IN FEBRUARY this year, it was revealed 19 police forces across the country had been using a law designed to fight terrorism and organised crime to spy on journalists.

Since then the Oxford Mail has been attempting to find out whether or not Thames Valley Police was one of those forces.

But TVP has refused to confirm or deny whether it misused the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) despite a number of requests under the Freedom of Information Act (FOI).

At first the force completely refused to respond to FOI requests, claiming it had been asked “too many times” and labelling the Oxford Mail “vexatious”.

It admitted it held the information relevant to the request but refused to say what that was.

After the paper appealed to the information watchdog – the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) – it was ruled TVP was wrong to reject the enquiry.

The force was ordered by the ICO to either reveal whether or not it had used RIPA to spy on journalists or come up with a new reason to keep the information secret.

But TVP refused again to give details, this time claiming law enforcement would be compromised if it did so.

It said revealing whether it had used the law would “help subjects avoid detection”, something it said was also relevant to journalists or news employees “likely to be committing offences under their remit.”

Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell said the Oxford Mail’s fight to uncover the information showed why the FOI Act should not be weakened.

He said: “The experience the Oxford Mail has had shows just how many public authorities frequently do everything they possible can to withhold information which the public are entitled to know.

“The Act has been a terrific service to the public both through individuals and particularly through newspapers like the Oxford Mail. It has released a collection of valuable information and exposed wrongdoing.”

In the response sent to the Oxford Mail by the force’s senior public access manager Jason Russell he wrote: “Disclosing information held would undermine ongoing investigations, reveal policing techniques and risk the identification of individuals.

“If the police service were to disclose information, other covert surveillance tactics will either be compromised or significantly weakened.

“In this case there is no requirement to satisfy any public concern over the legality of police operations and the tactics we may or may not use.”

Mr Russell admitted releasing the information would allow the public to better scrutinise RIPA and would make sure anyone affected by RIPA investigations would be able to take steps to protect sources or other journalistic material.

But he said the information could only be released in “exceptional circumstances” despite also conceding there was a public interest in people knowing that policing activity is “appropriate and balanced”, particularly when RIPA is used.

The Oxford Mail has taken the issue back to the ICO and is waiting for a response.

Oxford Mail:

  • Society of Editors director Bob Satchwell

The force used RIPA powers in 2006 to bug the car of Milton Keynes Citizen journalist Sally Murrer.

Former Oxford Mail assistant editor Jason Collie, who submitted the initial Freedom Of Information request to the force and has tracked the process since then, said people should be aware of what is at stake if the Freedom of Information Act is changed.

Mr Collie, now assistant web editor at the London Evening Standard, said: “This issue goes to the central core of why the Act needs strengthening.

“Everybody else involved in the discussion about whether police use of RIPA was correct, in the spirit of what Parliament intended, said the police misused it.

“That is why newspapers such as the Oxford Mail have been asking the police, because it is in the public interest to know.”