The Guardian view on the police and the rights of the press
- The Guardian, Tuesday 7 October 2014 20.05 BST
During the passage of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) 2000, the Liberal Democrat peer Tom McNally warned that it lacked safeguards and “misused, would certainly infringe on civil liberty”. Anyone who heard Andy Trotter, the recently retired head of the British transport police, on Monday defending past use of the act to spy on journalists, could reasonably conclude that this warning had come to pass.
Referring to the two cases now public – the secret acquisition by the Metropolitan police of details of mobile calls to and from the Sun during the Andrew Mitchell inquiry, and the obtaining of phone records by Kent police to unmask a source linked to the Mail on Sunday – Trotter insisted that officers made proper use of the law, which allows records to be obtained without permission from the courts.
“Police used the legislation entirely properly when you look at the seriousness of the cases they were dealing with,” he told Radio 4. There was no urgency, he admitted. But no matter. “As far as this legislation is concerned, there is nothing about urgency in it.” Journalistic sources are important said Trotter, past chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ media committee, but there are “higher needs”.
And that might – might – be right in some cases involving terrorism, national security or matters of life and death, but his defence of Ripa in these cases shows how the initiative has facilitated mission creep. Despite the protestations of Trotter, and of Boris Johnson commenting later on LBC radio, the Plebgate inquiry was never of a gravity sufficient to justify encroaching on the rights of the press. The important thing was not the alleged behaviour; it was the status of the protagonists. Would investigators have gone to such prying lengths had the central figure been a London cabbie?
The obtaining of Mail on Sunday phone records related to Chris Huhne, Vicky Pryce and the former judge Constance Briscoe. The behaviour of all fell short, to a criminal degree, but none created an emergency to justify trampling on journalistic freedoms. The police were under pressure to achieve results, but pressure and justification are quite different.
The act clearly has loopholes requiring attention and it is heartening that there is now talk of remedy. On Monday, the former lord chancellor Lord Falconer called for a code of conduct that would see cases involving journalistic sources referred to a judge. Theinterception of communications commissioner, Sir Paul Kennedy, has written to chief constables, demanding they detail their use of Ripa to uncover sources. Theresa May has also called for a review. Even Trotter conceded that a fresh look may be in order.
Journalists are not above the law, but they need its protections to play a legitimate role in our free society. Ripa as it stands fails to provide such protections. It must be changed.