The Big Freeze: The Chill in Relations between the Press and Police

The Leveson Report created a chill in the relations between the press and the police. Now, writes Jon Slattery, it’s turned into a deep freeze following revelations police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) – dubbed the ‘Grim Ripa’ by The Sun – to identify journalists’ sources.

By Jon Slattery

Leveson called for records to be kept of meetings between senior police officers and the media; for police whistleblowers concerned about malpractice within the service not to go to the media but to an independent body; for "off the record briefings" to be replaced by "non-reportable briefings"; and for caution to be used by police in accepting hospitality from journalists.

One of the reasons for the Leveson Inquiry were claims the relationship between the police and press had become too close in general, and with News International in particular, leading to the failure to properly investigate phone hacking.

Older journalists fondly remember their visits to police stations as junior reporters when the desk sergeant would spin the incident book around for them to copy out. They will tell you of police who used to get a bottle of whisky at Christmas and free drinks for tip-offs. Close police contacts were essential for good reporters.

Now they claim that information is too tightly controlled by PRs and the jailing and sacking of police officers for leaks in the post Leveson era will inevitably lead to fewer informal contacts between the press and police. Journalists argue major scandals, such as the failure to investigate properly the murder of Stephen Lawrence, were only uncovered thanks to unauthorised police sources.

Regional newspaper editors at the Society of Editors Conference complained of having no relationship with the police or, in the case of Eastern Daily Press editor Nigel Pickover, of being regularly lied to by the police and “made to feel like the enemy when really we are on the same side”. When I asked the managing editor of one of our biggest national newspapers what relations were like with the police, he gave a one-word answer - “crap”.

By far the biggest damage has been done to press and police relations by revelations the police used Ripa, designed to combat terrorism and organised crime, to identify journalists’ sources without their knowledge. It is the provisions of Ripa coupled with the technology that allows mass snooping on emails and phone records that threatens the first commandment of journalism – you never betray a source.

Code of honour

However grubby a profession journalism may appear to outsiders, it does have a code of honour when it comes to protecting sources. Within journalism, there are those like Jeremy Warner, when at the Independent, Bill Goodwin, at The Engineer, who risked jail rather than reveal their sources. Goodwin’s case ended in victory for the press in the European Court, setting an important precedent that protecting journalists’ sources could be judged in the public interest.

Further back, there were journalists who went to jail for refusing to reveal their sources. Reg Foster of the Daily Sketch and Brendan Mulholland of the Daily Mail were jailed for contempt of court for refusing to reveal their sources to the Vassall Tribunal in 1963. The Tribunal looked into matters surrounding Admiralty civil servant John Vassall, who passed secrets to the Soviet Union after being blackmailed by the KGB because he was gay. Known as “the Silent Men”, Foster and Mulholland were jailed for three months and six months respectively and are regarded as heroes by journalists because of their principled stand.

What has shocked journalists is the revelation the Met Police used Ripa to identify sources in the “plebgate” investigation by accessing the phone records of The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn without his knowledge. It was also revealed Kent Police used Ripa to identify sources who had talked to the press about Chris Huhne avoiding speeding points. Neither case had any connection with terrorism or organised crime. In its efforts to protect sources and resist handing over emails to Huhne’s lawyers, the Mail on Sunday ran up a £150,000 legal bill, none of which can be recovered.

In a further shock, The Times alleged in January that Scotland Yard concealed the full extent of its snooping on journalists during the investigation into Plebgate. It said a police report kept secret that detectives used Ripa to trawl for data from the phones of two other Sun journalists, Anthony France, the crime reporter, and Craig Woodhouse, the political correspondent.

In a letter to the Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell wrote: “It is sad that the Metropolitan Police still seems to be missing the point about the nature and level of the media's concern regarding the use of Ripa when journalists are concerned…I am afraid you seem to fail to understand the special importance of journalists' sources that are widely recognised not least by the courts.”

The material obtained by the police included the time and duration of phone calls and text messages and also authorised analysis of telephone antennae to pinpoint the location and movements of the users of the phones.

Prosecution of journalists

On top of the row over sources, there are the continuing court cases involving journalists accused of paying public officials and of phone hacking. The costs of the investigations into suspected journalistic wrongdoing are believed to be more than £33 million. It has become the biggest UK criminal investigation in history. At least 64 journalists have been arrested, some in dawn raids on their homes.

Many journalists believe there has been an overreaction to the humiliation the Met faced over the failure of its original phone hacking inquiry. Although, it is only fair to point out that some of the prosecutions are down to material handed over to police by News Corp’s Management and Standards Committee, which identified its own journalists and sources who were paid.

It has been revealed police viewed phone data of 1,700 News UK staff mistakenly handed over by Vodaphone after a Ripa request concerning one journalist. The NUJ is mounting a legal challenge over the activities of six of its members being monitored by police. NUJ general secretary Michelle Stanistreet says: “There is no justification for treating journalists as criminals or enemies of the state.” There is also the troubling case where police issued a harassment notice against Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies for emailing and door-stepping a woman who was later convicted of fraud.

The fight back

The police have come in for a drubbing in the leader columns of the national press. The Sun attacked the snooping on the phone records of its political editor under the headline “Secret Police”; while the Mail on Sunday accused the police of acting like the Stasi in the Huhne case.

The Daily Mail, in a leader following the conviction of Rolf Harris, noted: "It was only when Harris was named by journalists – four months after police first interviewed him, in relation to a single victim – that the dam broke and the other women were able to come forward. Disturbingly, post-Leveson, there are many examples of police holding, arresting and even charging suspects in secret. This chilling practice is an affront to open justice and the hallmark of totalitarian regimes.”

In January, more than 100 editors, including those from every national newspaper, signed a letter to the Prime Minister calling for stricter rules for the police before they use Ripa to search journalists’ phone records.

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, who has been spearheading a “Save Our Sources” campaign, says: “It is unprecedented in my experience for every national newspaper editor to agree on anything. So it is highly significant they have said with one voice that Ripa needs tougher controls to protect journalists' sources.”

In February, an inquiry by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) showed that in a three year period, nineteen police made more than 600 applications to uncover confidential sources in relation to 34 investigations into suspected leaks by officials.

The inquiry report concluded police “did not give due consideration to freedom of speech” and Home Office guidelines did not sufficiently protect journalistic sources. The Prime Minister and Home Secretary accepted the report’s recommendation that police should get authorisation from a judge if they seek any communications data to determine the source of journalistic information. The government said it would bring in interim measures to ensure police had to seek judicial approval before accessing the communications data of journalists’ sources, ahead of legislation in the next parliament.

Guardian editor-in-chief Alan Rusbridger, speaking at the Journalism in the Age of Mass Surveillance Conference in October, said Edward Snowden, the computer analyst whistleblower who provided the Guardian with top-secret National Security Agency documents about US surveillance on phone and internet communications, had “revealed a world which should scare all journalists and anyone who gives a promise of confidentiality”.

Rusbridger argued: “If sources feel they can quite easily be identified by the electronic trail involved in talking on the phone, or sending an email, or meeting someone at a traceable location there won’t be many sources in future. Journalism – which relies on unauthorised sources for much that is good and valuable – would be changed forever in this country.”

ITN media lawyer John Battle told the same conference, laws that have given journalists some protection by being able to claim not revealing sources was in the public interest “now amount to nothing”.

Even if a judge is the only one who can authorise the interception of journalists’ communications, it is clear journalists can no longer give a 100 per cent guarantee to their sources they will never be identified.

Journalists are left asking how many whistleblowers will risk coming forward in an era where their movements can be traced via the smartphone in their pockets and their call records and emails may be revealed?

Now, that really is chilling.