Just the name of the proposed investigatory powers bill (IPB), aka the Snooper’s Charter, sounds chilling. But the full extent of the harm it could cause is now coming to light, as recent reports reveal the extent of police misuse of investigatory powers against journalists and citizens, highlighting elements of the bill that are a serious breach of human rights.
Media coverage of the IPB has centred largely around the fact that Theresa May wants access to a year’s worth of your browsing history, and on Edward Snowden’s reaction to its contents. But evidence showing the ways in which police have misused their existing powers under the regulation of investigatory powers act (RIPA), the precursor to the IPB, demonstrates just how dangerous the new bill could be to the functioning of British democracy.
Reports from Press Gazette, a news service about UK journalism, claim that the police have systematically conducted intrusive and borderline abusive interventions into the lives of journalists and citizens. And the work of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), lobbying parliament to protect journalists and their sources, demonstrates how the IPB could aggravate this corruption.
Press Gazette discovered the police’s misuse of RIPA accidentally when researching the ‘Plebgate‘ affair. Notes in the police reports showed that they had obtained “telecommunications data” – i.e. phone records – from the political editor of The Sun in order to identify his sources.
The Guardian‘s former editor Alan Rusbridger has warned that the IPB would potentially put the lives of journalists’ sources in danger.
A Press Gazette feature tells the story of local reporter Sally Murrer of the Milton Keynes Citizen, who was secretly filmed, had her home bugged, and was taken into custody for two days (where she was strip searched). All because police had proposed, wrongly, that:
…[detective sergeant] Mark Kearney was telling me very sensitive stories and I was selling them on to the News of the World. So they scoured my bank accounts and there was no evidence.
I had last phoned the News of the World nine years previously. The stuff Mark and I were talking about was 99 per cent domestic fluff.
The case against Murrer collapsed after a judge ruled that her human rights had been breached, and any evidence the police had was inadmissible as a result. She says that the idea of the IPB increasing police powers to engage in such predatory and reckless behaviour “terrifies her”, insisting:
My biggest worry is that this snooper’s charter will allow the police and the state to do this to loads more journalists.
I think everybody who cares about journalism should sign this petition – this has to be stopped. It’s the death knell for journalism and freedom of speech.
Press Gazette has also cited the following:
- 2006: Suffolk police secretly accessed the call records of a reporter from the Ipswich Star after he asked a question about the re-opening of a rape investigation.
- 2012: Cleveland police used RIPA to find out how journalists got hold of a report alleging the force was institutionally racist.
- 2015: Police Scotland used RIPA to find the source of a Sunday Mail story about failings in a decade-old unsolved murder.
- 2015: the interception commissioner revealed UK police forces had secretly accessed the call records of 82 journalists to find their sources in the previous three years.
Press Gazette reports that Thames Valley Police have neither apologised to Murrer nor accepted any fault in the way they treated her. The organisation has now opened a Change.org petition to submit to the new home secretary Amber Rudd, demanding she enforce amendments to the IPB as proposed by the NUJ.
An NUJ parliamentary briefing reveals that not only is the IPB ethically problematic in legalising various invasions of privacy – such as bugging and hacking people while legally obliging telecommunications companies to assist them – but it also contains elements which are specifically anti-union, and therefore anti-worker:
The NUJ has been campaigning to highlight concerns about the safety and confidentiality of journalistic sources and whistleblowers as well as the dangers contained in the Bill that will allow the state to spy on trade unionists.
The briefing also shows that Andy Burnham and fellow Labour and SNP MPs have tabled an amendment to the bill to stop the issuing of warrants for spying on trade union activity.
Whilst the NUJ views the concessions proposed in government Amendment 51 as a small step in the right direction, we do not believe it goes anywhere near far enough to meet the concerns of journalists over protection of sources.
The NUJ is currently lobbying the government to make significant changes to the draft IPB, proposed by Theresa May when she was home secretary, as it makes its way through parliament. Citing the importance of press freedom, the NUJ is demanding that:
- Safeguards for journalists apply across the different powers set out in the bill and not just to communications data.
- Protections for journalists apply to communications, material and activity regardless of whether or not the authorities intend to identify a journalistic source.
- The new powers in the bill involve an open and cross-party process.
- Media outlets be able to challenge and appeal requests so that public interest and press freedom arguments are put forward and considered.
- The IPB should not enable the state to interfere in the legitimate and democratic activities of independent trade unions.
When debated in the House of Lords on 11 July, the upper chamber supported the amendments, echoing the concerns of the Gazette and the NUJ. But it has been noted that there has been minimal concern expressed in the public sphere. Whether or not this is down to a lack of mainstream reporting, or simply the UK public’s indifference to privacy issues (as was cited after the Snowden revelations), is unclear.
However, everyone should be very concerned about the “hacking and gagging” law that our new prime minister originally brought to the fore. If public interest and action cannot be sustained on this issue, then we may soon lose yet another chunk of our rights overnight.
Sign the ‘Save Our Sources’ petition.
If you’re a journalist, join the NUJ.
Image via West Midlands Police
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