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UK police abuse powers to reveal journalist’s sources

A free press is the backbone of a truly free, civilized society. At the heart of a free press is the ability to protect the confidentiality of one’s sources. Recent actions by UK police threaten that feedom.

Police are apparently using specoius tactics to obtain the phone records of journalists investigating the Plebgate and Chris Huhne speeding points cases saying, in essence, that securing justice was a greater priority than protecting journalists sources. Lost on the police is the fact that there would be no real justice, no truths fully exposed lest those who possess information, but who are afraid to come forward for fear of retribution, are protected.

Andy Trotter, former spokesman for the Chief Police Officers on media matters commented that, ’There is a case for saying we should look at a different standard of authorization and that will come out of the reviews that are being undertaken now.” This admission by Trotter that obtaining of records by journalists under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (Ripa), had to be approached in a different way. It should be noted here that for nearly two decades, and certainly after the 9/11 attack, government agencies and law enforcement have used the guise of national security to circumvent individual liberty. Journalists and lawyers are currently threatened by the recent moves to garner information hitherto confidential.

UK Press Gazette, the journalists trade publication which is running a Save Our Sources campaign, said that 25 police forces had refused to respond to its freedom of information requests for their details on their use of the Ripa law. Seventeen forces refused on grounds of cost but nine claimed that the undermining of national security was an issue. Lord Falconer, a former Labour chancellor involved in the creation of Ripa said it was not a proper use of the stautes that the police were using to override the legal protection of journalists’ sources.

It is no secret that politicians and governments lie to their constituents. It is imperative that there remains a mechanism to ferret out the truth and bring issues into the sunlight. Falconer went on to say that there needed to be a code of conduct similar to that in the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (Pace). In this law officers must obtain authorization from a judge before invoking authority to investigate journalists’ sources.

Not surprisingly, right wing London Mayor, Boris Johnson has joined the fray, defending the police’s use of snooping powers on a Sun journalist to reveal his sources in the Plebgate scandal. Using the platform of his LBC 97.3 radio show, Johnson opined that the police search was “perfectly reasonable,” noting that in his view ’there were charges there that suggested there was a conspiracy.”

He cited the gravity of the situation warranted the police action as a minister’s reputation was in question. Trotter concurred saying ’ Whilst I totally respect the need for a journalist to protect their sources and their informants there are higher need for justice that all information comes out in the judicial process.

This may sound plausible but one must examine the landscape today. In the wake of terrorist activity people are being indiscriminately detained, incarcerated or indeed tortured in the name of national security. Individual liberties are being trampled on, and due process eliminated for many and, because of it, the citizenry has become fearful of the government. And we’re not just talking of Russia, China and North Korea. In the freedom loving UK and US, if it were not for the protections afforded journalists confidentiality of sources, getting at the truth would be much more difficult and freedom would be in peril.


Stan Ward Stan Ward has enjoyed writing for 50 years. Writing has been a comfortable companion to a successful business and teaching career for him. Find him on Google+.

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