​Crackdown on police surveillance of journalists pledged following outcry

Reuters / Jorge Silva
Police in the UK will soon require a warrant to access journalists’ phone records after senior politicians backed new legislation outlawing the practice.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg voiced his support for giving journalists legal protection from police surveillance following a report by the Interception of Communication Commissioner’s Office (ICCO) published on Wednesday.

Sir Anthony May, author of the report, recommended police should be required to get a judge’s permission before attempting to uncover a journalist’s confidential sources by accessing their phone records.

Prime Minister David Cameron and Home Secretary Theresa May have accepted the recommendation, meaning the legal protection could become law before the general election in May.

Dominic Ponsford, editor of Press Gazette, a British media magazine, which launched a campaign to ‘Save Our Sources’ six months ago, said there was still doubt as to whether true legal protections would be passed.

Public support for restricting police power to spy on journalists reached a tipping point on Wednesday, when a report published by the ICCO revealed the extent of police intrusion.

According to the report, 19 police forces across the country invoked the power of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 608 times in order to gain access to journalists’ communication data.

In a bid to reassure the public, the report stressed that figure is just 0.1 percent of total RIPA applications authorized by police.

The report also revealed 105 journalists are listed as “of interest” across 34 separate investigations, and 82 have had their records appropriated under RIPA.

Generally speaking, the police forces did not give the question of necessity, proportionality and collateral intrusion sufficient consideration,” the report said.

The need to protect the confidentiality of journalistic sources is crucial to safeguard the free press in a democratic society.

READ MORE:London police spend millions snooping on journalists, FoI request reveals

It is recommended that judicial authorization is obtained in cases where communications data is sought to determine the source of journalistic information.”

The practice of using RIPA to find information relating to journalists’ sources has received widespread criticism.

In a high profile case last year, it emerged police had accessed the telephone records of the political editor of the Sun in a bid to identify a potential source in the ‘Plebgate’ scandal.

Michelle Stanistreet, National Union of Journalists (NUJ) general secretary, said at the time: “If whistleblowers believe that material they pass to journalists can be accessed in this way – without even the journalists and newspaper knowing about it – they will understandably think twice about making that call.”

Speaking to RT, Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford welcomed the news with cautious optimism.

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It’s great news that the government’s taken Press Gazette’s concerns on board and promised action to protect journalists from police snooping on their phone records,” he said.

But with the general election now just over three months away, there’s still a big question over whether the legislation that’s needed will be passed.

This week’s report from the Interception Commissioner shows the police abuse of their surveillance powers has been as wide-spread as we feared,” he added.