Police accused of using counter-terror powers to violate journalists’ human rights

© Andrew Winning
Scotland Yard used anti-terror legislation to violate the human rights of three British reporters in 2012 by accessing their private phone records, a court heard on Monday.

The Metropolitan Police sought the records after Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper uncovered a Downing Street spat between several police officers and then-Tory cabinet minister Andrew Mitchell. The row later became known as the ‘Plebgate’ affair.

In 2012, Mitchell had a heated row with an officer who wouldn’t allow him to wheel his bicycle through Downing Street’s main entrance.

Details of the incident were leaked to the Sun, which later reported Mitchell had insulted the officer and his colleagues, calling them “plebs.” PC Toby Rowland, the officer Mitchell allegedly raised his voice at, has maintained his account of events. But Mitchell continues to deny the allegations to this day.

In the first session of the Sun’s legal challenge, one senior Met detective said his move to source data from journalists’ phones and landlines was legitimate.

The officer had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to justify his actions. The controversial legislation was supposedly introduced to spy on suspected terrorists and criminals. However, it has been sharply criticized by privacy rights campaigners.

In order to have the Sun’s lawsuit scrapped, Scotland Yard must prove the use of the legislation was both necessary and proportionate.

Evidence pertaining to the case is being examined by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) – the only court in Britain with the authority to hear legal complaints involving UK intelligence and security agencies.

The Sun says UK police breached its employees’ right to protect “confidential sources” by unlawfully accessing their data. However, Scotland Yard maintains no wrongdoing occurred.

Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and journalists Anthony France and Craig Woodhouse argue Scotland Yard officials violated their right to freedom of speech under the European Convention on Human Rights.

Gavin Millar QC, who is representing the Sun, said police should have pursued the data they required in a legitimate manner. He said the officers could have taken the newspaper to court or asked it to aid the investigation without directly revealing key sources.

“Until the last few years … a judge would always take any decision as to whether the journalistic right could lawfully be overridden in order to identify a confidential journalistic source,” Millar said in a document submitted to the IPT.

“This important requirement was disregarded in the present case.”

Millar concluded a number of glaring human rights violations were apparent in Scotland Yard’s actions.

Detective Chief Inspector Tim Neligan, the chief investigating officer in the case, rejects Millar’s stance.

He the IPT he was confronted with allegations that looked like a “criminal conspiracy to unseat a cabinet minister.”

“He [Andrew Mitchell] was quite emphatic that he was a victim of a fit-up by the police,” Neligan told the Tribunal.

“It was now a crime investigation. We were investigating whether officers [at the Downing Street gate] had lied … and conspired with each other to leak (their account) to the press.”

The Plebgate scandal led to Mitchell’s resignation as Tory chief whip, one police officer facing a conviction of misconduct and the sacking of several others.

Lawyers say judges could award compensation to the Sun if they rule in favor of the journalists.

The case continues.