Campaign launched to protect whistleblowers from officials misusing powers meant for criminal invesigations
Campaign launched to protect whistleblowers from officials misusing powers meant for criminal invesigationsPress Gazette

A campaign has been launched to protect people who try to expose scandals inside powerful organisations from being scared in to silence.

Save Our Sources is gathering signatures demanding whistleblowers be protected from employers and instututions seeking to silence criticism.

The campaign sprung to life after the Metropolitan Police sacked three officers for leaking inside information, which the Crown Prosecution Service ruled the public had a right to know.

The case in question was an internal investigation by Scotland Yard to discover who had secretly spoken to The Sun newspaper. The Met used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (Ripa) to get hold of confidential phone records belonging to a journalist who spoke with the officers. The officers in question were later dismissed from the service as a result.

According to Press Gazette, the episode has the disturbing potential to frighten would-be whistleblowers from revealing inconvenient truths about powerful bodies to the public.

Campaigners fear the police's "back door" method of using Ripa set a troubling precedent for society. They insist the Act is meant for detecting crime, not internal matters.

But using Ripa enabled the police to avoid having to persuade a judge of the case for accessing the reporter's private documents at a court hearing at which the journalist could have appealed against it.

Scotland Yard later admitted it had "no idea" how often its officers have used this back-door method had been used.

Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford told IBTimes UK: "This affects everyone who uses a school, the NHS or a council service. Everybody has an interest in seeing the truth come out.

"After the hacking scandal, there's a huge amount of public skepticism about journalists and some practices, but this is not about journalists. This is the people doing the whistleblowing. It is a campaign for everyone.

"Ripa is for exposing criminality and not for internal mole hunts. The police cheated to get around the principle journalists can protect the anonymity of their sources."

So far the campaign has drawn an unlikely alliance of support from The Sun and The Guardian to the police and crime commissioner of Surrey, Kevin Hurley.

Speaking out against the use of Ripa powers, former police officer Hurley said: "RIPA – an Act of Parliament originally intended to protect our national security and economic interests – [was] used to compromise a journalist's sources by the back door and without external scrutiny, for no reason other than to defend the reputation of the Metropolitan Police Service as its leaders struggle to deal with a bitter but ultimately trivial political spat.

"No lives were at stake. No money had changed hands. Indeed, the CPS declined to pursue prosecutions because they believed the constables in question would ultimately have been found by a jury to be acting in the public interest."

The use of Ripa powers by police highlights how vulnerable whistleblowers can be in the UK. NHS group Patients First has said a "culture of fear" often prevented wrongdoing from being exposed, due to workplace bullying and the cost of legal advice.

By contrast, whistleblowers in the United States are incentivised to make their concerns public. The Securities and Exchanges Commission this week awarded £18.3m ($30m) to one source who exposed corporate wrongdoing.

Save Our Sources on Change.org wants the government to stop public bodies from using Ripa. Suggestions include adding a journalistic exemption clause into the Act or issuing fresh guidance on what constitutes misuse of Ripa powers.