realisation dawned on me.
They’re just not that into us.
- September 17, 2019
- July 17, 2019
- April 4, 2019
Our first FoI request to the Met was filed in September after the Met revealed in the Operation Alice closing report that it had obtained the phone records of The Sun and political editor Tom Newton Dunn in order to find and punish the paper’s lawful police sources.
The revelation was a seismic shock to the journalism industry and we wanted to know if this was a one-off. We asked how many imes the Met had obtained journalists' phone records under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act over a ten-year period. This was rejected on the grounds that it was too expensive to answer.
So we narrowed the question down five times, only to get the same costs refusal again and again until finally, in February, we were accused of being vexatious.
The question that prompted the Met to change the proverbial locks asked whether specific national newspaper telephone numbers were subject to RIPA surveillance over a three-year period.
Like a love-sick suitor who can’t take no for an answer Press Gazette thought we would give it one more try.
We asked if the Met would share the information it provided to the Interception of Communications Commissioner with regards to police use of RIPA against journalists (redacted as necessary to protect individual confidentiality).
They could hardly reject this on costs grounds as we were asking for information they had compiled anyway for the Interception watchdog.
This time they didn’t just reject it, the sent us the FoI equivalent of a ‘Dear John’ letter.
More in sadness than anger they pointed out that requests for data “have to be carefully considered” and that “there is no ability to simply press a button and the data will appear”.
The letter said that each request for information about police use of RIPA “places additional workloads and distractions on policing departments whose primary functions is to investigate the more complex and serious crimes they have to deal with”.
Gulp. We didn’t want to distract them from investigating serious crime. If anything, that was our point – we want the Met to be investigating serious crime rather than scrolling through journalists’ call records as part of internal molehunts.
The FoI response went on to point out that the consistent refusal of the Met to reveal any further information about RIPA use has “attracted negative articles in many national press publications” – helpfully linking to one such article in Press Gazette.
They had us there.
The Met also pointed out police forces have previously supplied headline figures over their use of RIPA – so why did we need to know more about specific use against journalists?
And paying us a backhanded compliment (I think) they said: “we would have expected experienced investigative journalists to have had some grasp of the sensitive environment in which these requests were being made into”.
It got worse:
“It is therefore somewhat disappointing if they did not already have a feel for the fact that the initial responses would not include disclosure of the low level data required.”
Then another dig:
“The burden of persistent applications has been clearly articulated and should be obvious to a reasonable person."
I could go on, but by now myself and colleague William Turvill had got the picture.
In FoI terms the Met Police were breaking up with us.
We now accept that we will get nowhere with FoI questions, or questions to the press office, when it comes to police use of RIPA against journalists.
But we are not going to let this lie. There are further avenues of appeal open to us which we are now going to explore via the Information Commissioner.
We don’t do it to be vexatious or to waste police time. We are doing it because the Government is currently reviewing legislation on how to ensure confidential journalistic sources are protected from police requests for telecoms data.
The Interception Commissioner’s report makes clear that these grabs have been widespread, with 82 journalists' records obtained by police in order to track down sources in three years.
The Met insists that all its requests were lawful and proportionate. If they were, then what does it have to hide?
We feel that the Plebgate case was an abuse of RIPA. The records of three Sun journalists, plus The Sun newsdesk, were targeted and hundreds of sources compromised in order to shut down and punish officers who were releasing information about a matter of clear public interest.
If there are other instances like this we feel the public and politicians should know about it. If police use of RIPA against journalists was a state secret, why did the Met admit that it goes on in the Operation Alice closing report?
So while we accept that the Met does not want to talk, it won’t stop us continuing the battle for custody of the information the force holds on its use of RIPA against journalists.