Chris Marshall: Police silent over spying claims

Justice secretary Michael Matheson has been poised questions on the issue in the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Michael Gillen
Justice secretary Michael Matheson has been poised questions on the issue in the Scottish Parliament. Picture: Michael Gillen
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AMID the controversies in which Police Scotland has found itself mired of late, the allegation that the force spied on journalists is possibly the one least likely to trouble the wider public.

But if the claims turn out to be true, Police Scotland’s illegal pursuit of reporters’ sources would raise worrying questions for us all about the national force and how it operates.

It’s been claimed that the force’s counter corruption unit used the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to identify a journalist’s source without judicial approval.

The legislation allows the authorities to ask for the “who”, “when” and “where” of phone or e-mail communication, but not its content.

The Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) says it is investigating two UK forces who breached guidelines introduced earlier this year, but the watchdog has so far refused to confirm whether Police Scotland is one of them.

Police Scotland has repeatedly declined to comment on the allegations.

At the weekend, the Sunday Herald newspaper said the force’s covert investigations unit had committed “multiple breaches” of the IOCCO’s new code, which was introduced in March to protect journalists’ sources.

The newspaper claimed the Scottish Government had been aware of the breaches. Yesterday it was the turn of justice secretary Michael Matheson to dodge questions on the issue in the Scottish Parliament.

Asked by opposition MSPs about his knowledge of the issue, Mr Matheson said the matter was one for IOCCO and its ongoing investigation.

However, he also admitted to Labour MSP Neil Findlay that he had “no idea” whether Police Scotland or its predecessors had monitored the activities of political activists, trade unionists or environmental campaigners.

Regardless of the IOCCO investigation, the Scottish Parliament’s justice committee should now heed calls for it to look into Police Scotland’s use of Ripa.

The weakness of police scrutiny arrangements in the first two years of Police Scotland has left the press with an increasingly important role to play in holding the force to account.

From stop and search to the row over armed policing, it has taken pressure from opposition MSPs and the media to highlight where things have gone wrong. Protection for reporters’ sources to allow that to continue is vital.

Ironically, it was phone hacking which tarnished the name of British journalism. A similar controversy should not be allowed to undermine our police force.