By Angela Phillips
For the first time since the start of the hacking enquiries, the British Press is speaking with one voice in its condemnation of the police use of special powers to investigate journalists’ phone records. That the two cases— the prosecution of Chris Huhne and the investigation into Andrew Mitchell’s altercation with police at Downing Street—both involve members of parliament is particularly chilling. Neither of these cases was remotely involved with national security, both were trivial in nature and the only reason why they came to public notice at all is that they involved MPs.
This use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to allow the police to examine journalists’ phone records, is a direct attack on press freedom because it utterly compromises the right of journalists to a keep their sources secret. Very often the only protection a prospective whistle blower has is the protective power of publicity but, without the secure knowledge that they can contact a journalists in confidence, few will in future risk putting potentially damaging information into the public domain. The immediate effect would be that journalists are no longer capable of operating as a check on the power of the state but it is not hard to see that it is a very small step to the use of such powers to protect the interests of corporations whose activities are considered to be a matter of national interest.
Ripa was introduced in 2000 under the Labour Government. It allows the police enormous power to track phone records. Unlike previous laws there is no requirement even to get the permission of a judge and there is no means by which these activities can be properly monitored. Police literally tap a few commands into a computer and have access to any given set of phone records. Nobody has the right to know if they have been monitored. According to the Interception of Communications Commissioner Office, police and local authorities used these powers at least 500,000 times in the past year.
The law was condemned at the time by the liberal press but largely ignored by the newspapers that we now know have been under investigation using Ripa. Presumably they never contemplated then that an attack on the human rights of suspected criminals and ‘terrorists’ could become an attack on their own rights, nor did they notice that journalists had not been exempted from the far-reaching powers of the law. On the Today Programme on Thursday 9 October, Mail on Sunday editor Geordie Greig, made it clear that it is now a matter of overwhelming concern that police have the power to ‘hack into the beating heart of a newspaper’. The Sun, having suffered the ignominy of having its own journalists jailed for hacking the phones of others, is now demanding a public review of the Metropolitan police use of the Ripa to ‘hack’ their own phone records.
In the wake of Leveson, perhaps newspaper editors are finally waking up to the fact that they actually need a respected, independent and united body to stand up for their rights. Professor Tim Luckhurst, ex-editor of the Scotsman and one of the few media academics to support the attempts by the newspaper industry to undermine the Leveson enquiry, argued on the Free Speech Network website, in 2012, that breaches of the law should simply be left to the police. But a news industry regulated by the police has no means of protecting itself from attacks by the state. A news industry partially organised in a manner that is seen as self-serving has no moral weight when it comes to protecting itself and it is noteworthy that IPSO (the Independent Press Standards Organisation) has not entered into the debate about the use of Ripa. The events of the last few weeks have demonstrated clearly that the British news media need a collective voice that has some moral authority and cannot be dismissed as the collective might of a bunch of powerful corporations operating in their own interest. Press freedom demands action that is above the requirements of commerce.
Angela Phillips is the author of Journalism in Context, Routledge published this month.