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Police breach editor’s human rights in unlawful hunt for sources

Jim Wilson 2022Police officers breached an editor’s rights after launching an unlawful hunt for his sources, senior judges have ruled.

The Investigatory Powers Tribunal has found against Police Scotland over an investigation the force conducted into Jim Wilson, editor of the Glasgow-based Sunday Post.

Police Scotland insisted that because Jim was never approached and that an attempt to obtain his mobile phone records was dropped, his rights had been respected.

But, in what is being described as a landmark ruling for the protection of journalists’ sources, the tribunal’s judgment suggests any public body attempting to identify the source of media stories may now be in breach of the journalists’ human rights.

According to the Post, the ruling was delivered after Jim, pictured, accused the force of breaching his rights as a journalist to protect sources under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.

The case came about after Jim in 2015, while editor of the Sunday Mail, wrote a series of reports, along with his colleague Brendan McGinty, revealing the existence of a forgotten suspect in a murder investigation 10 years earlier.

In response, Police Scotland’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) was ordered to launch an investigation to identify any former and senior officers involved in passing information to the journalists.

Led by Lord Justice Singh, the judges ruled officers had breached Jim’s rights by investigating his suspected sources.

They said: “The over-arching policy which underlies the protection of a journalist from being required to reveal his sources is the need to preserve his access to sources in the public interest. It recognises the need to prevent sources from being deterred from cooperation.

“That information about individuals was recovered with a view, it is now admitted, to discovering Mr Wilson’s sources, therefore it represents an interference with his Article 10 rights as a journalist.

“His name and status as a journalist were expressly invoked in both the authorised applications. There is a real risk that conduct of that sort will have a chilling effect on his ability to obtain and disseminate information in the public interest.”

The ruling concluded: “We find that Police Scotland acted in a manner incompatible with Mr Wilson’s rights under Article 10.”

The tribunal had heard how the journalists were never approached by the police but Jim later discovered his number had been obtained by the investigating unit.

An application to capture his records was withdrawn after the force told it would need judicial approval, although Jim was referred to in successful applications to seize call information of suspected sources.

Jim complained to the IPT in February 2018, claiming his right to protect sources had been breached and asked Police Scotland to acknowledge its conduct had been unlawful.

He received an apology from Police Scotland in the final hours of the two-day hearing last week.

Jim said: “Police Scotland made a bad decision in 2015 when it launched an inquiry into the sources of our story instead of the information it contained and it has continued to make bad decisions in the years since.

“Its failure to admit or take responsibility for unlawful action against journalists until being forced to do so more than seven years later seems regrettable and concerning.”

Ronnie Clancy, an experienced KC with a strong interest in media law, told the Post: “This is a landmark judgment because it applies important principles of law in novel circumstances. It should be compulsory reading for all police officers and other law enforcement officials engaged in intelligence gathering work.

“The novelty in this case, the first case of its kind as far as my research reveals, is the infringement of the journalist’s rights arose simply because the purpose of the applications were to discover his sources.”

In response to the judgment, Police Scotland’s assistant chief constable Andy Freeburn said: “An Investigatory Powers Tribunal has found that in 2015 Police Scotland wrongly sought to use communications data to identify the source of information provided to a journalist.

“We have worked hard to improve our anti-corruption practices and use of investigatory powers and strive to place our values of integrity, fairness, respect and a commitment to human rights at the heart of what we do.”