According to the recent report on Operation Alice, the Met’s investigation into ‘plebgate’, the rather unfortunate ‘incident in Downing Street involving the Rt. Hon Andrew Mitchell MP and police officers from the Metropolitan Police Service Diplomatic Protection Group (DPG)’, a significant element of the evidence against some of the officers involved came from Sun journalist Tom Newton Dunn.
Tom didn’t betray his sources – his phone did.
As part of the investigation ‘the telecommunications data in respect of Tom Newton Dunn was applied for and evidenced’ (para 5.120 of the Operation Alice report, PDF here thanks to Jack of Kent).
And that is why journalism isn’t really possible any more.
There’s more detail in an article in the Press Gazette:
[Newton Dunn] refused to give any information which might identify his source and said: “In my opinion this was an example of good faith whistleblowing about misconduct by a senior politician which was rightfully exposed publicly.”
The Met police nonetheless successfully applied for Newton Dunn’s mobile phone records in order expose his source.
The Met also successful seized call data to The Sun newsdesk in order to expose a second alleged police source.
And the final report goes into some detail:
On Thursday 31st January 2013 PC James Glanville was arrested on suspicion of committing the offences of Misconduct in a Public Office and Perverting the Course of Justice. His arrest came about as the result of the initial analysis of the mobile telephone records from The Sun Political Editor, Mr Tom Newton Dunn, which showed a series of contacts by text and voice calls between the two over several days.
Contact was made with Tom Newton Dunn through his solicitors and he made a prepared statement to this investigation.
5.117 In his statement, Tom Newton Dunn stated his views on the responsibilities of the press to publish such articles as he did in relation to Mr Mitchell and his professional obligation as a reporter in relation to his sources. He stated that,
’In my opinion this was an example of good faith whistle-blowing about misconduct by a senior politician which was rightfully exposed publicly.’
5.118 Tom Newton Dunn refused to give any information at all which might identify his source but stated that neither PC Rowland nor PC Weatherley were the source of his information. He stated that no payment was made or offered in connection with his stories.
5.120 The telecommunications data in respect of Tom Newton Dunn was applied for and evidenced.
The details of Plebgate story are complex and have proven embarrassing for almost everyone involved, and not my subject here.
What concerns me is the frank admission that after Tom Newton Dunn refused to reveal his source the police simply went around him and got the information they needed from the phone company, and that the Sun switchboard and his mobile phone were so easily compromised.
It is the clearest demonstration yet that the lack of any protection for journalism from intrusive laws which were introduced on the grounds that they would protect us from terrorism or serious crime means that no journalist can realistically promise to protect their sources.
We are all compromised and we are all in danger of compromising those who trust us, because I don’t know a single newsgathering organisation that could make a credible claim to be able to safeguard its sources.
Until we sort this out nobody should believe a journalist who promises to protect them unless they have established and are confident in their own operational security.
Update: it seems The Sun is going to push back, so we may see some more discussion around this issue.
Sun publisher News UK is to ask a Government watchdog how many times police have spied on journalists’ phone records and what guidance he intends to give.