Chris Marshall: Police snooping on press troubling

Police Scotland said no journalists had been targeted. Picture: John Devlin
Police Scotland said no journalists had been targeted. Picture: John Devlin
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POLICE bids to gag the press must be resisted, writes Chris Marshall

Among the recent controversies involving Police Scotland, the revelation that the force broke arcane rules in a bid to unmask a journalist’s source might cause less public concern than most.

The police response to the M9 crash, which claimed the lives of John Yuill and Lamara Bell, the death in custody of Sheku Bayoh and mistakes made in the search for missing pensioner Janet McKay are just some of the episodes perhaps more worthy of wider attention.

Yet the flouting of data guidelines, as outlined by Interception of Communications Commissioner Sir Stanley Burnton last week, should be troubling for us all.

In his long-awaited report, Sir Stanley said Police Scotland had been “reckless” in failing to obtain judicial approval when attempting to access communications data.

His office had been investigating the force’s use of the controversial Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), which allows authorities to ask for the “who”, “when” and “where” of phone or e-mail communication, but not its content.

Sir Stanley said Police Scotland had sought communications data to determine a journalist’s source or the “communications of those suspected to have been acting as intermediaries between a journalist and a suspected source”.

He said four people had been “adversely affected” by the contraventions.

Police Scotland said no journalists had been targeted.

At the weekend, former police officer Gerry Gallacher said he had been one of those spied on.

The retired detective had previously raised serious concerns about the police inquiry into the unsolved murder of Emma Caldwell in 2005.

Lord Advocate Frank Mulholland ordered the case reinvestigated earlier this year after media reports about a possible suspect.

Yesterday, justice secretary Michael Matheson confirmed to the Scottish Parliament that the Scottish Government had been aware of the data breaches in July.

He promised that a review of Police Scotland’s counter-corruption practices being carried out by HM Inspectorate of Constabulary in Scotland (HMICS) would be “thorough” and “in depth”.

And he said the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, a court which looks into complaints of illegal surveillance, would now assess the scope of the data breaches and whether compensation could be paid.

Mr Matheson said he was assured Police Scotland had put systems in place to make sure similar contraventions cannot take place in the future. It’s nice to see the justice secretary is confident in this regard, although others would be forgiven for being more cynical.

As has been said numerous times before, it is worrying that when new details entered the public domain about developments in the Emma Caldwell murder investigation, Police Scotland simply chose to find the source of the leak.

It has become the Scottish Police Authority’s default position to set up reviews when something goes awry in policing.

In this instance, it’s important HMICS carries out its review quickly and any recommendations are accepted in full by the police.

If nothing else, this whole murky episode has shown the need for proper investigative journalism and the brave whistleblowers who allow it to function.

The rules that were broken may have been arcane, but the police’s attempts to silence the press is a basic violation of the principles we should all be interested in.