Society of Editors welcomes Cleveland Police RIPA apology
10 April 2017
The Society of Editors has welcomed an apology by the Chief Constable of a scandal-hit police force who has apologised to three journalists for using the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to spy on their phones.
Cleveland Police used the controversial legislation to track calls and texts made by reporters from the Press Association after critical stories were published in July 2013 about a senior civilian officer's resignation.
Commenting on the force's apology Ian Murray, Deputy Director of the Society of Editors said: "The use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act by numerous forces to access journalistic material is now as well known as it was unsurprising. In the majority of cases, the legislation was used as a means of reputation management rather than exposing criminality."
The Press Association covered the story and it has since emerged that Cleveland Police monitored the phone of staff reporter Tom Wilkinson, who is based in Newcastle, and his colleague Owen Humphreys, a photographer with the national news agency. Cleveland Police also admitted spying on the phone of Northern Echo reporter Graeme Hetherington after the story about Ms Hall broke.
Chief Constable Iain Spittal said: "Following a ruling by the Investigatory Powers Tribunal earlier this year that in 2012 Cleveland Police had, in a small number of instances, used Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) authorisations unlawfully the force launched a review of all such authorisations dating back to that time.
"As part of this ongoing work we've found three additional instances of Ripa being used on journalists, two from PA and one from the Northern Echo, in 2013 in what was a disproportionate manner.
"When such evidence is found we will, as we have here, contact those affected and give them full details.
"We will also, as we have here, offer our full apologies."
The Society of Editors welcomed the apology but has called for more to be done to ensure that journalists are not treated as criminals.
Ian Murray added: "The promises made by Theresa May when Home Secretary to reform the legislation unsurprisingly did not come to fruition and the Investigatory Powers Act was passed despite there being no measures in place to adequately protect journalistic material. Further to this, the current consultation on the Law Commission's proposals for reforming the Official Secrets Act is a further example of an attempt by the government to increase its surveillance powers and criminalise journalists for simply doing their job.
"The police and our elected officials need to understand that journalists are not criminals and should therefore not be treated as such. Accessing journalists’ call records should be a rare exception for police rather that the rule it seems to have become in recent years and any further attempt to prosecute, convict and imprison anyone involved in obtaining, gathering and disclosing information irrespective of the public interest should be vigourously opposed."
Peter Clifton, Editor-in-Chief at PA, said: “PA is appalled by this flagrant breach of our journalists’ human rights – their right to privacy and their right to protect sources. It also rides roughshod over the PA’s right to go about its business in an entirely legitimate and professional way.
“Tom and Owen are shocked and disgusted by this abuse of police power, and PA shares their dismay at the way two such respected journalists have been treated.
“We will seek further legal advice, and we will also be keen to investigate if other police have used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to illegally spy on other PA staff, and journalists more widely, in this way.”
The Society of Editors campaigned extensively in 2015 against the use of RIPA to uncover journalists' sources and worked alongside Press Gazette to co-ordinate a letter to the-then Prime Minister David Cameron condemning the use of legislation originally designed to tackle terrorism and calling for safeguards to protect the long-held principle of journalists’ sources being sacrosanct. The letter was signed by more than 100 editors and obtained the backing of every national newspaper editor.