The Home Office has ordered an investigation into the police, after it was alleged officers misused their powers to circumvent rules protecting journalistic sources. The law protects journalistic sources, but police officers are accused of accessing confidential information using powers granted to them to prevent terrorism.
They are said to have used powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), in which they can intercept communications with the sign-off from a Superintendent or above. In practise this means they no longer have to consult the courts in these cases: which has made the powers controversial.
Sir Paul Kennedy, the interceptions of communications chief, will now look at whether the legitimate rights of whistle-blowers have been violated. Kennedy will now require every police force in the country to disclose to him when they used the powers in cases relating to journalism.
The investigation follows a number of cases in which the identity of sources were revealed using RIPA. The most famous was the Plebgate affair, when the Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell was accused of calling Police Officers at Downing Street “plebs”.
After The Sun ran the story, its political editor Tom Newton Dunn refused to disclose how he knew about the incident. The Police then used their RIPA powers to go through his phone records.
They also used RIPA to find out who was briefing the Mail on Sunday about the details around Chris Huhne’s fall from grace. The Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change was convicted of Perverting the Course of Justice for lying about a 2003 speeding ticket.
Through their interceptions, police discovered Judge Constance Briscoe had lied when she said she had never spoken to a journalist about the incident. In fact she had contacted the Mail on Sunday and was subsequently also jailed as a result.
Sir Paul Kennedy said: “I have written to all chief constables and directed them … to provide me with full details of all investigations that have used … Ripa powers to acquire communications data to identify journalistic sources.
“My office will undertake a full inquiry into these matters and report our findings to the Prime Minister and publicly so as to develop clarity in relation to the scope and compliance of this activity.”
He added: “I fully understand and share the concerns raised about the protection of journalistic sources so as to enable a free Press.”
There have been fears recently that the police have become political and are potentially exceeding their remit. In the case of Andrew Mitchell it is now possible they lied to bring down a cabinet minister they did not like, something that would have major ramifications if true.