Sweeping measures allow officers to demand information from sources
Changes may also see journalists forced to reveal whistleblowers’ identities
Worries over the affect new rules will have on freedom of speech
Straitjacket: There are fears the rules will curtail reporters’ freedom to expose corruption and other wrongdoing, such as the expenses scandal
By Jack Doyle
Police are set to be given new powers to seize confidential material from journalists.
In a worrying blow to Press freedom, the changes may also mean journalists will be forced to identify whistleblowers to the police.
Critics said the Home Office proposals, which follow recommendations made by Lord Justice Leveson, would undermine investigative journalism and free speech.
It is feared that the changes will remove legal protections for anyone who releases material to reporters unless journalists can show their source did not breach confidentiality or act illegally.
The computer disc that contained the details of how MPs had been rampantly fiddling their expenses was technically stolen by a Westminster employee.
Padraig Reidy, of Index on Censorship, said: ‘These measures, if implemented, could have a real effect on journalism, free speech and the entire climate of freedom in the UK.
‘They grievously undermine the concept of confidentiality between reporters and sources that is essential for investigative journalism.’
Currently, journalists have protection under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act (PACE) from disclosing material to the police, even if it had been obtained by a source acting in breach of confidence or unlawfully.
But during the Leveson inquiry, the police argued those protections should be removed, and the judge agreed.
It raises the prospect that someone who uncovers wrongdoing will not come forward if they risk being named to the police.
In a further attack on PACE, Lord Leveson suggested it could be made easier for the police to seize items belonging to journalists which may be linked to criminality.
Currently a judge can approve an order forcing media groups to hand over information but, crucially, detectives must first show they have tried to get the material by other means.
In its response to the Leveson inquiry published on Wednesday, the Home Office accepted his recommendations on reforms to the Act.
But legal experts have warned the changes could undermine long-standing protections from the state.
Gavin Millar QC, an expert in media law, told the Guardian: ‘These amendments would make it much easier for the police to get orders requiring production of journalistic material. The police would not even have to try to get the evidence in other ways.
‘Journalists will only be able to claim confidentiality by testifying that the source was free to give them the material.
‘This will be impossible for most public interest disclosures by whistleblowers.’
Lord Justice Leveson warned the protections under PACE may have been abused to resist investigators during the phone hacking inquiry.
He called for journalists to respect the Act and not abuse it by ‘invoking it to cover up that which cannot be justified’.
Yesterday a 51-year-old police officer was arrested by Scotland Yard for allegedly leaking information to a newspaper, even though no money is thought to have changed hands.
The unnamed officer was arrested at 6am at his Wiltshire home on suspicion of misconduct in public office by officers from Operation Elveden.
His is the 107th arrest in connection with the multimillion-pound inquiries into phone and computer hacking and illegal payments to public officials.