Belfast Telegraph

RIPA: We must be sure police are not spying on our journalists

By Paul Connolly

The storm of protest over the police misuse of controversial RIPA powers to investigate the actions of legitimate journalists gets louder. Indeed, government ministers across the water are now taking action.

You will grow old, of course, waiting to hear a cheep from anyone in authority at Stormont on the matter.

This column has previously revealed that although Northern Ireland is bound by law to have its own Investigatory Powers Commissioner, in fact it does not. Never has, as far as I can see.

Either the government didn't bother to create the commissioner's office, or no one of sufficient skills and gravitas came forward. Northern Ireland is well endowed with learned ex-judges, so I suspect the former.

Which means that there is no effective local oversight of RIPA and other snooping powers. This is not just a media issue: lawyers, whistleblowers, civil servants and more are affected.

The Belfast Telegraph asked the PSNI if it used RIPA to spy on journalists here. The police refused to comment claiming that to do so would undermine national security. Ah, the old national security defence. Rightly or wrongly, the inference most people would draw from the PSNI's statement is that, yes, the PSNI has used RIPA and other legislation to spy on legitimate journalists.

Indeed, the Society of Editors conference in Southampton last week heard that one senior UK journalist refuses to have a mobile phone within 30 miles of him when meeting contacts here to stop telephone snooping.

Fair and legitimate journalism includes reporting on paramilitary and terrorist activity. It should not be the police's job to spy on legitimate reporters in the hope of gathering information on their contacts.

In some respects, the PSNI is merely in step with the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) which was last week caught out, in the view of some, advising all UK forces to shrug off many info requests.

ACPO told forces they should be able to reject such requests on cost grounds. But it also said if a request could be responded to within the cost limit, national security should be cited in a rejection.

Given the silence from Stormont on the issue, I think it would do no harm to remind Chief Constable George Hamilton of the views of the government on this issue. Not of journalists, but of Her Majesty' government itself, which has now pledged to change RIPA.

I'll let the UK Culture Secretary Sajid Javid do the talking: "The right to keep sources anonymous is the bedrock of investigative journalism. Without it, you cannot do your jobs. Without it, the corrupt and the crooked sleep easier in their beds.

"It's a sacrosanct principle and one that the authorities need a damn good reason to interfere with. RIPA was passed to help with the fight against serious criminal wrongdoing. Not to impede fair and legitimate journalism, no matter how awkward that journalism may be for police officers and local councils.

"The legislation should never be used to spy on reporters and whistleblowers who are going about their lawful, vital, business

"As the Secretary of State responsible for the media, I'll be making sure the Home Office knows just how important this issue is for the industry."

Hopefully, while he's at it, he'll tell the PSNI, the office of the First and Deputy First Minister, the NIO and David Ford over at Justice as well.

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