Tim Dawson is the President of the UK’s National Union of Journalists.
He tells Valerie Gauriat why the profession feels the Investigatory Powers Act should be amended, to ensure press freedom and confidentiality of sources.
“The Investigatory Powers Act which finished its parliamentary consideration at the end of last year, allows police forces and a number of authorised bodies to request the phone records of individuals , and to do this they simply need to persuade a judicial commissioner in private, that they think this is necessary.
Our concern, as the National Union of Journalists, for journalists, is that without their knowing about this, the reason the police or other State agencies would only have to explain in private they can access to journalists information. And putting that into practical terms, if a journalist receives an anonymous tip-off from somebody working in an organisation, who says “I believe I have uncovered some malpractice, or some dishonesty, and I think you should write a story about this”; and the organisation where it features then wants to try and find out who gave that information to the journalist, it will be very easy from mobile phone records to see who spoke with whom.
Mobile phones provide very rich meta data so it isn’t just that two phones have a call between them, their locations, the GPS information, is also all stored.
So it’s possible to tell when somebody has a smartphone, where they’ve been around the city, or indeed what other mobile phones they’ve been in close proximity to.
So if somebody’s simply attending meetings, if they’re doing all their business not on the phone but verbally, if they have a smartphone with them, it will be possible for their movements to be tracked.
Indeed, the security services can very easily, and without having to burgle your house or anything of that kind, switch things in your mobile phone so they can actually hear all your conversations and record your conversations even when you’re not making phone call.
Your browsing history, the people you’ve been corresponding with, all of that is very easy easy prey under the Investigatory Powers Act. And while clearly, there are reasons for which that might be useful in the prevention of terrorism, our belief is that in respect to journalistic material, there should be additional protections in place so that journalists can do their work confident that they can protect people’s confidentiality.
Under the police and criminal evidence act, which has governed police work since the mid 1980s in this country, if the police wants to access journalists’ material, then they have to go to court and ask for it.
They have to make an application for a production order, they have to go to court on a specified day, and say “I want to see this journalist’s video material, or tape recordings, or notebooks and the journalist has the opportunity to say well I don’t think that should happen. And so it’s decided in an open court. A journalist has prior notification that it’s going to happen, and they have the opportunity to make their case.
And as the national union of journalists, we act on behalf of many many members, when police make production orders, and quite often for example there’s been a civil disturbance of some kind, and somebody’s taken a lot of video material, and police will say we want all that video material. And we usually argue well we’d understand if the police were able to say that we know that a crime was committed at this time particularly, or that time particularly, because they usually have their own video material of these events, then we would consider that. But we would always oppose the blanket handing over, because we have a chance to do so in court.
There will be these secret courts in which judges will decide what will be handed over and what won’t , but there’s no chance when a journalists won’t have prior notification, so they won’t know that it’s going to happen, and they won’t have the opportunity to oppose those applications.
So much as it happened before, people may find that the police appear to have an unexpected level of knowledge of who they been speaking with and conversations they have. And we’ll be left wondering well , is that because they’ve been looking at my phone records or is it just clever guess work on the part of the police?
We think, and we argued during this passage through parliament, that it would be far better if when the security services or the police, or health trusts wanted to access journalists’ phone records, they should have to make an application in court. Just like they do with other material under pace.
The procedure is there, it’s a well established route, simply going to court to make an application so that the journalist knows that it’s happening, and that they’re able to oppose it if they wish to, would provide a very significant additional safeguard. There are a lot of legal challenges going on to the legislation, so I think it’s possible that over the next year or so changes might come.”