IPT: Police Scotland breached journalist’s Article 10 rights in landmark case
Journalists’ sources may have gained new protections following a ruling of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT).
The judgment suggests that any public body that attempts to identify the source of media stories may fall foul of human rights law.
The IPT found that Police Scotland breached the rights of a journalist even though it did not ask him to reveal his sources and abandoned a plan to access his phone records.
Jim Wilson, of The Sunday Post, accused the single force of breaching his rights under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights.
President of the IPT, Lord Justice Singh, and other judges, ruled that while the police had not gone through with the plan to obtain his call data, officers had nevertheless breached his rights by investigating his suspected sources.
They said: “The overarching 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 heard that in 2015, Mr Wilson, then editor of The Sunday Mail, and his colleague Brendan McGinty, wrote pieces on the existence of a forgotten suspect in a murder investigation 10 years earlier.
Police Scotland’s Counter Corruption Unit (CCU) launched an investigation in response to identify any former and senior officers involved in passing information to the journalists. It was later found to have captured the call records of two serving and two former officers illegally.
Mr Wilson later found that while officers had never approached him, the CCU had obtained his phone number. He complained to the IPT in February 2018.
Commenting on the case, Ronnie Clancy KC said: “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.
“The tribunal noted his name and status as a journalist were expressly invoked in authorised applications so the breach occurred even though the police application did not directly target his number.”
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.”
Mr Wilson 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.”