Let us speak in safety... Guest blog: Michelle Stanistreet, NUJ General Secretary

18 May 2016


The Investigatory Powers Bill, which has been debated in the Parliamentary Public Bill Committee this week, will go back to the House of Commons for report stage shortly. The Bill contains a range of surveillance powers available to the security services, police and other public bodies. During the Public Bill Committee sessions and in response to Keir Starmer MP, the Minister for Security at the Home Office, John Hayes MP, said: "while we have made considerable progress in considering and dealing with the issue of the legal profession, there may be more work to do in respect of journalists".

The Bill currently lacks safeguards for journalists, legal representatives and civil society. My union, the National Union of Journalists (NUJ), has been campaigning together with the Bar Council and Law Society to highlight the serious concerns we have about the safety and confidentiality of sources, whistleblowers and individuals seeking legal representation.

The NUJ was compelled to speak out about intrusive investigatory powers when in September 2014 it was revealed the police had secretly accessed the mobile phone records and the call data from the newsdesk of a national newspaper. This police action was an abuse of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and it bypassed existing safeguards for the protection of sources set out under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. With previous legislation journalists are notified when the authorities want to access their material and sources, and journalists have the ability to defend their sources in an open court with the chance to challenge and appeal the application and decisions.

The right to protect journalistic sources has been recognised by international law. It has been recognised by the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the Organisation of American States and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. The European Court of Human Rights said in several of its decisions that it's a key element of freedom of expression. In addition, the NUJ has historically secured legal precedent on the protection of sources in the Goodwin v UK 1996 case. The British government have now decided to sweep these existing safeguards off the table and use a secretive back-door route to access journalistic communications and sources. At the moment their outrageous justification is that journalists themselves are not the "owners" of their own communications data.

Fundamentally we believe there is no difference between the authorities asking for a journalists' physical contacts book or footage and their telephone and communications records. The effect on journalists and sources is exactly the same and the same legal safeguards should cover both.

Our robust opposition in response to the current proposals in the Bill are based on the union's long-standing ethical principles. The NUJ code of conduct was first established in 1936 and it is the only ethical code for journalists written by journalists. The code is part of the union rules; members support the code and strive to adhere to its professional principles. The code includes the following clause: "A journalist protects the identity of sources who supply information in confidence and material gathered in the course of her/his work."

We remain determined to amend the Bill and will continue to actively campaign to ensure that safeguards for journalistic communications, materials, sources and activities are all respected in the UK. Safeguards should apply across the different investigatory powers and not just apply to communications data when the authorities are intending to identify a source. The media should be able to challenge and appeal investigatory powers requests and decisions - so that the public interest and press freedom arguments are put forward and considered.

The cross-party parliamentary joint committee when examining the first draft of Bill said "protection for journalistic privilege should be fully addressed by way of substantive provisions on the face of the bill ".

Whilst the Bill passes through parliament, the NUJ will do everything possible to ensure protections are added. At the moment the Bill includes extremely intrusive and unnecessary surveillance powers that trample over the very principles of journalism and press freedom.

Michelle Stanistreet is the elected general secretary of the National Union of Journalists (UK and Ireland). The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) is the representative voice for journalists and media workers across the UK and Ireland.

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The NUJ is the representative voice for journalists and media workers across the UK and Ireland. The union was founded in 1907 and has 30,000 members representing staff, students and freelances working at home and abroad in the broadcast media, newspapers, news agencies, magazines, books, public relations, communications, online media and as photographers. The union is not affiliated to any political party and has a cross-party parliamentary group.