Special pleading against mass surveillance won't help anyone

Protecting journalists alone won't protect their sources

Earlier this week we discovered that not only are London's Metropolitan Police rampantly abusing data-snooping laws to hunt down and punish employees who talk to journalists, we also learned that they don't even bother counting how often they do this.

Police abuse of these powers came to light, after police sources who talked to the Sun newspaper were traced and sacked thanks to the police secretly slurping a journalist's mobile phone records at the redtop.

The ever-vigilant Press Gazette made a freedom of information request to the Met, asking them how often they use the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to legally scoop up the communications of journalists. Predictably the police refused to respond, claiming that because they didn't bother keeping records of how often they used RIPA powers, it would cost them too much to compile the data and answer the question.

Putting aside the notion that a public sector body should be able to get away with pretending that it doesn't carry out even the most basic of internal compliance auditing – given that the RIPA powers it uses for rifling through innocent people's communications metadata must, legally, be “authorised” by a constable of superintendent rank, the need for such monitoring becomes obvious – our public response to this has been shameful.

Where are the politicians who publicly stand up for a free press? Where are the anti-corruption campaigners for whom a free press is vital to shine light into dark corners? Where, dare I ask, are the MPs speaking out against these practices by the police? Don't forget, this practice of carrying out a search without a warrant or independent oversight only came to light by accident.

Of course, this being modern Britain, there has been no public outcry. We are a nation of narrow selfish interests, beholden to the all-powerful public relations departments who painstakingly micromanage our paymasters' images. Supporting a free press capable of making unmonitored contact with whistleblowers would mean helping those who would harm one's paymasters; helping dangerous mavericks like Mid Staffordshire nurse Julie Bailey, Metropolitan police constable James Patrick or, going back a few years, MoD civil servant Clive Ponting.

This is shameful. We Britons once prided ourselves on being a free, tolerant and democratic society. Yet without the freedom to send and receive information – yes, even info which threatens public sector employees' pensions – we stand in grave danger of having our freedoms and best interests overridden by a self-serving elite, safely insulated from the public thanks to focus groups and chauffeur-driven cars, fuelled by taxpayer-funded expense accounts.

Even British journalism's response to police misuse of these broadly-drawn powers is feeble at best, amounting to little more than special pleading. To its credit, Press Gazette has launched a campaign to “Save our Sources”; a petition addressed to the Interception of Communications Commissioner asking him to rewrite guidance issued to police forces on RIPA. I've signed it; I urge you to sign it too, in the absence of anyone else taking any form of action here.

But what we should be doing, instead of signing petitions asking for special exemptions from these intrusive and overbearing surveillance laws, is calling for their repeal. The people who drafted the Police and Criminal Evidence Act inserted the parts requiring the police to explain themselves in front of a judge before engaging in domestic spying did so because they knew that without these essential safeguards, the police would rapidly get out of control.

Special pleading for a tiny minority of people to be exempt from the uncontrollable whims of police officers hunting down whistleblowers doesn't address the root of the problem. If only journalists can talk to each other without being constantly spied upon, that still doesn't help whistleblowers and other sources come forward. ®

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