UK: Law used by Suffolk police to access EADT journalist’s phone records set to be tightened
PUBLISHED: 13:36 13 October 2014 | UPDATED: 13:36 13 October 2014
A controversial law used by Suffolk police to gain access to a Suffolk journalist’s mobile phone records is to be overhauled, the Home Office announced yesterday.
The move comes after revelations that police have used their powers – originally intended to be used for anti-terrorism inquiries and serious crime investigations – to identify journalists’ sources.
The first publicly-known case involved East Anglian Daily Times reporter Mark Bulstrode, who also worked for the Ipswich Star, and whose private mobile phone records were accessed by Suffolk police in 2006.
Yesterday, Suffolk Constabulary revealed for the first time that they had acted under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA).
Amid concern that the act is being misused by police, the Home Office said the law would be tightened. A spokesman said: “A free press is fundamental to a free society and the Government is determined that nothing is done which puts that at risk.
“We have been working to strengthen the relevant code to ensure extra consideration should be given to a communications data request involving those in sensitive professions, such as journalists.’’ It is anticipated that the revised law will be put before Parliament later this year.
The announcement was welcomed by EADT and Star editor Terry Hunt, who said that Suffolk police had acted “wholly inappropriately’’ in getting access to reporter Mark Bulstrode’s phone records.
“This started when Mark learned that detectives had re-opened an historic rape inquiry.
“When he asked Suffolk police about it, they requested that we didn’t publish anything because a story at that stage could have jeopardised the inquiry. As a responsible regional newspaper, we agreed to that request and didn’t publish a story.
“However, in the following weeks, Mark became concerned about the amount of information police knew about him, so he requested to see this, using the Data Protection Act.
“It was at that stage that he, and we, learned that his phone records had been accessed by the police, in an attempt to identify his source.
“I lodged an official complaint with the then Chief Constable, but the police stood by their actions. This is a law intended to help police track down terrorists and criminals – not a device to identify journalists’ sources.
“The police acted wholly inappropriately. We had already agreed not to publish the story, at their request.
“This law needs tightening to avoid misuse, and I’m pleased the Government appears to be taking this issue seriously.’’
Yesterday, Suffolk police confirmed their use of RIPA to access the phone records of Mark Bulstrode, who now works for the BBC.
Deputy Chief Constable Gareth Wilson said: “Great care is taken to ensure RIPA is only used where there is justification for a specific investigation, and in a way that is both proportionate and compatible with human rights.
“In 2006, a RIPA application was used to access the phone records of a journalist. This was following allegations of inappropriate communications between the journalist and a serving police officer, which had the potential to impact upon a police investigation.
“The investigation surrounding the allegations was overseen by the Professional Standards Department, and the police officer involved received words of advice regarding their conduct.’’
Mr, Wilson said that Suffolk police had not used RIPA powers to investigate journalists in the last three years.
Mr Hunt said the Suffolk police statement prompted further questions. “I do not agree with the use of the description ‘inappropriate communications’ between a journalist and a police officer. Mark Bulstrode was simply doing his job as a reporter.
“Also, I note that Mr. Wilson says no journalists have been investigated using RIPA in the last three years. That leaves a gap of five years between 2006 and 2011.
“We will be asking how many times Suffolk police have used RIPA powers to investigate journalists in that period of time.’’