THAMES Valley Police has again refused to confirm if it has been misusing anti-terrorism laws to spy on journalists, claiming it has been asked ‘too many times’.
Last month it was revealed that 19 police forces used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act – originally intended to target terrorists and serious crime – and made 608 applications in just three years to trawl the communications records of journalists.
The report by Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Anthony May revealed the applications, in which police forces apply to themselves to use the powers, covered 105 journalists and 242 sources.
Sir Anthony recommended judges should approve such applications, which Home Secretary Theresa May has backed. Journalists traditionally protect sources to stop officials punishing whistleblowers who expose corruption and crime.
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The Oxford Mail has asked Thames Valley Police three times since last October if it has been using RIPA to target journalists.
It has refused all three Freedom of Information requests, claiming it would take too much time to look through its records, that it might help terrorists, and that the information would be published by Sir Anthony. But Sir Anthony’s report did not name the forces.
The Oxford Mail asked Thames Valley to confirm or deny if it was one of the 19.
Last week Public Access staff member Jonathan Hands rejected the questioning under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming it was ‘vexatious’ because there had been too many requests by the Oxford Mail and other media. He was following instructions from the Association of Chief Police Officers and claimed, despite the Government’s reaction to the report, that police activities had been ruled correct and appropriate.
However the Oxford Mail has uncovered a document showing its first request – rejected on the grounds it would be too time consuming – was judged a Tier 1 case, which is defined as “ having a likelihood or impacting upon the reputation of Thames Valley Police, ie media/politically motivated, designed to undermine confidence in policing...”
That document was endorsed and signed by Assistant Chief Constable John Campbell.
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said: “It’s been made clear the police have been using RIPA inappropriately in a way Parliament did not intend. It’s in their interest to come clean rather than giving the slightest hint they have something to hide.”
Mr Campbell said TVP followed national guidance but declined to say why it would not confirm if it was one of the 19.
Thames Valley Police has made costly mistakes over misusing RIPA before the three-year period looked at by Sir Anthony.
A court case collapsed when a judge ruled their bugging of a car to find out who a weekly reporter was speaking to was in violation of basic journalistic rights.
And in the early 2000s it seized the phone records of INS News Agency in its hunt to try to find the company's source for stories. Initially it tried to claim it had used RIPA and then other acts before backing down and having to pay the company thousands.