Surveillance powers: should the police have right of access to journalists’ files?
In a year that has already seen press freedom challenged from all sides, controversy has now surrounded the right of authorities to access journalists’ sources.
David Cameron has accepted recommendations for police to require “judicial oversight” when using anti-terror powers to spy on reporters.
But less than two months after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo brought journalistic liberties to the forefront of world news, is further state regulation – no matter whom it favours – a step backwards?
An inquiry by the Interception of Communication Commissioner’s Office (ICCO) found that in the last three years, 19 police forces made more than 600 applications for access to confidential sources. In the same period, email and telephone records between 82 journalists and 242 sources were spied on.
Interception of Communication commissioner Sir Anthony May recommended to the PM that investigating police requires authorisation from a designated superintendent or superior, stating that previously the police “did not give due consideration to free speech”.
“The need to protect the confidentiality of journalistic sources is crucial to safeguard the free press in a democratic society,” May said.
May criticised the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (RIPA) for failing to provide enough guidance on police powers and highlighted that new legislation would be required after the act’s expiration at the end of 2016.
After January’s backlash from the Paris attacks saw many calling for state-sanctioned censorship, it is easy to see May’s “free press” alongside “new legislation” as no less than a surrender.
While the inquiry highlighted the threat of a “chilling effect” on freedom of expression, the fault lies not in the existing regulations but in the will of police and officials to exploit press confidentiality.
Laws such as the Police & Criminal Evidence Act 1984, which many news organisations have accused authorities of attempting to circumvent, seem redundant when posed against investigators that are willing to twist journalistic liberties to their advantage.
Assistant chief constable Richard Berry, who leads the police in intercepting communications data, maintained that he was committed to implementing the law according to its own guidelines.
“To that end, we announced our plans for a board of communications data ethics to consider issues of public concern in an increasingly digitised world,” he said.
The Association of Chief Police Officers avoided accusations of suppressing press freedom, instead citing the responsibility of both police forces and news agencies to target corrupt relationships between reporters and authorities.
Perhaps, in the face of threats to human liberties and expression, the answer is not to further jeopardise these freedoms with flagrant law making, but for the police and agencies to agree that source confidentiality is more than a legal matter.
In the wake of Charlie Hebdo and subsequent shootings at Krudttønden cultural centre in Copenhagen, which still lie fresh in our minds, we should endeavour to observe press freedom in practice rather than merely in theory, and treat journalism and crime-prevention as the disparate entities that they are.
Thomas Rhys Jones