The head of the government watchdog on the interception of communications has announced he will investigate how often British police have obtained journalists' phone records without a warrant.
The acting commissioner for the interception of communications, Sir Paul Kennedy, issued a statement saying: “I fully understand and share the concerns raised about the protection of journalistic sources so as to enable a free press.”
Kennedy announced he would be writing to all UK chief constables to find out how often they had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to access reporters' telephone records and would report his findings publically when he had completed his investigation.
The practice first came to light earlier this year when a police report into the “plebgate” scandal showed that the Metropolitan police had used their RIPA powers to obtain the telephone records of The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton-Dunn.
The Mail on Sunday has also revealed that Kent police, while investigating former government minister Chris Huhne, who was later convicted of lying about a driving offence, accessed a year’s worth of phone records showing calls to and from the paper’s news desk, to identify the source of stories about Huhne - information that was later passed to the former minister's defence team.
Asked for comment by The Drum Kent Police said: “These applications were proportionate, lawful, necessary, recorded and were relevant lines of enquiry for the investigation and the facts were made available to the court and defence."
To secure records under RIPA police require only the permission of a senior officer not a judge and, as the process is secret, there is no way to know how often officers are accessing reporters' call records or what they are doing with the information obtained,
Under the European Human Rights rules journalists' sources are given legal protection and news media only have to reveal them in cases involving national security or serious crime. The police's use of RIPA has been seen as using a back door to circumvent this requirement.
The UK's Bureau of Investigative Journalism has also launched legal action at the European Court around the issue. The Commisoner's report is expected early next year.