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Keep up the pressure to save our sources

14 October 2014

Dominic Ponsford, Editor of Press Gazette

I thought that sweeping police surveillance powers were a price worth paying if it meant that myself, or more importantly my children, were less likely to be vaporised by a terrorist carrying a rucksack full of fertiliser.

And up until around a month ago I rather naively assumed that powers to intercept phone calls and emails would only be used by law enforcement agencies against suspected terrorists and serious criminals (or at the very least to stop terrorism and serious crime).

But when I read the Operation Alice Met Police closing report into the Plebgate affair the scales fell from my eyes. On page 31 of the 56-page report the following sentence revealed the casual and routine way the Met accessed the mobile phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn.

"The telecommunications data in respect of Tom Newton Dunn was applied for and evidenced."

The Met asked Newton Dunn who his sources were for the Plebgate front page, which revealed that then chief whip Andrew Mitchell had sworn at police officers and allegedly called them "fucking plebs".

Newton Dunn politely but firmly refused.

So the Met secretly pulled his phone records and worked it out themselves.

They did the same with the phone records of the Sun newsdesk.

They used powers allowed under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) and the requests were signed off internally by a superintendent.

Three police officers accused of directly, and indirectly, leaking information about the Plebgate incident to Newton Dunn and The Sun were tracked down via the telecoms data and sacked (notwithstanding the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service said they acted in the public interest and could not be charged with breaking the law).

Pretty much immediately I realised that this was one of those rare issues which the whole journalistic community could get behind.

If law enforcement are able to secretly grab the phone records of journalists and news organisations then no confidential source is safe and pretty much all investigative journalism is in peril.

The Save Our Sources petition, aimed at the Interception of Communications Commissioner, has so far been signed by 1,200 journalists and other concerned citizens.

And it has already woken him from his hundred years’ sleep, as one wag on Twitter put it.

He has told every police force in the country to reveal their use of RIPA against journalists and promised a public report.

In the mean time we have discovered that RIPA has also been used to grab the phone records of journalists working for the Mail on Sunday and the Ipswich Star. Again, none of the journalists involved were accused of breaking the law.

It would not surprise me to find out that every police molehunt in recent years prompted by news coverage (and there have been dozens if not hundreds) will have been accompanied by RIPA requests for the phone records of the journalist concerned.

Over the weekend the Home Office confirmed that a revised RIPA code of conduct will be published before Christmas requiring police forces to give more consideration to the special confidentiality which exists between journalists and their sources.

The hope is that this guidance will explicitly state that law enforcement officers must get the approval of a judge before they can view any journalistic material (including telecoms and email records).

But this is by no means a done deal, so we must keep the pressure on once the official consultation starts and the more people who can sign the Save Our Sources petition the better - sign the petition today.

The National Union of Journalists has given its full support to the Save Our Sources campaign and it is an issue which underlines the importance of having a strong and effective journalistic union.

Speaking personally, going up against big institutions like the Met police and the security services I have been glad to have a union which fights for press freedom behind me.

I have no doubt the surveillance offered by modern technology is a wonderful crime fighting tool. And there will be occasions when journalists, like other citizens, will fall under state surveillance.

But such surveillance has to be reserved for fighting serious crime, rather than being used to ensure the secrecy of the police and other public institutions, and must be properly regulated.

Dominic Ponsford is the editor of Press Gazette and member of the NUJ.

An international conference has been organised by the National Union of Journalists and the International Federation of Journalists to discuss concerns about mass surveillance of the media and to explore practical steps for safeguarding journalists and their sources on Thursday 16 October in London. Read more about the event and view the conference resources online.

Read more about the Save our Sources campaign on the Press Gazette website.

Tags: , press gazette, protection of sources, surveillance, ifj, ripa, the sun, mail on sunday, ipswich star, ethics, government uk, campaigns