Three senior Metropolitan Police officers were due in court today over allegations that the police are using anti-terrorism laws to snoop on the media.
It follows a number of cases in which police were said to be using their powers to circumvent laws which allow the media to keep their sources a secret, prompting concerns that whistleblowers will be put off coming forwards.
Today’s hearing will be the first time that the police’s use of the powers granted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to uncover a reporter’s source will have been tested in court, The Guardian has reported.
The case centres on the Plebgate affair, in which the Met was accused of a campaign to discredit the former chief whip Andrew Mitchell. In October 2012, officers stationed at Downing Street alleged that Mr Mitchell had called one of them a “pleb” after he refused to open the gate for Mr Mitchell to wheel his bike through. Instead, Mr Mitchell was made to walk through the pedestrian entrance.
Mr Mitchell denied using the word “pleb”, so PC Toby Rowlands requested a copy of the police log of the incident from his colleague PC Gill Weatherley, the officer who initially refused to allow Mitchell through the gates. Glanville then used this as the basis of a leak to The Sun.
But the Met was heavily criticised for initial failures to look into the leak, leading to accusations in the media of a plot to discredit Mr Mitchell. The force eventually launched an inquiry in December 2012, but The Sun refused to tell the police who their source was, so instead the Metropolitan Police used Ripa to access the phone records and GPS data of three reporters, and tapped the news desk.
Those reporters were named as Tom Newton Dunn, The Sun’s political editor, Craig Woodhouse, a political reporter, and Anthony France, a crime reporter. Police studied a week’s worth of data from the mobile phones of all three, which showed numbers texted, calls made and the length of the call, although the content of the communications was not revealed. GPS data was also accessed, allowing the police to see where the reporters had been during that time.
In addition, the data for two phone lines on The Sun’s news desk was also scrutinised.
Meanwhile, dozens of officers in the Met’s Diplomatic Protection Group also had their phone data seized. One was later jailed for fabricating an eyewitness account of the row between Mr Mitchell and the others, while PCs Rowlands and Weatherly were dismissed from the force.
The case has prompted fears amongst journalists that whistleblowers will be put off from coming forward. Last year, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism filed a case at the European Court of Human Rights challenging police surveillance of journalists’ communications, with the bureau’s Christopher Hird saying: “We understand why the government feels the need to have the power of interception.
“But our concern is that the existing regulatory regime to control the interception of communications data – such as phone calls and emails – by organisations such as GCHQ does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the protection of journalists’ sources, and as a result is a restriction on the operation of a free press.”
It has also prompted calls for further safeguards to be put in place in the legislation to ensure that the powers granted to the police under Ripa can’t be misused. Rory Broomfield, director of the Freedom Association told Breitbart London:
“The press have every right to try and find out information relating to cases of public interest and, if the police do need to act, then they should do so within law and not misuse it for their own purposes.
“Both the press and wider society need to have confidence in the police and believe that they act in society’s best interest. If found guilty of misuse of power, then appropriate action must be taken to ensure that Scotland Yard cannot overstep the mark on these matters again.”
“Unfortunately, as we have seen through the striking down of the Data Retention Investigatory Powers Act (DRIPA) by the High Court last week, the Government has produced legislation that is sometimes unclear and is open to potential abuse.
“I would call on the government, with the prospect of the Digital Data Communications Bill in mind, to think hard about the details of the bill and to conduct a wide ranging consultation with civic society and other Members of Parliament so as to ensure the introduction of the most appropriate and well drafted legislation possible.”