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Boris calls for police to be checked on snooping on journalists

26 November 2014

Boris Johnson has backed the NUJ's call for the requirement for judicial oversight before journalists' records and data can be obtained by the police and other authorities.

In reply to a letter from John McDonnell, secretary of the union's cross-party Parliamentary Group, London's mayor said:

"I am clear that the appropriate authorisation for obtaining journalists' records should be at a judicial level, something which is now being considered by the government. I welcome the review into this matter by Sir Paul Kennedy, Interception of Communications Commissioner, who, I hope, will reach the same conclusion to ensure the right balance between protecting the freedom of our great press and ensuring public safety."

He said he intended to respond to the Home Office consultation on the revised code of practice for the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).

Last month, Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, told the cross-party committee that use of RIPA by the police to snoop on journalists had become systemic. However, police have refused to say how often they have used RIPA to gain journalists' data.

In response to FOI requests by the Press Gazette, 27 forces refused to answer on cost grounds, with many saying the information was not easily retrievable, and 17 cited the "risk of undermining national security".

Sir Paul Kennedy has now asked chief constables to provide him with the information.

Michelle Stanistreet said:

"We welcome the mayor's intervention in this matter. Journalists will not be able to guarantee confidentiality of their sources if the law is allowed to be abused as it is now. This use of RIPA poses a huge threat to a free press and the way journalists work.
"Whistleblowers who have stories of vital interest to the public will think again before they telephone a reporter. The Metropolitan Police in particular has used RIPA to pursue witch-hunts of its own staff, with clearly not a jot of interest in the wider damage they are causing to public trust in journalism."

John McDonnell MP said:

"The Tom Newton Dunn case, where the Met used powers under RIPA to access a journalist's phone records without his prior knowledge to identify his source, was just the tip of the iceberg. We've no idea how quite how many times police forces have used these powers to target journalists, or how often. This blows apart the idea that journalists can keep their sources confidential, an integral part of a free press.

"It is to be hoped Home Office Secretary, Theresa May, takes the Mayor of London's advice on board.  Boris is quite right to suggest we need a change in the law. The police can't be allowed to mark their own homework. They should be forced to seek the authorisation of a judge. Journalists should made aware of each application and able to contest it in open court on public interest grounds."

The practice came to light when Sun political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, discovered the police had obtained his phone records from Vodafone, when they were trying to discover his source of the Plebgate story (when the then chief whip Andrew Mitchell swore at police at Downing Street).

Journalists at the Mail on Sunday writing about the former MP Chris Huhne's speeding fraud were also targeted. Boris Johnston said the use of RIPA by the Metropolitan Police Service to obtain Tom Newton Dunn's phone records raised "some legitimate concerns about the oversight and authorisation of this power".

RIPA allows communications data to be retained on a vast number of grounds including terrorism, public order, minor offences, health and safety, tax and on the grounds of risk to Britain's economic well-being. It can be obtained by a document signed off by a police superintendent or equivalent rank without any judicial or executive warrant.

Tags: , RIPA, press freedom, whistleblowers, surveillance, boris johnston, john McDonnell, plebgate, parliament uk, parliamentary group, press gazette, government uk, mail on sunday, the sun