One consequence of the police investigations into phone-hacking and alleged payments for information by journalists to public officials is an increased cynicism about how newspapers come to know things. There is also, perhaps, less concern for journalistic wailings about the need to protect “confidential sources”.
However, while journalists obtain plenty of information from the internet, court documents, Freedom of Information requests or other public records, the fact remains that some of the best stories come from tip-offs by people who do not want their identities known.
Such a source might be a whistleblower, exposing corruption. Or they might just be someone who has stumbled across a titbit of genuine public interest but who, for legitimate reasons, needs to stay in the shadows. If they cannot do so, their information may simply not be forthcoming.
With this in mind, it has been concerning to discover in recent months the extent to which police forces have employed the powers vested in them by the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to examine the phone records of journalists.
The law was intended to enable security forces to tackle serious crime swiftly in the internet age. But it has become an easy tool for the investigation of low-grade alleged offences, primarily because applications by an investigating police officer need to be approved only by another officer of superintendent rank or higher who is not also involved in the operation. There is no judicial oversight of the process.
Crucially, if person A is suspected of involvement in a crime, person B’s phone records can be acquired to determine whether A has been phoning B, when and how often. The consent of B, who might be a journalist, is not required and they need not be notified.
All this may sound dull. But if press freedom means anything – and recent events have suggested that it might count for something – then the ability of a journalist to speak to an individual on the phone without either fearing their contact will be discovered by an overbearing police force is essential.
A proposed code on how the Act should be interpreted does little to assuage the unease felt across the media. The reputation of journalism may be at a low ebb, but limiting the ability of journalists to protect their sources is not the answer to fixing it.
Judging when to take a stand
Last Monday, it was confirmed that the new edition of Charlie Hebdo magazine – the “survivors’ edition” – would show a cartoon of the Prophet Mohamed on its front cover, and would have a print run of three million, rather than the usual 30,000.
The Independent had not, in the immediate aftermath of the Paris outrages, shown past Charlie Hebdo cartoons. But this time, the editor decided that we should show an image of the new front cover.
Was there some sort of inconsistency here? In essence, the same equation had to be considered on each occasion: was there an overriding justification to show material that we would not run in the usual course of things, which we knew would offend and, yes, that might make our journalists a target?
Two weeks ago the answer was no. Last week, the news value of the specific image was so considerable, that a different conclusion was reached. But just because we published it once does not mean there is the same justification for doing so on any occasion we happen to write about Charlie Hebdo in the future. Each case has to be judged on its merits.
Will Gore is Deputy Managing Editor of The Independent, i, Independent on Sunday and the Evening Standard Twitter: @willjgoreReuse content