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Journalists launch court fight with Metropolitan Police in 'Plebgate' row

Published 20/07/2015

The litigation is centred on police inquiries after Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell was accused of being rude to police
The litigation is centred on police inquiries after Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell was accused of being rude to police

Journalists have launched a court fight after complaining about the way police identified ''confidential'' sources.

Judges today began analysing the dispute between reporters who worked for The Sun newspaper and the Metropolitan Police at a trial in London.

Evidence is being analysed by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal - which considers complaints about the way public authorities use covert techniques - at a hearing due to end on Tuesday.

Lawyers representing journalists have complained about the way police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa).

The litigation is centred on police inquiries after Conservative MP Andrew Mitchell was accused of being rude to police in Downing Street.

Complaints that the then Government chief whip had been abusive first emerged in The Sun in September 2012.

The affair became known as ''Plebgate''.

Journalists' lawyers say a central issue is whether detectives' ''recourse'' to ''the disputed Ripa powers'' in order to identify ''confidential sources'' was necessary.

Judges have been told that News Group Newspapers - which publishes The Sun - plus Tom Newton Dunn, Anthony France and Craig Woodhouse have taken action against the Metropolitan Police.

Police deny wrongdoing and say complaints should be dismissed.

Gavin Millar QC, for News Group and the journalists, said the case was the first of its kind and raised human rights issues.

"This is the first claim in this jurisdiction by journalists and their newspaper alleging that their (human) rights were violated because the Metropolitan Police used covert powers to identify a confidential journalistic source," he told judges in a written outline.

"The source or sources were believed by the police to be serving Metropolitan Police Service officers."

He said the case raised i ssues of "great importance".

Mr Millar said journalists had a "fundamental right" to protect confidential sources.

He argued that a judge should make decisions before there could be any interference with that journalistic right.

And he said principles laid down in Article 10 of European Convention on Human Rights - which protects freedom of expression - had to be considered when such decisions were made.

He said that "important requirement" had been "disregarded" and journalists' rights "unquestionably violated".

Mr Millar said there had been "no need" to use "covert" Ripa powers.and suggested that officers could have used a provision in the 1984 Police and Criminal Evidence Act.

He said police had not scrutinised facts and had not applied relevant legal principles.

Jeremy Johnson QC, for the Metropolitan Police, disagreed.

"It was reasonably suspected that there might be a criminal conspiracy by police officers to smear Mr Mitchell and thereby cause his resignation and destabilise the government, with the intention of promoting opposition to government cuts to the police service," Mr Johnson told judges in a written outline.

"In the course of the ensuing criminal investigation, under the independent supervision of the Independent Police Complaints Commission, the Metropolitan Police Service obtained call data which was likely to (and was) of significant assistance in furthering the investigation (ultimately establishing that there was no such conspiracy...)."

He said it had been necessary and proportionate to obtain call data because police were investigating a suspected criminal offence.

And he said call data had been obtained in "accordance" with Ripa.

He said the claims should be dismissed.

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