Anger is growing over the use of controversial powers by police and other public bodies to access the phone records of journalists.
It was revealed last month that the authorities had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) to identify sources of reporters at The Sun and Mail on Sunday.
Following the revelations, the Bureau of Investigative Journalists (BIJ) has made an application to the European Court of Human Rights asking them to rule on whether the legislation – brought in to tackle terrorism and serious crime – was being abused.
The Interception of Communications Commissioner has also launched an inquiry, ordering police forces to provide him with full details of any investigations where RIPA powers have been used to access journalists’ communications data.
The BIJ’s Christopher Hird said: “We understand why the Government feels the need to have the power of interception.
“But our concern is that the existing regulatory regime to control the interception of communications data – such as phone calls and emails – by organisations such as GCHQ does not provide sufficient safeguards to ensure the protection of journalists’ sources, and as a result is a restriction on the operation of a free press.”
Senior journalists, including Private Eye editor Ian Hislop, believe that RIPA powers are being used to override the protection given to sources under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights (which provides the right to the freedom of expression and information).
Previously anonymous sources have helped expose scandals such as the appalling standard of care at Stafford Hospital and the failure of authorities to investigate widespread child abuse in Rotherham and Rochdale. But whistle-blowers may be reluctant to make contact with journalists in future, if they fear that their anonymity cannot be assured.