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Police snooping on regional journalists was unlawful, judges rule

Iain SpittalA police force which snooped on regional journalists’ phones did so unlawfully, top judges have ruled.

Cleveland Police officers used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, aimed at investigating serious crime and terrorism, to seize phone data from Northern Echo journalists.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has now ruled the use of Ripa to find the source of leaks to the Echo was unlawful.

Earlier this month Cleveland Police chief Iain Spittal announced a major overhaul of the force’s Professional Standards Department and apologised in person to Echo journalists Graeme Hetherington and Julia Breen.

A written judgement issued by the Tribunal today reads: “The duration and extent… (of the monitoring) and the involvement, without any consideration or legal advice, of journalists and a solicitor would have been most unlikely to be justified.”

The judges added whatever the “subjective belief” of the force, “there was no lawful basis” for obtaining the applications to seize phone records, under Ripa, in 2012.

The sheer amount of call data seized – more than a million minutes’ worth – was “excessive”, they said.

Echo editor Andy Richardson told HTFP: “We are delighted to see that the law has come down on the side of reporters who were trying to expose matters of public interest rather than police officers who were attempting to stifle the truth.

“This is a victory for the free press. I hope it reminds the public that having strong local newspapers is a vital part of the democratic process. We need your continued support. I also hope it reminds newspaper owners how important it is for them to give editors sufficient resources to undertake major, long-running investigations.

“Like many local papers the Northern Echo has a proud tradition of exposing wrongdoing and corruption. Life would be so much easier for police forces, politicians and dodgy businessmen if investigative reporting simply withered and died.

“We cannot allow that to happen. This case shows that having teams of experienced reporters unearthing stories in their local communities is a valuable in 2017 as it was in 1870 when the Echo was founded.”

Chief Constable Spittal, pictured above left, said: “Although I have already contacted the people affected by this and said sorry, sorry on its own isn’t enough.

“Because of this the Police and Crime Commissioner and I announced, earlier this year, an expert review of the Professional Standards Department and all Ripa use over the past six years.

“I am proud to lead Cleveland Police. I am confident that those who work with me will continue to strive to be the best that they can be each and every day. When we get things wrong, as we did here, we will say sorry and work to make things right.”



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  • January 31, 2017 at 1:11 pm

    I drove past a mobile speed camera the other day and flashed loads of drivers coming the other way to let them know it was there. How do you like them apples occifer?

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  • January 31, 2017 at 3:29 pm

    More mealy mouthed promises from a Cleveland Police chief constable. The force is totally dysfunctional. It should be disbanded and merged with Durham and North Yorkshire.

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  • February 1, 2017 at 12:52 am

    Phone hacking was unlawful too. What’s the difference?

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  • February 1, 2017 at 9:35 am

    Two wrongs don’t make a right REGIONAL….
    Both examples are appalling abuses of power.
    I can only really see ‘national security’ being a clear reason for allowing phone tapping and this was certainly not the case with Cleveland Police.
    What depresses me most is that Cleveland Police has been caught breaking the law, but suffered no consequences.
    Why haven’t the people involved in ordering this surveillance been sacked? Where is the deterrent for future such actions being undertaken? Although it hasn’t been condoned, it hasn’t been properly condemned either.
    Officers at the top of the tree are paid a fortune by the standards of ordinary working people and walk off with huge pensions, supposedly for handling big responsibilities very professionally. Surely they should not be allowed to get away with action of this kind. Heads should roll.
    Nor am I impressed by Chief Con Spittal’s smooth: “Because of this the Police and Crime Commissioner and I announced, earlier this year, an expert review of the Professional Standards Department and all Ripa use over the past six years.”
    Seasoned journalists know that this is simply a way of giving the impression of decisive action until the heat goes out of the issue and it can be quietly punted into the long grass.
    It is damaging to our democracy when men in power abuse that power yet are still allowed to retain it after their wrongdoing has been exposed.

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