THAMES Valley Police have refused to confirm or deny the extent to which they may have spied on journalists in order to covertly identify their sources.
Answering a Freedom of Information request from the Newbury Weekly News, the police force declined to divulge how many times they had used Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, which gives the police powers of surveillance such as obtaining phone records and other communication data in some criminal cases.
The police argued the single request submitted on February 5 was “vexatious” and that their refusal is in part due to an “unreasonable persistence” on the subject on the part of the media.
The latest request follows revelations last year that London’s Metropolitan Police used the act during the “Plebgate” scandal to arrest an officer on suspicion of leaking information to a national newspaper by examining the phone records of one journalist and their newsdesk.
An inquiry into the use of the powers published last month by the Interception of Communication’s Commissioner’s Office revealed that there were 34 investigations by 19 police forces between 2011 and 2014 in relation to suspected illicit relationships between journalists and sources. These involved 105 journalists, 19 of which work for local newspapers, and 242 sources, with 608 applications authorised under Chapter 2 of Part 1 of the act to obtain communications data.
Thames Valley Police is yet to confirm or deny if they are one of the 19, although they admitted they had used the power in 2006 to identify the source of Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer, utilising “intrusive surveillance” under the act.
Explaining the refusal, Jonathan Hands of Thames Valley Police told the Newbury Weekly News: “Disclosure of information relating to the police use of surveillance may also lead to damage to investigations, tactics, covert activity and operations. FOI was never designed to enable applicants to continue a campaign or determined pursuit of information when there are concerns over public authority activities, if these activities have been adjudged to be correct and appropriate.”
Police and Crime Commissioner for the Thames Valley Anthony Stansfeld said: “I am all for FOI requests but they have to be reasonable and not repetitive as it takes vast amounts of time to answer.”
On the use of RIPA he said: “We have to be very careful not to expand on it and the police are inspected on its use.
“It can be abused but we have to be certain that it’s not. I am as certain as I can reasonably be but you can never be absolutely certain of it. It has got to be used with careful judgement.”
Newbury MP Richard Benyon is in favour of reform to security legislation, adding that change is needed “in order to make sure it is fit for a world of social media and other means of communication methods”.
He said it was a question of “balancing our right to privacy with the very important need to keep us safe from terrorism”.
In dismissing the request as representing “disproportionate effort” the police force added that the powers “require various levels of authority and its use is strictly monitored”.
“It can only be used when there is a criminal investigation, and it must always be proportionate.”