Crime reporters express fear over limited police contact

Crime reporters across the regional and national press have expressed fears that contact between press and police will be restricted further in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Highlighting the current climate, Tim Gordon of the South Wales Echo revealed that one of his reporters was told that Gwent police were “tightening up” rules in place for dealing with the media due to the Inquiry and the recent Filkin Report into press-police relations.

He added he was “concerned” that Gwent police had announced that their officers could not talk to the media unless they had been given prior permission from their press office. He described the difficulty in getting information from official channels, noting that the force’s press office was closed on weekends.

“I would much prefer that we could move forward trusting each other,” Gordon said, ” that my reporters could build and develop relationships with police officers on a professional basis, so there’s no fear or favour granted on either side, but that the information is free-flowing.”

“I would much prefer if the police were encouraged to give as much information as they possibly could,” he added.

Similar concerns were voiced at the Inquiry last week, with the Guardian’s Sandra Laville lamenting what she called an “over-reaction” by the Metropolitan police in response to the Inquiry, and that “open lines of communication, which have been there for many years, are being closed down”.

Gordon also had reservations about suggestions made by Elizabeth Filkin that contact between reporters and police officers be recorded. “My fear with a written record,” Gordon said, “is that it already suggests something is wrong with talking to a journalist.”

His view was shared by Wolverhampton Express and Star Editor Adrian Faber, who questioned whether or not what he called a “codification” would necessarily make police officers “more open”.

He said recording contact would lead to an officer “slightly looking over your shoulder and saying ‘should I be saying this?'”.

Faber added that such a measure “would lead to extra dimension that isn’t necessary locally”, noting that the regional press operates on a basis of trust with the communities they serve — a theme also raised by Gordon. “If we don’t have their trust we can’t go back to them,” he said.

Sunday Mirror crime correspondent Justin  Penrose added that there was now a “state of paralysis” in police-press relations, noting that police officers are less forthcoming or willing to talk to the media.

Tom Pettifor of the Daily Mirror echoed this, saying there may be “more reticence” among officers to talk to him if he did not go through a force’s press office, and that “informal contact” was now more difficult.

Logging press-police contact, in Pettifor’s view, “is obviously not going to eliminate the problem of corruption”, but would “freeze up” the information flow.

The Inquiry also heard from Metropolitan police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who replaced Sir Paul Stephenson last summer following his resignation amid speculation over the Met’s links to News International after the phone hacking scandal. Hogan-Howe conceded that public confidence in the Met had been “damaged” and he accordingly had to “set the boundary high” in terms of press-police relationships.

“I’d rather be criticised for setting the bar too high than too low,” he said, adding later that his aim is to build a “positive” relationship with the press, but accepted there might be “restrictions” when crime was being investigated.

He praised press coverage of the murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. While he said the press interest was at times “challenging”, it ultimately led to more witnesses coming forward.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

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Blair complains of politicised policing

Former commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Lord Blair, told the Leveson Inquiry this morning that he felt staff at the force spent too much time worrying about the press and that policing had become politicised.

“My determination was to spend less time on press matters than we were spending under my predecessor [Lord Stevens],” Blair told the Inquiry, citing processes of dealing with the media as being “exhausting” at times, and adding later that newspapers were “very difficult animals” to grapple with.

In his witness statement, Lord Blair, who was commissioner of the force from 2005 to 2008, wrote that there was  a “significant problem” of a “very small number of relatively senior officers” being “too close to journalists”.

Rather than financial gain, Blair said he believed this was “for the enhancement of their reputation and for the sheer enjoyment of being in a position to share and divulge confidences”.

“It is a siren song,” he continued. “I also believe that they based their behaviour on how they saw politicians behave, and that they lost sight of their professional obligations.”

“I don’t know how the political genie can be put back in the bottle,” he said of press coverage of the police becoming too politicised, noting that political correspondents, rather than crime reporters, had covered both his and his successor Sir Paul Stephenson’s resignations.

He endorsed recommendations made by Elizabeth Filkin in her report on relations between the press and police, arguing that her comment that “contact is permissible but not unconditional should be nailed to the front door of the police station”. Yet he took issue with “a whole series of injunctions and sub-clauses” about dealing with the press.

Blair wrote in his evidence to the Inquiry that his relationship with journalists had “always been perfectly proper”. He told the Inquiry he had not had dinner with editors, with the exception of one who had been a friend before his commisionership.

His written evidence also revealed that he was told “certainly after 2006” that his official and personal telephone numbers appeared in files belonging to private investigator Glenn Mulcaire, and that they had been obtained in the spring of the same year. Yet Blair stressed, “I had no evidence that I had ever been hacked.”

He also echoed former Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke’s “perfectly reasonable” view that countering terrorism was a greater priority than investigating phone hacking. “We had closed Heathrow airport in the middle of the holiday season, there was enormous pressure,” Blair said.

“It really was the only show in town. Any conversation about this would have been way back on the agenda and relatively short.”

Yet he added that the 2009 decision of former Assistant Commissioner John Yates not to re-open the investigation in light of reports by the Guardian was “just too quick”.

“I don’t quite understand why John took that decision with the speed which he did,” he said, but stressed he did not believe Yates took the decision in order to placate News International.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson

Police officers "shocked" at hospitality enjoyed by senior Met members

The author of a report into press-police relations has said police officers were “shocked” and “amazed” at the level of hospitality enjoyed by senior members of the Metropolitan police.

“Most of the people that I spoke to within the Met felt that people had been receiving excessive hospitality,” Elizabeth Filkin told the Leveson Inquiry this afternoon.

The former parliamentary commissioner for standards, whose report into the ethical issues arising from the relationship between the media and police was published at the start of this year, also told the Inquiry that information about senior officers’ private lives was kept out of the media by journalists who received exclusive stories “as a trade”.

Filkin had spoken to Metropolitan police staff, politicians and journalists as part of her inquiry.

She said that officers told her they would not use the Met’s internal whistleblower service because they did not trust it. “There were concerns or fears about their future if they were regarded, in their terms that they used to me, as a troublemaker,” she added.

Filkin also said that almost all police officers who spoke to her told her the force was harmed by leaks to the press and that Met staff were “loath” to tell staff they were carrying out inquiries into leaks.

Reiterating her report’s recommendations, Filkin called for contact between the police and media to be more transparent, suggesting it be recorded.

Agreeing with Filkin’s suggestions, Roger Baker, of Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) told the Inquiry that officers should keep a record of discussions with the media “so that there can be a record of it to safeguard the public”.

“There needs to be a real clarity on what is appropriate and what isn’t,” Baker added later. “If no clarity on rules, you can’t regulate.”

The HMIC published a report last December entitled Without Fear or Favour, which looked into police relations and integrity. It recommended a more consistent approach country-wide on sending out a clearer message to staff on  what is acceptable in terms of hospitality, relationships and information disclosure.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow, with evidence from former Metropolitan police staff.

Follow Index on Censorship’s coverage of the Leveson Inquiry on Twitter – @IndexLeveson