Police defend journalist's phone probe

SUFFOLK'S top detective has obtained confidential mobile phone records of an EADT reporter in a bid to discover the newspaper's sources, we can reveal today.

SUFFOLK'S top detective has obtained confidential mobile phone records of an EADT reporter in a bid to discover the newspaper's sources, we can reveal today.

Civil liberties groups and the Society of Editors last night voiced concern at the actions of the Suffolk force - but police have defended the move as “justified”.

Det Supt Roy Lambert obtained private mobile phone records of reporter Mark Bulstrode after he approached the force with information about the reopening of an historic investigation that was not public knowledge.

Despite the EADT agreeing not to run anything on the inquiry because of its sensitive nature, Mr Lambert was concerned how Mr Bulstrode had found out about the case - resulting in the phone records being obtained.

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Officers are permitted to obtain such information if they believe a criminal offence has taken place - no criminal charges have resulted from the inquiry.

The force admitted it held records of telephone calls made by Mr Bulstrode after a request was made under the Data Protection Act. This can be used by any individual to find out what information is held about them by organisations and authorities.

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But when the police first responded to the request, in June, they refused to confirm or deny whether they held any of the records.

It was only after the request was resubmitted, and the force was told the Information Commissioner had been contacted for advice in relation to the matter, that a print-out of the phone records held were handed over - seven months after the initial request was put in.

A spokesman for Suffolk police said the action was not directed at the EADT, explaining it was taken “to establish if any officer was unlawfully disclosing information which could have resulted in them perverting the course of justice or committing an offence of misconduct in public office.

“There was concern that the disclosure of information could have jeopardised an investigation into a serious crime, potentially resulting in an offender evading justice.”

He added that the application to obtain the phone records would have gone through a “rigorous process” within the force to ensure it was justified.

However, no criminal charges have resulted from the investigation - although a serving police employee has been given “words of advice”, the spokesman said.

Last night EADT editor Terry Hunt said: “I find this very disturbing. For Suffolk police to go so far as to obtain the private phone records of a journalist - after his newspaper has agreed not to publish the story - raises all sorts of concerns. I will be making a formal complaint to the Chief Constable.”

Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, added: “I think this is outrageous.

“The police and media have a long history of working together to jointly inform the public. In this case, the paper had, at the request of police, agreed not to carry a report and were rewarded with an investigation into the private telephone records of a reporter.

“That is certainly no way to maintain sensible working relationships between the police and the media.

“The police have got the power to search for phone records and it's very helpful in the pursuit of criminals but I think they have used this in a way that is nothing to do with the pursuit of criminality.”

Mr Satchwell said he would be taking the case up with Government ministers to find out what they think of the “ludicrous” and “scary” police activity.

He said: “It's just an outrage that they (the police) should use powers that should be reserved for serious criminal investigations to try to find out how the media is getting its information. They should have better things to do.”

He added: “What the public will see in this is that the media works very closely in support of the police and if this is how the police will turn on their friends, the public will say 'what are they doing in terms of invading our privacy'.”

Mark Wallace, campaign manager for civil liberties pressure group The Freedom Association, said: “It does appear concerning that the police would rather pry into the private matters of a well-meaning journalist than focus their attentions on the many, many real criminals who continue to get away with crimes that ruin the lives of members of the public.”

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