Police can keep us safe without spying on journalists’ sources
As the world mourns , it beggars belief that our political leaders should be planning to curb journalists’ ability to protect their sources. And yet, in just seven days, consultation will end on proposals that will allow the police to spy on journalists’ phone records without proper oversight, removing at a swipe historic privileges held by the press in the interests of the public.
In the febrile atmosphere after mindless acts of violence, such as those that occurred in Paris last week, governments - and the UK is no exception - want to be seen to be doing everything they can to track and bring to justice potential terrorists. Yet this very real fear and threat is being used to convince us that historic rights should be curtailed. Not overtly, of course, but in the home secretary’s disregard for the huge opposition to the draft code on the use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) which allows the police and other authorities to continue to access journalists’ communications without any independent process or judicial oversight.
Any connection to terrorism and serious crime is wrongheaded of course, as any application to access phone records when such activity is suspected would be waived through by any judge. Those most likely to be affected will be a whistleblower choosing to phone a journalist with information about anything – including wrongdoing or crime – who expects to remain anonymous. When it was to find out who told them about a minister abusing a police officer and the details of an MP’s speeding offences; neither of them lethal.
If applied in France, or indeed in the UK before Woolwich, these proposals would have effectively meant that associates of the Kouachi brothers or Michael Adebolajo who wanted to warn journalists or other professionals about any worrying behaviour could not keep their identity secret, while doing absolutely nothing to put the Kouachi brothers back on the terror watchlist they inexplicably fell off.
Traditionally the security services and the police have always had the authority to intercept and read any letter or listen in to any phonecall as long as they have a warrant . Communications metadata needs no such authorisation: the draft code states that UK law enforcement agencies can continue to secretly access journalists’ phone records and approve such requests themselves. All theey need do is give requests to tap journalists’ phones “special consideration”.
Opposition to the proposed changes has united many – and not just among the usual media organisations and freedom of speech campaigners; the Home Office select committee fear the planned changes could enable large-scale data-mining or fishing expeditions of calls made by all citizens.
The deputy prime minister, Nick Clegg, who is to speak at the Journalists’ Charity on Tuesday night to criticise the government’s plans to introduce new internet spying powers, called for a public interest defence for the press to be inserted into legislation like Ripa and the Bribery Act last October.
But he is a rarity indeed among a political class who, possibly correctly, do not see an attack on journalists as a vote-loser.
The speed with which the Ripa proposals could be made law has prompted a last-ditch protest by the Society of Editors and the Press Gazette, which has campaigned on this issue in an effort to “Save our Sources”. They are working on a joint letter condemning the plans, involving upto 3,000 UK editors.
But this isn’t just a matter for journalists; the new code states that “communications data is not subject to any form of professional privilege – the fact a communication took place does not disclose what was discussed, considered or advised”. Which means that calls made to doctors or priests will also be included.
Even MPs, protected by the 1966 ban on the tapping of UK MPs’ and peers’ telephones known as the will not be exempt.
1981, when the Contempt of Court Act became law, may seem like a long time ago, but the rights provided seem just as relevant today. The law provides that “in a free and democratic society there is a need to protect journalists sources and presumes in favour of those journalists wishing to protect their sources”. There were four exceptions to this – justice, national security, crime and disorder - and no one is arguing that those exceptions don’t matter just as much, if not more, today. But so does the protection for sources.
Consultation for the communications data codes of practice ends on January 20. You can respond .