Industry Unites to Call for RIPA Reform

The News Media Association has called for legislation to protect sources from being uncovered through RIPA powers as the news media industry unites to condemn state surveillance of journalistic activities.

In the week the Home Office consultation on communications data codes closes, the local and national news media industry has spoken out to highlight the grave threat to journalism posed by misuse of RIPA by authorities.

“The industry is united in its view that the current regulatory framework including RIPA and counter terrorism powers poses a threat to journalism, journalists and their sources,” NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs director Santha Rasaiah wrote in the NMA’s submission.

“It enables state surveillance, investigation and enforcement powers to be used against the media without proper regard to protection of freedom of expression and press freedom, an intrinsic part of which is the fundamental principle of protection of sources. It has also allowed bypass of protections to journalistic material and confidential sources given by other legislation.”

Politicians including George Osborne, Nick Clegg and Sajid Javid have all expressed their deep concerns about the use of RIPA to uncover journalists’ sources and national and local editors have signed a letter coordinated by Press Gazette and the Society of Editors condemning the codes. 

In a speech on Tuesday, Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger said journalism “would be changed forever” if RIPA was not reformed. “Journalism, which relies on unauthorised sources for much that is good and valuable, would be changed forever in this country,” he said. “That’s not something to sneak in in a few paragraphs of an obscure Home Office consultation document.”

Perry Austin-Clarke, The Press editor, highlighted the threat to local press journalism. “Like most regional newspapers, The Press often relies upon whistleblowers to help us report truths that the authorities might find uncomfortable but which you have a right to know,” he said.

“We were able to report on staffing problems at York Hospital partly because of information provided to us in confidence by NHS workers. Likewise, our coverage of problems with social care in York depended upon information from concerned staff who spoke to us in confidence. And we would never have been able to cover the various twists and turns of the Lendal Bridge experiment without leaked information.

“If journalists’ telephone records can be routinely viewed by the police and other enforcement agencies, leading to the identification of sources, such whistleblowers will not come forward. The main casualty of that will be the truth – and your right to know.”

The NMA said that changes proposed by the Home Office to the Acquisition and Disclosure of Communications Data Code of Practice and the new Retention of Communications Data Code “would not provide the degree of protection necessary” and called for legislation to introduce safeguards across RIPA powers.

As outlined by chair of the NMA legal, policy and regulatory affairs committee Lord Black of Brentwood in a letter to the Home Secretary in December, legislation to safeguard journalistic sources would include the introduction of mandatory independent prior judicial authorisation, the specific criteria which must be considered and satisfied for authorisation to be given, rights of prior notice, inter partes hearings, representation and appeal.

RIPA has been been used against journalists on local titles in Derbyshire, Suffolk and Buckinghamshire and on national newspapers such as the  Mail on Sunday and The Sun as well as Government Communications Headquarters’ interception of emails of journalists from international media.

The NMA said it would be happy to assist the government and the Home Office to introduce reforms to the system.