The Oxford Mail had asked Thames Valley Police if it was one of 19 forces which had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) hundreds of times to find out who journalists had spoken to.
But the force refused to say if it was one of the forces involved after being asked by the Mail if it had used RIPA to access information about journalists in the last three years.
Thames Valley Police claimed that the newspaper’s FoI request was “vexatious” and it would be too much of a burden to collate the information.
But the Mail appealed against this to the Information Commissioner, who backed the paper and ruled that it was not vexatious.
The force now has 35 days to respond to the FoI request, to either reveal if it had been spying on journalists or to come up with new reasons to keep the information secret.
It was revealed earlier this year by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office that 19 unnamed police forces had used the RIPA legislation to search journalists’ phone records – but the government has now said that such applications have to be approved by a judge.
The ruling yesterday by the Information Commissioner is thought to be the first time a police force has been ordered to release information about using RIPA.
Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill, pictured, said: “RIPA is there for a very good reason. But that reason is not to snoop willy-nilly on journalists going about their lawful business with no oversight or accountability.
“It is just a shame that forces, driven no doubt by the Association of Chief Police Officers, have been so incredibly unhelpful and secretive about this. It’s worth remembering that if they can do it to a journalist, they can do it to anyone.
“We really have to guard against the steady creep of authoritarian powers and the state secrecy that goes with it.
“It makes an absolute mockery of any claims that we live in a truly open society when these powers are targeted against the very people they are meant to protect.”
The Information Commissioner’s ruling said: “[The Commissioner] accepts that detailed requests in relation to RIPA can be burdensome for the police service as a whole given the co-ordination that may be required in certain types of cases. However, he notes that the request does not require any such detail.
“It only seeks to ascertain whether TVP is one of the 19 forces referred to in the IOCCO Report and, if so, how many cases were involved and the type of newspaper/s that the authorisation/s specified.
“The majority of this information has already been gathered for the purposes of the IOCCO investigation [and] the Commissioner does not accept that there could be any real burden in providing a response, if indeed any data is held.
“The Commissioner recognises that there was still a public interest in revealing information about the use of RIPA in relation to journalists, following the publication of the IOCCO report.”
“Overzealous use of a law that was intended for out purposes can also be directed at the public. It is important, therefore, that the public is told just how much use of this legislation was made for purposes other than terrorism and serious crime.
“It’s good that the Information Commissioner’s Office has seen the common sense on this. Hopefully Thames Valley Police will take heed and share that good sense.”
Thames Valley Police told the Mail it could not comment on the matter yesterday as its chief constable was in a meeting all day.