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There is no RIPA victory yet – all depends on detail, says NUJ

23 February 2015

The union has urged for caution in response to the latest announcements to changes on the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA). The UK parliament will debate the laws to allow the authorities to snoop on journalists later today, Monday 23 January, but the amendments tabled by Julian Huppert MP to the serious crime bill have been rejected by the government already.

On Friday last week, it was revealed in a letter from Karen Bradley, Home Office minister, published by the Guardian, the government have agreed to issue interim guidelines on accessing journalists’ communications and these guidelines will include a procedure for judicial approval. Karen Bradley also said the government would publish draft clauses for new legislation that would be tabled in the next parliamentary session.

The details on both the interim guidelines and draft clauses have not yet been published by the government so the NUJ wants to see the specific details before claiming there has been a victory to safeguard journalists and their sources.

There have been no commitments by government, for example, that journalists will be informed prior to the authorities requesting to access their data, including phone records. Normally under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) the authorities try to access other types of material such as film footage or journalists’ notes, information that is held by the journalist.

It remains unclear on how PACE could be used in a different context, for example when requests are made to access electronic communications data and there might not be any requirement, in the interim guidelines proposed, to ask the journalist because the information can be sought from a third party, for example, a phone company. 

The NUJ therefore wants to know if the interim guidelines will ensure the journalist is notified, in advance, of the application to request their communications? Will a media organisation or individual journalist have the ability to challenge the application or appeal? At this stage no one knows because the details have not been published. The union wants to see the specifics contained in the interim guidelines as promised.

Chris Frost, chair of the NUJ ethics council, said:

"We welcome proposed changes to stop using RIPA to spy on journalists – we are very pleased everyone now agrees on this principle but as always the devil will be in the detail and so we urge the government to provide that detail now and then allow for a full and proper democratic debate amongst politicians, industry and civil society about the changes they intend to propose."

The NUJ has welcomed the government’s commitment on new legislation to change RIPA. The union has been calling for a new regulatory framework to safeguard journalists and sources since October 2014 and the union’s campaign work was recognised as part of the interception of communications commissioner Sir Anthony May’s report.

Read about the NUJ safeguarding journalists and sources campaign

Read about the NUJ campaign on RIPA

Tags: , pace, ethics, protection of sources, legislation, ripa, parliament uk, government uk