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The police must stop misusing anti-terrorism powers to snoop on journalists

By Chris Boffey |

October 6, 2014 | 5 min read

In the late 1980s I was in Gibraltar covering the shooting dead by the SAS of three would-be IRA bombers who planned to blow up the British garrison on the Rock.

I was staying at one of the large hotels and, as you can imagine, running up a large telephone bill when ringing London to file copy and speak to the news desk, and in calls to Belfast and Derry when tracking down contacts in Northern Ireland.

Police hacked a journalist over the Chris Huhne saga

I spent a lot of time in Ulster at the height of the Troubles and knew the UK government had a massive intelligence network, so it was no surprise to me when the hotel manager in Gibraltar told me that he had been forced to hand over to a government official a list of the telephone numbers I had been calling.

There was no fuss on my part. I had my job to do and the intelligence service was trying to to do its in best in tracking down people who wanted to kill and maim to further the republican cause.

25 years on, I have no real beef about the Americans and GCHQ monitoring millions of emails around the world stop terrorists – that is what the security services do. But I have a real problem with our domestic police using laws drafted by parliament to combat terrorism to obtain the phone records of journalists investigating a government minister who had broken the law.

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In 2003 Chris Huhne, the energy secretary, persuaded his wife, Vicky Pryce, to put his penalty points for speeding on her licence. After the break-up of their marriage, Price told a freelance reporter what had happened and he contacted the Mail on Sunday. For two years Huhne denied the offence and fought to keep himself out of jail until at the last minute he changed his plea to guilty.

Up until then his defence was that the charge was a conspiracy by journalists, his ex-wife and her friend and confidante, the judge Connie Briscoe, to bring him down.

During Huhne's marathon legal battle, a judge ruled that the identity of the Mail on Sunday's source for the story, the freelance, should be kept secret. However, police who were investigating Huhne's conspiracy claim disregarded the judge and by seizing landline and mobile records of the Mail on Sunday news editor identified the freelance and then handed over all their investigations to Huhne's lawyers under the legal process of disclosure.

The police used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) which was intended to safeguard national security. Huhne may have been a minister but there was no national security. He was a lying MP trying to keep his job and his reputation. The police were wrong to use Ripa in what was a penny ante crime compared with tracking down terrorists.

This is the second time in a month that it has been revealed that the police have used the act to look at journalists' phone records for non-terrorism reasons. Tom Newton Dunn, the Sun's political editor who broke the Downing Street Plebgate story, also had his calls to police sources inspected.

Ripa was not drafted or passed to let the police have carte blanche to rifle through phone records whenever and wherever they want. Keith Vaz, the chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, is going to drag the police and the interception of communications commissioner before him, but before that we must be told how many more police forces have misued Ripa.

Chris Boffey is a former news editor of the Observer, Sunday Telegraph and the Mirror and onetime special adviser to the Labour government


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