by Stephen Tall on October 24, 2014
Press Gazette’s “Save Our Sources” campaign
British media trade magazine
Reason: for campaigning to stop public authorities spying on journalists’ phone records
Earlier this month, I spoke for the first time from the floor of the Lib Dem conference to back an amendment proposed by Evan Harris to introduce a public interest defence to protect responsible journalism, ensuring greater protection for legally privileged and journalistic material from requests for telephone and other records.
Why? Well, the Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign explains:
Without whistleblowers there is no investigative journalism.
That’s why the news that the Met Police secretly obtained the phone records of Sun political editor Tom Newton Dunn and of calls to the Sun newsdesk should concern anyone who cares about journalism and high standards in public life.
The Met used the information to track down and sack three police constables accused of leaking information about the ‘Plebgate’ incident of September 2012 in which then Government chief whip Andrew Mitchell swore at a police officer outside 10 Downing Street. This was despite the fact that the Crown Prosecution Service ruled that no charges should be brought against the officers because a jury would judge that they acted in the public interest.
Last year public authorities made more than 500,000 requests for telecommunications data under RIPA.
Both the Met Police and the Association of Chief Police Officers have said that they believe it is lawful to target journalists in this way.
But this appears to drive a cart and horses through the overriding public interest which the European Court of Human Rights has placed on the protection of confidential journalistic sources under Article 10 (freedom of expression).
Put simply, if police and other public authorities can secretly obtain journalists’ phone records at will – why would any public sector whistleblower ever contact a journalist by telephone again?
This is seriously bad news for anyone who believes that scandals and corruption are best dealt with by being exposed.
That is bad news. Fortunately, there is also good news. For a start, Evan Harris’s amendment was passed. This week it was reported that the Lib Dems are now encouraging the other parties to consider backing a public interest defence as part of a more wide-ranging review of the sprawling RIPA powers. Let’s hope it happens. As I said a fortnight ago:
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.
* The ‘Liberal Heroes of the Week’ (and occasional ‘Liberal Villains’) series showcases those who promote any of the four liberal tenets identified in The Orange Book — economic, personal, political and social liberalism — regardless of party affiliation and from beyond Westminster. If they stick up for liberalism in some way then they’re in contention. If they confound liberalism they may be named Villains. You can view our complete list of heroes and villains here. Nominations are welcome via email or Twitter.