A city council sent a surveillance team to “spy” on a meeting between a town hall official and a newspaper reporter, documents have revealed.
Derby Telegraph local government correspondent Kirsty Green met the officer in a local coffee shop as part of a long-running investigation into allegations of wrong-doing within the council’s environmental services department.
The meeting was “uncovered” when one of the council’s senior staff came in to buy a drink.
He then alerted colleagues back at the council offices, who having approved an operation, then dispatched two members of the internal audit department to conduct the ‘surveillance.’
The pair of officers were immediately recognised by those inside as they lurked outside the café.
Telegraph editor Steve Hall admitted that the paper initially regarded the incident as somewhat comical. “As surveillance operations go, it was more Inspector Clouseau than James Bond,” he said.
The council attempted to explain away the presence of the two officers as “incidental,” but the true story emerged after the paper submitted an FoI request for documents relating to the episode.
These revealed that that the authority had in fact been so concerned about the meeting it had decided to utilise the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which gives local authorities the right to watch and record people covertly.
The council documents revealed that the council justified the operation in June last year as ‘direct surveillance’ in connection with an internal personnel investigation.
The outcome was recorded as: “All persons named did in fact meet with the known reporter from the Derby Telegraph.”
Commented Steve: “The powers granted to authorities – national and local – to observe and record the activities of the public leave many fearing for civil liberties.
“This case does little to reassure us that they are being used correctly. Perhaps, in fact, it is less about Inspector Clouseau and more about George Orwell’s 1984.”
The case has also been highlighted by Trinity Mirror’s head of multimedia David Higgerson on his freedom of information blog.
Said David: “As FoI requests up and down the country proves, councils like to use RIPA. The big question is whether they can be trusted to use it properly. This case proves that, in some cases at least, they can’t.”
Dave (28/05/2010 10:09:49)
They manage to send out this investigation team with immediate effect – let’s hope their bin collections are as prompt…
Onlooker (28/05/2010 10:57:38)
I see that the Telegraph doesn’t even bother to comment on the fact that the council’s first response was to lie. Nobody is outraged any more by this, we all seem to accept that attempts to tell untruths are standard.