Police need permission from a judge to probe journalist’s sources

Home Secretary Theresa May has put a stop to police being able to trawl through journalist’s phone records and emails whenever they like. Now, they will need permission from a judge.

According to the Home Office, the measure has been introduced as a provisional solution, with new legislation being introduced in the next parliament.

The measure comes after the Home Secretary received and accepted the findings and conclusions of a review by the Interception of Communications Commissioner, who was extremely critical of how the police had used RIPA (Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) to access journalists’ email and phone records.

Rt Hon Sir Anthony May

Rt Hon Sir Anthony May severely criticized RIPA usage by the police. (Image: Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office)

The Rt Hon. Sir Anthony May, Interception of Communications Commissioner, concluded in the Journalist Inquiry Report:

“After careful consideration of all the evidence and the sensitivities and complexities of the considerations required when contemplating an interference with Article 10 of the Convention it is recommended that Judicial authorisation is obtained in cases where communications data is sought to determine the source of journalistic information.”

Police will need to get a Judge’s OK first

British police will now have to use the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 if they want details of a journalist’s communication data, which requires them to get permission from a judge.

The Government says it will amend the Serious Crime Bill currently making its way through Parliament to make sure a revised code of practice has “due regard to the public interest in protecting journalists sources.”

Theresa May

Theresa May said the scope of the current bill is to limited to change the law.

The Liberal Democrats had wanted to use the bill to change the law, but Ms. May said its scope was too limited, i.e. new legislation (a new bill) would be needed after May 2015’s general election.

A Home Office spokesman said:

“A free press is fundamental to a free society. The Government has accepted in full the recommendations of the Interception of Communications Commissioner and we are determined to implement them as soon as is legally possible.”

“So we are legislating as far as possible now until a bill can be introduced in the next parliament which delivers the recommendations in full.”

Former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, who piloted RIPA through Parliament, said in a BBC Radio 4 Today programme::

“It is better than nothing but something much more dramatic needs to be done. I think the long-term solution has got to be primary legislation. It is a matter of urgency. It was never envisaged that would be used by the police in the way that it has been used.”

Newspapers have thanked the Government for acting to stop police from misusing their powers using what they describe as the badly drafted RIPA, legislation that was introduced to combat terrorism.

The Liberal Democrat Voice quoted a Lib-Dem spokesman, who said:

“We’re glad the Tories have finally found some sense and have at least agreed to ensure temporary measures are put in place to protect journalist sources.”

“Whilst temporary measures are better than none, we will not stop pushing to ensure permanent safeguards are put in place.”