RIPA: Tip of the iceberg?

Lord Black of Brentwood (Con): My Lords, I declare an interest in this subject as executive director of the Telegraph Media Group and draw attention to my other media interests listed in the register.

I very much welcome this amendment. Although I have some concerns about aspects of the drafting, the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, is to be congratulated on shining a spotlight on an incredibly serious and troubling issue arising from a piece of legislation that is now looking increasingly arcane. I fundamentally agree with him that we cannot wait for a permanent solution to this.

It is an issue that should concern every reporter in the UK and every citizen because of the impact on press freedom and the quality of our democracy. It is also an issue that has a resonance beyond our shores, which should be a real worry to us, because what we are doing in the United Kingdom is sending an authoritarian message to the rest of the world that it is all right for police forces or other public authorities to track down the confidential sources of journalists.

I do not need to dwell on the importance of confidential sources of information. It was put best in the case of Goodwin v United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights back in 1996:

“Without ... protection, sources may be deterred from assisting the press in informing the public on matters of public interest.     As a result, the vital public-watchdog role of the press may be undermined and the ability of the press to provide accurate and reliable information may be adversely affected”.

That is absolutely right. As we heard, the use of confidential sources is vital for whistleblowing and investigative journalism, but it is also crucial for day-to-day reporting on matters of public interest. In a democratic society, people need to be able to talk to the media about current debates without fear of reprisal or retribution. The alternative is sterile political and public debate, with a profound impact on the substance of our character and democracy. That is what will happen unless the chilling impact of this out-of-date legislation is not reversed.

It is a matter of regret to me to have to ask why we should have been surprised by such recent revelations. The Newspaper Society, representing Britain’s regional press, and the Society of Editors made clear during the passage of RIPA back in 2000 that its terms would inevitably lead to an erosion of the confidentiality of sources because they could so often be easily identified by information obtained under the new powers by a wide range of specified organisations. The newspaper industry at the time suggested that the number of organisations able to exercise RIPA powers should be limited, that the ground for the use of those powers should also be strictly limited to the most senior personnel and that all applications for use of such power should be subjected to prior judicial scrutiny, especially to protect confidential sources. The Act as it arrived on the statute book and various codes since then clearly did not provide adequate safeguards in any way.

Over the years since then, I have heard anecdotal evidence of the problems, often from local newspaper editors voicing their concerns, often about attempts to trace the source of leaks of council information by local authorities using RIPA powers of surveillance and access to telephone records. Occasionally, a case of this arose in the public domain. Back in 2010, the Derby Telegraph reported on how the local authority there dispatched two officers to a local Starbucks to spy on a reporter who had been seen talking to current and former council employees. That council used RIPA powers to do that because they give local authorities the right to watch and record people covertly. Just think about the disastrous impact on local press reporting of local authorities if such sources of information dried up. More importantly, we need to think about the impact on local people and democracy. Incompetence, waste and corruption in local government would remain uncovered and unpunished. It is the ordinary people who pay the bills for that who would really suffer.

As the noble Lord said, we are only now beginning to see the full extent of this problem, partly as the result of the work of the Mail on Sunday, which helped uncover this abuse through a sheer stroke of luck followed up by a brilliant piece of investigative journalism. My real concern is that we may be seeing only the tip of the iceberg. As the noble Lord, Lord Strasburger, said, we just have no idea about the extent of the abuse. Other examples that I have heard are extremely troubling. I draw noble Lords’ attention to the disturbing case of Sally Murrer, recently highlighted in Press Gazette. Thames Valley Police applied to a court to bug the conversations of this lady but did not tell the court that she was a journalist when it did so. Recently, that force had to admit that it used RIPA powers to bug the car of her alleged police source back in 2006. If either the law or a statutory code had forced police to make that clear, it would—as Gavin Millar, her QC, said—have ensured that the authorising authority had the chance to use the,

“correct, and very strict, legal test for overriding journalistic source protection”.

He also made the point that the use of the Act in this way, which he described as widespread, is almost certainly completely illegal under European law.

Mention of Europe leads me to a very brief point. I said earlier that I am anxious about the impact of this issue beyond our shores. It does not take a great deal of imagination to see how a Government in a Commonwealth country might look at how the law is utilised here and deploy something similar in a turbo-charged manner in their own country. That is already causing considerable concerns among world press freedom organisations. Ronald Koven, the acting director of the World Press Freedom Committee, wrote to me and put it this way:

“Police the world over have repeatedly shown they cannot be trusted to exercise needed self-restraint and their zeal must be contained by independent judicial supervision. That has unhappily proven to be the case in Britain as well ... It is the view of the World Press Freedom Committee that the law should be amended to impose appropriate and effective judicial oversight”.

We need to be mindful of the way that this issue feeds into debates in Europe, too. There, the European Newspaper Publishers Association—on whose board I sit—made representations on protection of journalistic sources in respect of very similar EU legislation on access to communications content, communications data and surveillance. In the context of the issue that this amendment highlights, those concerns also need to be treated with the utmost seriousness if we are not to end up in exactly the same position in a few years’ time.

I am aware that the noble Lord produced this as a probing amendment and of course he is absolutely right to do so. I support the principles behind it—particularly that of prior judicial authorisation—but, as I said, I have some concerns about the detail, because I do not believe that it would actually deliver the extremely high threshold that should be needed for police or other authorities to be able to access journalists’ sources. I also do not think that judicial authorisation would necessarily apply in all the cases where RIPA powers can be deployed. It is a very good start, but further thought needs to be given in those areas. Of course, there are now a number of inquiries into this issue and the abuse of RIPA. I believe the impact on press freedom and on the quality of our democracy should be guiding features of those inquiries. I hope that my noble friend will listen to the strength of feeling and that—either in this House or another place—the Government will come back with their own amendment to deal with the issue that the noble Lord’s amendment highlighted so importantly today and which, in a free society, we should treat with the utmost seriousness.


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