Today I did 2 things I’d not done before at Lib Dem conference

by Stephen Tall on October 5, 2014

And those two things are related.

Evan Harris, former Lib Dem MP and Hacked Off campaigner, got in touch last night to ask if I’d support his amendment to today’s ‘Doing what works to cut crime’ policy motion, ensuring the police don’t use RIPA (Labour’s Regulatory and Investigatory Powers Act) to stifle investigative journalism. Evan and I disagreed vigorously over the Leveson Report – he’s pro-regulation backed by statute, I’m not – but he, and the Save Our Sources campaign, are 100% right on this issue. It was good of him to ask, allowing me to utter the words “I agree with Evan”.

So I said so in a speech — the first I’ve ever made from the conference platform. Yes, after 15 years I finally broke my duck and lost my cherry. The bit I’m most proud of: having hastily written the speech this morning I got the timing just about right. You have three lights when you’re speaking: green, then amber (1 minute left), then red (shut up). I got about half-way through my amber, I think. Anyway, here’s what I said…

We won, by the way.

I’m delighted to back this amendment to strengthen an excellent policy paper – one which not only aims for rehabilitation of offenders, not only respects the victims of crime, but also – and almost unheard in the other parties’ debates on crime – doesn’t pander to prejudice but respects the evidence of what’s most likely to work.

The amendment moved by Evan cuts to the heart of a core liberal belief – that there is always a need for authority to be challenged. That authority varies. It might be the government of the day. It might sometimes be the police. It might be bullying bosses in private or public organisations. But wherever abuse of power is taking place liberals should be on the side of those seeking to expose it and to stop it. Helping the underdog, standing up to the oppressor.

The best journalism is an essential safeguard for us all, holding power to account. This amendment aims to encourage more of that high-quality journalism. By ensuring reporters and their editors (and their proprietors) know that when they are acting in the public interest they should not fear the tentacles of the state. But it’s about more than just that – it’s also about extending that defence to those ordinary members of the public who want to stop a wrong from continuing but bare also in fear of their jobs, their livelihoods, unless they can do it without fear of exposure.

I’m going to take a risk here. I’m going to ask you to feel some sympathy for the political editor of The Sun. When the et police was investigating the Andrew Mitchell Plebgate affair they used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to secretly obtain his phone records. They didn’t need the content of the calls. They just needed to know the phone numbers to start matching them up with his sources. Quick message to The Sun: human rights matter to everyone sometimes.

Actually it doesn’t matter if you feel sorry for The Sun — or for the Mail on Sunday journalists whose details were recently obtained by Kent Police. These are just the high profile cases. In 2013 alone there were 514,608 similar authorisations for RIPA requests by UK public authorities -that’s 10,000 such requests every week. If you were a whistleblower looking to expose a wrong how confident would you feel phoning a journalist knowing that? That’s why this campaign is caller Save our Sources.

And if the police do need to obtain confidential details they can do so already. Under Pace, they can apply to the courts and ask for disclosure in front of a judge and the journalist can put their case. That’s proper due process. But it’s so much easier, of course, to dodge it and use whatever powers you have at your disposal, even if they trample on press freedoms.

British journalism doesn’t have a great reputation at the moment. Muck-raking and entrapment, distorting and trivialisng – and that’s on a good day. But let’s also remember the best of journalism too, from The Sunday Times’s thalidomide campaign to the Daily Mail’s pursuit of Stephen Lawrence’s killers to (some of) the Telegraph’s expenses revelations to the Guardian’s own exposure of newspaper hacking. Sunlight is the best disinfectant. And after 24 hours in Glasgow I’d quite like some more sunlight.

On the Leveson Report, Evan and I found ourselves on opposite sides. But on this I am happy to say I agree with Evan. The best journalism, acting in the public interest, holding power to account, righting wrongs, preventing injustice: that journalism deserves our whole-hearted support. And so do those who confide in journalists despite the risks. Conference, liberals believe in challenging authority. This amendment gives protection to the underdogs challenging authority. Please support the amendment and then back this motion.