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  5. Snooping on journalists’ sources: the hole Police Scotland can’t stop digging


DCC Neil Richardson gives evidence to the Justice Committee
DCC Neil Richardson gives evidence to the Justice Committee

For Police Scotland, the issue of spying on journalists and their sources has become a hole in which they just can’t stop digging.

From refusing to give any information to the SNS for over a year, to Deputy Chief Constable Neil Richardson wriggling with semantics in front of the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee, there is a seeming inability to draw a line under this affair.

“Move along, nothing to see here…” might be officers’ instincts but it just isn’t working for Police Scotland now MSPs as dogged as Christine Graham are fully involved.

After DCC Richardson’s evasion, not surprisingly MSPs want to hear from other officers involved but now it appears Police Scotland believes this could represent unacceptable political interference, even though it has long been a basic principle that the Police can only act with the consent of the people whose representatives are politicians.

If Police Scotland refuse to allow officers to be quizzed by politicians in public on a matter of public importance then the incoming Chief Constable Phil Gormley could have an even bigger crisis to deal with than the one he’s inherited from Sir Stephen House.

The SNS first requested details about Scottish police use of the Regulation of Investigative Powers Act to track journalists and their sources back in October 2014 and until this month the force stuck rigidly to a refusal to confirm or deny that any information existed.

We appealed to the Scottish Information Commissioner and shortly before DCC Richardson’s appearance before the Justice Committee, the force finally admitted to tracking journalists’ sources on 12 occasions in the past four years.

Throughout this period both the Sunday Herald and the Sunday Mail have kept up the pressure, particularly in the knowledge that the Sunday Mail’s story about the investigation into the murder of Emma Caldwell lay at the heart of a snooping operation earlier this year, in contravention of new guidelines.

So in a scandal involving monitoring the sources of journalists’ stories it was with remarkable powers of observation that the president of the Association of Scottish Police Superintendents, Niven Rennie, declared that it was “an agenda driven by the national Press”. Too right it is, Niven.

Rennie must have taken the same Media Training for Beginners course as House of Commons leader Chris Grayling, who complained that journalists were only using Freedom of Information laws to research stories.

So guys, for the record, no, we don’t like you hounding our sources and yes, we do use FoI to find out things you’d rather we didn’t know about. Like the police hounding our sources.

Rennie seems to be suggesting that journalists have no right to defend the principle of protecting sources. Or that the Press should have no role in the system of checks and balances on the powerful. Now it also seems some senior officers believe the role of politicians should be limited too.

It is ironic Police Scotland have become more entangled in this row at the same time as the revelation that Part Two of the Leveson Inquiry — to investigate why the Metropolitan Police failed to act on the information they received about phone hacking until the scandal broke (in a newspaper ) in 2009 – is unlikely to take place.

We are led to believe that now no more journalists will face prosecution for phone hacking there will be little point in dragging the process on any longer. That may be so, but the fact the practices of the police will not be subjected to the same scrutiny as the Press leaves a rancid taste.

As the UK Government has now backed off from Leveson 2, the Westminster rumour mill suggests it is also retreating from the tightening of UK Freedom of Information law its review of the system was threatening.

There has always been tension in the Conservative Party between libertarians and authoritarians and thankfully on this occasion it looks like the liberals have the upper hand. It’s very difficult to think of any system of government which was improved by more secrecy, but there are plenty of examples where bad government has been improved by openness.

Freedom of Information has helped expose the extent to which Police Scotland has used valuable resources to investigate matters which were almost certainly more about embarrassment rather than the public interest.

But the fact we are unlikely to find out more exposes its limitations, especially when data protection regulations kick in.

But we live in the hope that lessons are being learnt about open government and, despite phone hacking, the legitimate role of a robust Press is given a lot more than lip service.