Press freedom and Public freedom

In an incident which happened in August this year, but which only came light this Wednesday after revelations in the Independent, the BBC admitted that the British police had used the prevention of terrorism act to seize the laptop of Newsnight journalist, Secunder Kermani. Kermani has recently acquired quite a status for conducting online interviews with western born jihadists and according to the BBC police were reacting to communications between the journalist and a man in Syria who was publicly identified as an Islamic State extremist.

spokesman stated:  “Police obtained an order under the Terrorism Act requiring the BBC to hand over communication between a Newsnight journalist and a man in Syria who had publicly identified himself as an IS member. The man had featured in Newsnight reports and was not a confidential source.”

According to the Press Gazette, the BBC did not resist the court order obtained by Thames Valley police because the Terrorism Act 2000 does not allow a freedom of speech defence. Under section 32 (terrorist investigation) of said law the police can inquire into ‘the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism’. The South East Counter Terrorism Unit (SECTU) obviously believe, or believed, that Kermani’s laptop may have contained information which could have provided them with intelligence about terrorist activities.

The actions of the police have been widely condemned, however. In a series of reports on the issue the Press Gazette’s William Turvill  quoted a number of sources who expressed alarm at what had happened. Gavin Millar QC, who has previously written that routine government surveillance of journalists’ communications breaches international law,  told Turvill that he had heard of three cases in which ‘forces have threatened – but not used – to use the Terrorism Act in this way in stories involving young men who have travelled to fight in Syria and Iraq before returning to Europe and the UK.’ Millar stated that he feels these stories may be being underreported. He said: “Are we not learning about these stories through journalists because of… anxiety that you’ll get an application under the Terrorism Act? So it’s a chilling effect issue.”

General secretary Michelle Stanistreet of the National Union of Journalists naturally had the interest of her members at heart. She argued that police attention in these matters was making the lives of journalists very difficult, to the point of potentially compromising their safety. She told Turvill that, yet again, the police were, “riding roughshod over press freedom and using anti-terror legislation to get their hands on journalistic information…. Terrorism laws should not be used as convenient cloaks to sidestep measures that protect press freedom and the ability of journalists to inform the public and to hold power to account.”

More broadly it could be argued that the association between the police service and the media has never been more fraught. Veteran crime correspondent Duncan Campbell wrote in 2013 that the post phone hacking, post Leveson era is one where the relationship has a ‘noticeable chill’. He quoted Sean O’Neill, then crime editor of The Times, describing the ‘really poisonous’ atmosphere that exists. John Twomey chairman of the Crime Reporters Association (CRA) told Campbell “The chilling effect began before Leveson got under way but his inquiry helped turn a chill into a freeze. Detectives who were quite willing to discuss a wide range of issues with crime reporters are now reluctant to meet – in some cases even to return phone calls. Even press officers, whose job entails fostering good relations with the media, are wary of talking informally to reporters either on the phone or face to face.” 

Amongst journalists there is certainly the feeling of victimisation. As of August 2014 more than 100 journalists had been questioned by police on suspicion of crimes and as of June this year 66 had been arrested or charged  Added to this there have been 11 different task forces engaged in the investigations, calling on the skills of more than 100 officers at a cost of £33.5m.

But according to journalist Jon Slattery  damaging though these cases have been, it is the implementation of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA), which regulates the powers of public bodies to carry out surveillance and investigation, that has caused the greatest damage to press/police relations. Designed as weapon against terrorism and organised crime it has, states Slattery, been used to identify journalist’s sources without their knowledge. He writes:

“It is the provisions of RIPA coupled with the technology that allows mass snooping on emails and phone records that threatens the first commandment of journalism – you never betray a source.”

Dominic Ponsford  sees RIPA as being another step along the road which will eventually lead to the death of investigative journalism. Writing in the Independent in 2014 of a ‘national scandal’ he stated that as soon as police and other public authorities started secretly viewing the phone records of journalists and newspapers it was a big problem for a democratic society. In the Spectator, Nick Cohen highlighted that the opportunities for the abuse of power were limitless:

“RIPA not only allows the police to seize everything a modern phone can tell them about the movements and contacts of a citizen without judicial approval, but it also contains no provisions to protect the confidentiality of exchanges between journalists and their sources, doctors and patients, lawyers and clients, and MPs and constituents.”

But it’s not only the privacy of journalists under threat. Today the Guardian  reports that the police have lobbied the government for the power to view the internet browsing history of every computer user in Britain ahead of the publication of legislation on regulating surveillance powers. It is alarming to imagine that simply the investigation of a particular area might be criminal activity. How would this further inhibit the work of an investigative journalist?

But perhaps we shouldn’t worry. As William Hague said, law abiding citizens have “nothing to fear” from intelligence agencies activities  and we don’t need new laws – particularly when UK police requests to access phone calls or emails are granted 93% of the time.