MPs Voice Press Freedom Fears Amid Leak Inquiry

MPs from all the main parties have voiced press freedom fears after police launched an inquiry to identify the source of the leak of the British Ambassador to the United States’s memos which have been widely reported in the media.

Minister for Policing Nick Hurd MP said he would not comment on the “specific case” when responding to an urgent question from David Davis MP who asked whether “intrusive surveillance techniques” using RIPA and DRIPA powers were being used against journalists in the inquiry.

Speaking in the House of Commons, MPs pointed out the irony of the launch of a police inquiry designed to unmask a journalistic source a week after the Foreign Office hosted a global conference to promote press freedom.  

The News Media Assocation lobbied extensively for stronger journalistic protections in both RIPA and DRIPA and warned that “stringent oversight” must be applied to ensure that media protections are not bypassed by authorities using new investigatory powers to access communications data. 

In the debate yesterday, Mr Davis, Conservative, said: “One of the worst things a Government can do to damage democracy is to undermine the freedom of the press. In the past week, there have been numerous press reports of the police using “the full force of the state” to pin down the source of the recent leak of diplomatic telegrams.

“According to the reports this includes analysing mobile phone data in journalists’ phones, including location data showing everywhere they had been in the previous weeks. If true, this would be an astonishing intrusion on press freedom, because it puts at risk every confidential source they have, not just the one the police might be looking for.”

Afzal Khan MP, Labour, added: “Press freedom is an integral part of democracy. We do not have too much freedom of the press in this country; we have too little. Can it be right that the press is threatened for publishing material that is in the public interest?

“The illegality in leaking the British ambassador to Washington’s thoughts may be tested in the courts, so I shall be cautious about any remarks on that, but surely it cannot be illegal to publish those remarks simply because they are the cause of embarrassment to the Government.

“Surely, it cannot be right that scanning technology is being used against journalists to investigate the leak. Is it open to the Home Secretary to issue guidance to ​police forces on this matter, to ensure that there is not now or in the future this trawling of journalists’ phones, laptops and other devices?

John Whittingdale, Conservative, said: “I commend the Government on the organisation of last week’s excellent global media freedom conference, but does the Minister agree that the UK needs to do a lot more to improve on our present ranking of 33 in the world press freedom index?

“Does he also recognise that the concerns expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) make that harder to achieve and that these concerns risk being exploited by other countries who do not protect media freedom and are only too keen to lock up journalists?”

Joanna Cherry, SNP, said: “I congratulate the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) on securing this question. It is indeed ironic that we are discussing these matters the week after the British Government hosted the first global conference on media freedom.

“The Foreign Secretary has spoken about convening a panel of experts to advise countries on how to strengthen the legal protection of journalists. On the evidence of some of the statements made over the past few days, the convener of that panel might be best advised to start close to home.”

Richard Drax, Conservative, said: “Why were the police brought in? As a former journalist of some 17 years, I know that journalists rely on sources to give the news to the public. Let us face it, there have been leaks before and there will be leaks in the future, and this leak was embarrassing but it was nothing to do with the defence of our country.

“If the police are to be called in every time there is a leak, every journalist in the country is going to fear that their newsroom will be full of officers in blue every time a story with the potential to hurt someone in power is published.

Andy Slaughter, Labour, added: “There is a big difference between the targeted collection of evidence in the pursuit of serious criminal offences and a fishing expedition in which Government embarrassment is a factor. This seems rather too near to the second of those.

“Never mind journalists—the general public are concerned about the way in which the state and other agencies are now able to collect data on them. Should we not be on the public’s side? Should not the Government be publishing information, in readable and accessible form, on people’s rights to privacy and on the right of the state to intrude on them?”