The government watchdog investigating police access of journalists' phone records will be reporting its findings earlier than previously expected, the Drum can reveal.
It was expected that the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) would release the findings of their inquiry into police use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to trace journalistic sources as part of their next annual report, due in April 2015.
However, Joanna Cavan, head of the IOCCO, told the Drum: "We will be reporting separately on this inquiry and earlier than our usual annual report."
The controversy over RIPA began earlier this year when a report into the “Plebgate” scandal revealed that investigating officers had accessed the phone records of The Sun’s political editor Tom Newton Dunn to discover who was giving him information. The inquiry led to no prosecutions but three police officers were sacked for their role in passing information to the press.
The Mail on Sunday then revealed that police had accessed a years’ worth of phone records from their news desk during inquiries into stories related to the prosecution of former minister Chris Huhne for conspiring to pervert the course of justice over speeding points. The information, which was passed to Huhne's defence team, was later used to convict barrister Constance Briscoe for the same offence.
While police have defended their actions, journalists and newspaper groups have united to condemn the police use of RIPA as a breach of article 10 of the European Human Rights Act which guarantees freedom of the press.
A spokesman for The Sun said: “Powers under RIPA are there to prevent terrorism, not snoop on newspapers' contacts. We believe our right to protect our sources was breached – as was the right of our sources to anonymity. This was an unlawful interference with a key aspect of press freedom, which cannot be allowed to go unchallenged."
Former Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, who helped pass the legislation, said when identification of journalistic sources is an issue, police should seek the permission of a judge.
The National Union of Journalists and the Society of Editors have also condemned the police actions and the the Society has written to the prime minister to express concerns. The only political figure to defend police use of RIPA to date has been London Mayor Boris Johnson who argued it was “not unreasonable” for officers to use their powers when investigating crime.
Asked about what the IOCCO report would reveal, Cavan told The Drum: “We are in the early information and evidence gathering stage of our inquiry and it's too early to comment on the form and content that our report will take.”
Not-for-profit research organisation the Bureau of Investigative Journalism has launched a legal bid at the European Court asking for a ruling to decide if the police’s actions are legal.