Thursday, 6 August 2015

Politicising the police spying issue

I totally oppose the police spying on journalists, particularly where they act illegally and attempt to identify sources who have helped reveal information the state and establishment would rather we didn’t know.  I said as much in a post two-weeks ago (see below).

However, I am sick of British Unionists attempting to politicise the issue in Scotland, as if Nicola Sturgeon or SNP Government Ministers had personally intercepted journalists’ phone-calls and e-mails. 

Labour MSPs have tabled a parliamentary motion demanding the Scottish Government reveal what it knows about Police Scotland illegally accessing journalists’ communications.  So, let’s establish a few facts:

The SNP Scottish Government has no responsibility for ‘Communications’: that is NO RESPONSIBILITY.  The communications industry, including regulation, is a power reserved to the UK Parliament at Westminster.

The regulatory body overseeing the UK-wide communications industry is London-based Ofcom: the chair of Ofcom is Dame Patricia Hodgson, former Chief Executive of the Independent Television Commission, and the organisation’s Chief Executive is Ms Sharon White, a former employee of the World Bank who subsequently worked for the UK civil service, including positions with the Department for Work & Pensions, the Treasury and the Number 10 Policy Unit.

The SNP Scottish Government does have responsibility for Justice, which, of course, includes policing.  However, government ministers do not, and should not, have any input to operational police matters.  If officers from Police Scotland illegally used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) without judicial approval to access the communications of journalists, it would have been done without any political agreement or oversight.

So, the SNP Scottish Government could confirm it did not know anything about Police Scotland spying on journalists to identify sources.  However, no-one has officially identified Police Scotland as one of the two police forces accused of acting illegally.  How can the Scottish Government ‘confirm’ something that, officially, has not yet happened?

It is likely Police Scotland is one of the forces that has illegally used RIPA to access journalists’ phone-calls and e-mails, but the investigation into the matter is ongoing, and the body carrying-out the enquiry - the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) – has made clear it will not name any force, at this time.  IOCCO has issued a public statement, which said:  “It would be wholly inappropriate for us to name the two police forces whilst we are still in the process of investigating fully these matters.  Our primary concerns are to ensure that our investigation process is not prejudiced, that the privacy of those individuals who may have been adversely affected is protected and that those individuals are able to seek effective remedy.  Careful consideration has also had to be given to the fact that criminal investigations and legal proceedings are invariably active and we are not yet in a position to consider the impact or potential wider consequences of naming.”

Police Scotland has refused to confirm or deny that any of its officers have been involved in the matters being investigated by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office, citing IOCCO’s position for its refusal to answer questions - “IOCCO has clearly set out its rationale for not identifying organisations in its report, and therefore it would be inappropriate to comment further,” said a Police Scotland spokesperson.

When the investigation by IOCCO is concluded, if it is proved that Police Scotland is one of the forces that spied on journalists, then officers who acted illegally should be prosecuted.  Therefore, as legal action is a distinct possibility, it would be wrong of the Scottish Government to get involved at this stage.

Other than a general statement setting-out the obvious – that the SNP Government opposes police officers breaking the law – it is difficult to see how Ministers could currently comply with Labour demands for greater ‘openness and accountability’.

Meanwhile, just to set the record straight on my position regarding police officers spying on journalists, this is what I wrote on July 22 2015:


Before Big Brother was an exploitative and mind-numbing programme on Channel 5, the name described a character in the novel ‘1984’ by George Orwell. Big Brother was the leader of Oceania, a totalitarian state where the ruling party wields total power over the people and acts only in the party’s interests.

In the Big Brother dictatorship, ordinary citizens were under constant surveillance by the state.

Today, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal heard that the Metropolitan Police press office provided officers with the mobile telephone numbers of journalists who had called-in to check stories and ask for comments. The journalists’ phone records and telephone location data were then secretly accessed by police in order to identify confidential sources.

Last weekend the Sunday Herald reported that Police Scotland has refused to deny it is one of two forces in the UK that has illegally accessed the mobile records of journalists in attempts to identify sources.

In the case of Police Scotland, it is believed one of the sources officers are trying to identify is the person who has revealed the shocking level of ‘stop and search’ carried out on the public by the Scottish force.

All of which raises the questions: why do the police want to know the names of journalists’ sources, and what do senior officers intend to do once a source is identified?

Journalists are not always held in the highest regard by the public, but without the investigative reporting done by journalists, there would be very little independent scrutiny of those who hold power over us. Freedom of the press is absolutely essential, and the confidential sources who provide information to journalists must be protected.

That the police are illegally accessing the mobile phone records of journalists in attempts to identify sources should worry us all.

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