Journalists from the Oxford Mail were not “vexatious” when asking the police questions about their RIPA snooping powered, the regulator has said.

The Information Commissioner’s Office has ruled, in a recently published decision notice, that the questions, sent under the Freedom of Information Act, didn’t cause the police an unnecessary burden.

Earlier this year a reporter with the paper asked whether the police force was one of 19 forces that had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 to find out who journalists’ sources were. An independent report said using the law for this purpose should be approved by a judge in future. 

Thames Valley Police is now required to properly answer the request within the next 35 days. They have the option of disclosing the information or trying to correctly apply another of the FOI Act’s exemptions.

The decision followed a number of other journalists, including this website, being told they had made vexatious requests to numerous police forces. Also branded vexatious was BBC News, and Guido Fawkes.

Importantly the decision notice said that the police force was not wise in relying on central guidance in answering an FOI request and should have applied their own thoughts, based on their circumstances, to their response.

There was still a public interest – despite an independent inquiry having taken place – in whether the police force was one of the 19 to have used the powers to try and track down a journalist’s source, the ICO said.

While the Oxford Mail, in a detailed account of the affair, reported:

The ruling said: “[The Commissioner] accepts that detailed requests in relation to RIPA can be burdensome for the police service as a whole given the co-ordination that may be required in certain types of cases. However, he notes that the request does not require any such detail.

“It only seeks to ascertain whether TVP is one of the 19 forces referred to in the IOCCO Report and, if so, how many cases were involved and the type of newspaper/s that the authorisation/s specified.

Press Gazette reported:

Mail editor Simon O’Neill said: “RIPA is there for a very good reason. But that reason is not to snoop willy-nilly on journalists going about their lawful business with no oversight or accountability. It is just a shame that forces, driven no doubt by the Association of Chief Police Officers, have been so incredibly unhelpful and secretive about this. It’s worth remembering that if they can do it to a journalist, they can do it to anyone.”

The full decision notice, as published by the ICO, is below:

ICO RIPA decision notice Thames Valley Police

I am a journalist and author. I am a journalist at the UK edition of WIRED magazine. In 2015, my first book Freedom of Information: A Practical Guide for UK Journalists, was published. My second book Reed Hastings: Building Netflix, was published in March 2020. I created FOI Directory in 2012 and have maintained it in my spare time ever since.