22 January 2015
Editors of all the UK’s national newspapers have written an open letter to David Cameron. The letter calls for surveillance laws to be reformed in order that police cannot access journalists’ phone records without a judge’s authorisation.
The surveillance laws are deeply relevant to employment rights; as the letter points out; “Public sector whistleblowers will not come forward to journalists in future if law enforcement agencies have the power to view journalists’ phone records at will”.
The letter, signed by representatives of over 100 news organisations, follows the revelation that the police accessed the phone records of the Sun’s political editor after his reporting on the Andrew Mitchell’s “Plebgate” affair. The Metropolitan Police used a provision in the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to retrieve data from Vodaphone without his knowledge.
A government consultation on Ripa ends on Tuesday. Representatives for solicitors, barristers, social workers and journalists are calling for a higher threshold; “access to professional data should be protected in law and should be subject to independent, judicial oversight”.
The Law Society, Bar Council, The British Association of Social Workers and National Union of Journalists (NUJ) have come together as the Professionals for Information Privacy Coalition to express a shared concern in response to the current proposals contained in the draft code of practice for RIPA. This is the first time the organisations have formed an alliance on a policy issue.
The letter states; “We have seen a growing number of instances where data and surveillance powers have been seriously and repeatedly overused. This has included police using secret methods to expose journalistic sources and to monitor journalists’ activities and it has also been revealed that the intelligence agencies have been spying on conversations between lawyers and their clients.
“The existing data and surveillance rules are complex and confusing and have been laid down in numerous, badly drafted pieces of legislation, codes and guidance. Too many laws have been rushed through parliament as emergency legislation – most recently the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act 2014 (DRIPA). This has undermined parliamentary scrutiny and democratic debate. So we have come together to call for the existing problems to be addressed in the various reviews still underway.”
On Monday (19 January) the Guardian reported that GCHQ had monitored a mass of communications, including from journalists working for the BBC, Reuters, the Guardian, the New York Times and Le Monde. The evidence came from documents released by whistleblower Edward Snowden. Following this month’s terrorist attacks in France, David Cameron and Andrew Parker, the head of MI5, have called for increased surveillance powers.
Alistair MacDonald QC, chairman of the Bar Council, said:
“As a caring society, we cannot simply leave surveillance issues to senior officers of the police and the security services acting purportedly under mere codes of practice. What is surely needed more than ever before is a rigorous statutory framework under which surveillance is authorised and conducted.
“For example, communications between lawyers and their clients should remain confidential. If the state eavesdrops on privileged communications to gather intelligence, clients will feel unable to speak openly with their lawyers. In many cases, the effect will be that such cases cannot properly be put and a just result will not be achieved.”
Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ general secretary, said: “New legislation is urgently needed – it is vital that judicial oversight is introduced to force police officers and other snoopers to apply to judges in a transparent process before surveillance powers against media and legal professionals can be considered.
“We hope the government will now listen to the wide breadth of professional opinion calling for reform of this dangerous law.”