Journalists' secret sources under threat from UK police

British police have come under heavy criticism from MPs and journalists, who accuse them of using controversial laws to identify anonymous sources, despite such communications being “privileged” and protected under common law.

According to journalists, senior officers used a law (often reserved for terror suspects) to reveal the names of protected sources who blew the whistle on two senior Met officials.

The stories were printed in The Sun and the Mail on Sunday, two of Britain’s largest national newspapers.

The law, known as the Regulation of Invest Powers Act (RIPA) was introduced in 2000, and specifies when authorities are allowed to access communications, particularly on the internet and mobile electronic devices.

One of the allegations includes the intercepting of correspondence between the Sun’s political editor, Tom Newton Dunn, and officers providing details on ‘Plebgate’, a scandal in which former cabinet minister, Andrew Mitchell, allegedly swore at two police officers.

The allegations come as the Press Gazette, a journalists’ trade publication, which launched a ‘Save Our Sources’ campaign, tendered Freedom of Information (FOI) requests to multiple UK police forces seeking details on their deployment of RIPA legislation.

Some 30 forces have reportedly refused to issue a response.

Of those, 20 allegedly refused on cost grounds. A further ten said disclosure would risk “undermining national security,” the Press Gazette reported.

“It was a fairly simple process for them to identify which telephone numbers could be linked to police officers,” said the editor of the Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford.

Politicians, including the Home Secretary Theresa May and the government’s interception of communications commissioner, have also hit out at the grave misuse of RIPA. Currently, the Home Secretary is revising the RIPA laws to restrict its use only for the most serious cases.

The allegations follow statements made earlier this month by Britain’s former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, who condemned police use of snooping laws to access confidential sources.

Other campaign groups, including the Open Rights Group (ORG), said RIPA would have huge implications for the future of electronic communications, and could deter whistleblowers from exposing corrupt practices.

The ORG also said it backs “stronger protection for journalists and their sources,” and claimed “it is right that overuse of RIPA is addressed.”

This is not the first case in which British authorities have been accused of ignoring protection laws in order to access secret communications.

Earlier in October, the lawyers of two Libyan men, who accuse the British government of being complicit in rendition and torture, told the Investigatory Powers Tribunal their communications with advocates and journalists were intercepted by British intelligence agencies.

The UK government has not made any formal statement on the allegations, but is considering an appeal in the Supreme Court after judges granted one of the men the right to sue the British government in open court.