UK editors seek reform of police access to journalists’ records

Last updated: January 20, 2015 12:01 am

UK editors seek reform of police access to journalists’ records

By Henry Mance

Editors of all the UK’s national newspapers have written to David Cameron calling for surveillance laws to be reformed to stop police accessing journalists’ phone records without a judge’s authorisation.

In the letter to the prime minister, representatives of nearly 100 news organisations said new draft legislation was “wholly inadequate” to protect public interest journalism.

“Public sector whistleblowers will not come forward to journalists in future if law enforcement agencies have the power to view journalists’ phone records at will,” the letter said.

The editors’ intervention comes after revelations that police accessed the phone records of The Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, who had been reporting on officers’ involvement in the “Plebgate” affair, which led to the resignation of Andrew Mitchell as government chief whip .

Mr Newton Dunn refused to disclose his confidential source but the Metropolitan Police requested data from his network provider Vodafone without his knowledge, and thereby identified his contacts. The request was authorised by a police officer, rather than a judge, using a little known provision in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.

A government consultation on how Ripa should be used ends on Tuesday. A new code would require a higher threshold in some cases where law enforcement officials wish to access the records of those handling confidential information, such as doctors, lawyers and journalists.

But the trade associations for solicitors, barristers, social workers and journalists want parliament to go further — and introduce specific privilege for certain professions.

“We have seen a growing number of instances where data and surveillance powers have been seriously and repeatedly overused,” the Law Society, the Bar Council, the British Association of Social Workers and the National Union of Journalists said in a joint statement. It is the first time that the groups have formed a policy alliance.

The confrontation is the latest battle over internet and telecommunications privacy following the revelations of US whistleblower Edward Snowden.

On Monday, The Guardian published new information leaked by Mr Snowden, the former National Security Agency contractor, saying that GCHQ, the UK communications monitoring agency, intercepted emails between journalists and their editors at news organisations including the BBC and Le Monde.

The interceptions were part of a 2008 training exercise, and were not necessarily intentional, The Guardian said.

GCHQ said it did not comment on surveillance methods but had acted within the law.

After this month’s terrorist attacks in France, Mr Cameron and Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, have called for increased surveillance powers. That has been opposed by Nick Clegg, the deputy prime minister and Liberal Democrat leader.

In the debate over Ripa, Mr Clegg has argued that the police should only have access to journalists’ communications with the “the say-so of a judge”.

The editors’ letter was signed by senior figures from The Guardian and Rupert Murdoch’s News UK, who have been at loggerheads over phone hacking, press regulation and Snowden’s revelations. Lionel Barber, the editor of the Financial Times, is also a signatory.

“Giving police the ability to secretly view the phone records of law-abiding journalists is not compatible with an open democratic society,” said Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, an industry publication that has organised the campaign.


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