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Police shield

For those of us concerned with protecting freedom from encroaching policing powers, the challenge can be depressing. All too often, a hypothetical discussion of risk is trumped by a hypothetical discussion of the benefits of increased security. People are sceptical of the potential for abuse, but relatively trusting of the potential for successful targeting of the bad guys.

It’s only in practice, when things go wrong, that people start to worry – and by that point the new power is already law. As the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone.

So it has proved with RIPA, the powers which were introduced supposedly to allow police to intercept communications data from terror suspects. The Sun and the Daily Mail have both fallen victim to the Act, with police self-authorising, without the need for a judge, snooping efforts to identify journalists’ sources.

It isn’t hard to see why the papers are outraged – a journalist’s relationship with their source is inherently precious, and without protection many scandals and wrongs would never be revealed. That includes a variety of scandals involving the police. I’ve dealt with a number of whistleblowers over the years, including during my time at the TaxPayers’ Alliance, and if they cannot trust you to protect them then they are, understandably, less willing to reveal what they know – a blow to that relationship will harm the public and taxpayers by allowing wrongdoers in positions of authority to continue unchecked.

Journalists around the world are taught that whatever the consequences for themselves, they must maintain the anonymity of their source. But by using RIPA to cut the journalist out entirely, the police have ridden roughshod over this important principle. A judge may recognise the risks of doing so, but hey, a judge isn’t needed to authorise the seizing of data any more.

The newspapers involved are significant. When RIPA and similar powers were introduced, particularly under the last government, both were cheerleaders for the “crackdown on terrorists”, often dismissing opponents as hand-wringing liberals or even friends of criminals. At the time, it didn’t matter that we weren’t all Shami Chakrabarti, that plenty of us want strict penalties for criminals once convicted or that the traditions of British freedom which we were defending was bound up with the freedom of the press. To their credit, they now acknowledge the risks were underplayed and the benefits overstated.

That isn’t a manifesto for gloating now that the tables are turned – rather, it’s a cause for celebration. These one-time advocates of snooping laws are, belatedly but happily nonetheless, now waking up to the practical implications of those same extensions of police surveillance powers. I wish we had all been on the same side from the outset, but I prefer late to never.

In this new debate about freedom and privacy, it’s important that we develop a realistic understanding of the problem. In the aftermath of Leveson (another gross infringement of those traditional freedoms) large parts of the press are prone to see further assaults on their liberty as an attack solely on the free press.

Such an assault is underway (Leveson itself rested on the “nothing to fear, nothing to hide” principles used to justify many other intrusions into our lives), but it’s just one part of a wider problem.

When powers like RIPA are abused, powerful people like national newspaper journalists are among the last to suffer their attentions. It has taken several years of local authorities and police using RIPA against targets who are neither terrorists nor paedophiles for it to reach the newsdesks of the nationals. Big Brother Watch has revealed that there have been 3 million authorisations for officials to use RIPA – many by non-police bodies, and often on mundane matters like investigating whether a family really lives in a school catchment area or if someone is putting their bin out within regulations. The warnings that the powers were excessive and insufficiently controlled have, in short, come true.

Of course, officials ought to resist using anti-terror powers to snoop on ordinary people without good reason. But it’s unrealistic to expect them to – officialdom will always use powers it is given, normally to the fullest extent possible. It is the job of politicians to ensure they are put under the proper limits, and to resist the inevitable demands for more and more powers.

Fittingly, today the director of the National Crime Agency – which is exempted from even basic accountability measures like the Freedom of Information Act – is in The Guardian demanding, yes, more snooping powers. To a certain extent, that’s his job. But the fetishisation of “the professionals” in Westminster, as well as the potential to look tough in the headlines, has weakened political oversight, scrutiny and control of such measures.

Just because the police or the security services ask for something, that does not mean they should be given it. Westminster has the responsibility of balancing our security and our freedom. In the past, cheered on by the press, matters have leaned too far to the former. Now that RIPA’s own supporters find themselves targeted under its powers, let us hope there will be a rebalancing.

60 comments for: The newspapers discover freedom and the risks of snooping powers, at last

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