In a welcome development, The Sun, has accepted that supporters and activists in Hacked Off can defend press freedoms as much as any newspaper columnist. The Sun article is set out below in italics.
Hacked Off Associate Director, Dr Evan Harris, has taken decisive action to protect confidential journalists’ sources, such as whistle-blowers from over-use of over-powerful police powers to access telephone records under Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) 2000.
Hacked Off is campaigning for an accountable press but also for a free press. We believe that it is important that we have a responsible press that can be held accountable, with abuses investigated and proper post-publication remedies made available. But we also believe that it is vital in a democracy that we have a free press that can investigate and report in the public interest without fear.
The best example of this is membership of a Leveson-compliant regulator’s arbitration system that gives newspapers (and news websites) complete immunity from courts costs In libel cases – win or lose – and immunity from exemplary damages in egregious cases.
But Dr Harris was dealing with two other issues. A Liberal Democrat activist, he has persuaded the Party and its government ministers to back new public interest defences to certain offences which will allow journalists to avoid police searches, prosecutions and convictions if they were acting in the public interest (for example had they had phone-hacked Jimmy Savile to expose him, when police had failed). More details of the Hacked Off arguments for public interest defences can be found here https://hackinginquiry.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/Annex-B-Public-Interest-Defences.pdf
The Liberal Democrats also endorsed a second call made by Dr Harris, and his colleague and blogger Stephen Tall.
RIPA (The Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act) threatens and limits a free press by allowing the police – without any judicial oversight – to obtain details of journalist’s phone records secretly. This clearly breaches the well-established approach – taken in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (1984) – which allows journalists to protect their confidential sources. It also places huge risk to whistleblowers who approach the press to expose wrongdoing and corruption.
The fact that the police can authorise themselves to secretly obtain the phone records of journalists and newspapers, without any judicial oversight, should be something that worries us all.
An accountable press does not mean a spied on press. The long tradition of journalistic free freedom and the ability of journalists to investigate in the public interest must protected.
We need proper protections for public interest journalism from RIPA, with clear safeguards and effective oversight in its use.
The speeches by Dr Harris and Stephen Tall can be read here: Speech by Dr Evan Harris to the Liberal Democrats autumn conference & Speech by Stephen Tall
The Sun article, Monday 6th October 2014:
We must slay the grim Ripa
THE Sun has made an official complaint about the Met Police using anti-terror laws to snoop on the phone calls of our journalists.
Officers investigating the 2012 Plebgate affair secretly obtained the phone records of Political Editor Tom Newton Dunn and The Sun newsdesk to find details of leaked information.
They used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act which is designed to safeguard national security.
The raid only came to light last month and sparked condemnation from civil rights groups.
The Sun’s publisher News UK said it will push for an Investigative Powers Tribunal hearing to be held in public.
A spokesman added: “Powers under Ripa are there to prevent terrorism, not snoop on newspapers’ contacts.
“We believe our right to protect our sources was breached — as was the right of our sources to anonymity.
“This was an unlawful interference with a key aspect of press freedom, which cannot go unchallenged.”
The Mail on Sunday yesterday revealed police used the same laws to spy on its journalists.
Detectives side-stepped a judge’s agreement to protect a source who helped expose how ex-minister Chris Huhne got speeding points put on his wife’s licence.
Deputy PM Nick Clegg yesterday said he will push for a key protection for journalists to be enshrined in law. Lib Dem activists overwhelmingly backed a proposal at the party conference, proposed by former MP Dr Evan Harris, to give reporters a vital public interest defence to prevent “chilling” police probes.
And a spokesman for Mr Clegg said he “fully supported” the move.
The spokesman said: “Whistleblowers who expose wrongdoing need to have the confidence that their anonymity will be respected, otherwise they will not come forward.
“And journalists need assurance that they will not be hounded by the police for publishing material which is in the public interest.”
Sources said Lib Dem peers could now table an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords, to ensure the law passes.
Simon Hughes, Justice Minister, said: “British journalists must always have the freedom to pursue stories in the public interest and be protected from interference from the state as they do their job.”
Veteran Labour MP Keith Vaz said he feared whistleblowers would stop coming forward. And he said Parliament would demand to know which police authorities were using RIPA in this way, the number of applications made and why.
He blasted: “Citizens have a right to be concerned about legislation that is no longer fit for purpose.”
Former MP Evan Harris, who spearheaded the move in the conference hall, railed against the decision by cops to obtain Mr Newton Dunn’s phone records.
“There was no judicial oversight or indeed any oversight for the police of that decision,” he told activists.
“The police authorised themselves to do that, something they cannot do under PACE (the Police and Criminal Evidence Act) and should not be allowed to do under RIPA. There must be greater safeguards.”
Dr Harris said it was “chilling” that no public interest defence existed.
“There is a public interest test for prosecutors, and that’s good, but that comes after in many cases the police investigation, after arrest, after interviews under caution, after the deployment of search warrants and that is chilling,” he said.