IP Bill: Lords Call on Government to Protect Journalists Sources

Members of the House of Lords from all the main political parties have called on the government to introduce robust safeguards to the Investigatory Powers Bill to enable journalists to properly protect sources. 

In a debate on Monday, Lords explained the threat posed to investigative journalism by the IP Bill, which would chill freedom of expression, adding that the ability to protect sources could be a “matter of life and death” in some cases. 

An amendment was tabled by Viscount Colville of Culross, Crossbench, who said: “I know the Minister is concerned that free speech should flourish and that sources who provide this journalistic material do not feel that they are unnecessarily being surveilled by the authorities using the extraordinary powers available in our digital age.

“I know from experience that journalists are often seen by demonstrators and rioters as extensions of the authorities. This process started abroad, but it is now often seen in this country. As a result, we are seeing journalists targeted for taking footage of riots or violent behaviour.This is a dangerous trend, which we should all try to prevent. In the Dale Farm case, when the police wanted to see footage from Sky News, the judge ruled that the request posed a danger to broadcast journalists.

“The amendment represents very important safeguards for free speech in our country. I know that the Government greatly support this principle. I urge the Minister to consider carefully the changes to the Bill set out in the amendment and I beg to move.”

Supporting the amendment Lord Black of Brentwood, Conservative, said: “We must take with the utmost seriousness the passage of any legislation in this House which damages free expression and undermines the protection afforded to confidential sources by opening up the possibility of the state being able to shadow the work of journalists, track what they are up to, identify their sources and see what information they have made available.

Lord Black highlighted instances of authorities using RIPA surveillance powers such as a local authority spying on a Derby Telegraph reporter, Thames Valley Police placing a probe inside the car of a Milton Keynes Citizen reporter’s source, and Cleveland police using the legislation to access the phone records of three Northern Echo journalists.

Lord Black said the government had listened to the concerns of the media and made amendements which were “a very welcome step in the right direction” but the safeguards had not gone far enough.

Lord Black highlighted the issue of judicial safeguards: “It is all very well having judicial safeguards in place, but they will not work unless the judicial commissioner assessing the application has all the relevant information before applying his or her judgment and making an informed decision. After all, how can a judicial commissioner possibly know what they do not know? That is almost Kafkaesque.

“Without input from the media—and I recognise that there must be exceptions to this where a journalist or media organisation is under suspicion—they could not possibly, for instance, know how the use of surveillance could actually place the life of a source, or indeed of a journalist, in danger and other such considerations. In those circumstances, the important tests outlined in the Bill cannot be properly applied, and as a result the safeguards simply will not work.”

Supporting the amendment, Lord Stoneham, Lib Dem, said: “To enable the state to access and shadow every aspect of the work of journalists and media organisations and their sources undermines press freedom, the role of the media in a free society and their ability to hold the powerful to account.”

Lord Murphy of Torfaen, Labour, who was a member of the Joint Committee on the Bill highlighted representations made by the media on the issue and the Committee’s subsequent recommendation. He added: “The committee eventually recommended that, ‘the Home Office should reconsider the level of protection which the Bill affords to journalistic material and sources.’

He continued: “It is certain that there should be no lessening of protection from what already exists under PACE. I fear that it is possible that that might be the case, unless we go a little further in protecting both the sources of journalists and their investigations.”

Supporting the amendment, Lord Paddick, principal Home Affairs spokesperson for the Lib Dems, said: “At the moment there is a balance as experience has shown that media footage has, in certain circumstances, been useful to demonstrators in terms of misuse or excess use of force by police officers.

“If this were to change, and the demonstrators felt that material gathered by media operators was only under the control of the police because of inadequate provisions in the Bill, this could tip the balance and journalists would become a target for violence in such situations.”

Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town, Labour, added: “Guaranteeing anonymity, has and always will be vital to the journalists’ profession, for the sake of those who go to them but also, as has just been mentioned, for the safety of journalists, literally hundreds of whom are killed around the world in the course of their duty.”

Supporting the amendment, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Green Party, said the amendment could go futher with the addition of a “reasonable suspicion” test. She added:”We must remember that journalists often uncover some pretty heinous crimes and pretty awful stories. While we often talk about the damage they do and the crimes they commit, they also do some incredibly valuable work for our society, so I think this an extremely important amendment.”