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.

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

Leveson will subject press regulation proposal to "forensic analysis"

Lord Justice Leveson has said he is not giving his “endorsement, let alone agreement” to a proposed reformed setup of the Press Complaints Commission, adding that and that a new package will be “subjected to forensic analysis”.

“My mind remains open to all options,” Leveson said in his opening remarks at this morning’s Inquiry session, responding to last week’s disbanding of the current PCC, and its chair Lord Hunt’s subsequent draft proposal for a new body “with teeth”.

“To say that the PCC was never a regulator (…) only underlines the concern that the public have been misled about what it could do,” Leveson said, raising a number of questions for the as yet unnamed new body. He took issue with the five-year rolling contract endorsed by Lord Hunt, questioning if it was “sufficient to deal with the fundamental problem of industry acceptance.”

“The threat of what I might recommend may well encourage to sign up those who (…) do not consider that the PCC worked for them, but that simply potentially puts the problem off for five years,” Leveson said. He added that “previous crises have concerned adequacy of regulation and there was no problem of publishers leaving the system.”

He also questioned the structure of the new body, which, as Lord Hunt outlined, would have two arms: one that deals with complaints and mediation, and another that audits and enforces standards and compliance with the editors’ code. “What is the view about concurrent legal proceedings and why should the complaints arm not be able to award compensation,” Leveson asked.  “Is the new independent assessor an appeal mechanism and, if so, what will be done to prevent complaint fatigue and what has been said to be the grinding down of complainants by passage of time? What is meant by a serious or systemic breakdown in standards?”

The judge stressed his role would be to recommend what he perceived to be the “most effective and potentially enduring” system. “It will then be for others to decide how to proceed,” he said.

Leveson also responded to today’s call from the Hacked Off Campaign for the Operation Motorman database to be published. He said core participants’ barrister, David Sherbone was “at liberty” to formally submit the reuqest if he felt it were appropriate or may highlight a broader culture of press practices rather than “who did what to whom.”

Also today the Inquiry heard from Assistant Commissioner of the Metropolitan police, Cressida Dick, and Sir Dennis O’Connor of HM Inspectorate of Constabulary.

Dick outlined her approach to relations with the media as not “obsessively monastic”, noting that she preferred to speak with journalists through the Met’s press office if a reporter was seeking information. She told the Inquiry she held monthly briefings with two to three journalists, which she said were “important to break down barriers”. Yet the meetings did not produce “a single scoop or really good story.”

“Certainly I wasn’t saying anything secret or exciting,” Dick said.

Questioned over the decision taken by then Assistant Commissioner John Yates not to re-open rhe phone hacking investigation in 2009 in light of reports by the Guardian was “not only poor, it was disastrous.”

Dick clarified that Sue Akers, the Met officer leading  the current Operation Weeting investigation into hacking, was now working more widely under section one of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in terms of potential lines of inquiry than during the original 2006 investigation.

“Public opinion in terms of these issues is in a very different place than [in] 2006 when we were completely dominated by the terrorist threat,” Dick added, reiterating the testimony of other Met staff.

O’Connor spoke in favour of a “common frame of reference” for police forces in dealing with the media, but on more than one occasion warned against constraining relations between them.

“The last thing I would do is restrain the relation between the police and the press,” he said. “That would defy reality.”

He said he hoped the Inquiry could help reinforce the legitimacy of the police.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow with the Met’s senior information officer, Sara Cheesley, and communications director, Dick Fedorcio.

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"Phone hackers don’t kill you, terrorists do," Leveson Inquiry told

Three former police officers from the Metropolitan Police Service, who were involved in the original phone hacking investigation appeared before Leveson to discuss the relationship between the police and the press today.

In a gruelling three hour testimony, John Yates, former assistant commissioner to the Met Police, was questioned rigorously by both Robert Jay, QC, and Lord Justice Leveson.

Jay explored a catalogue of diary events in which Yates met with a number of journalists, including Neil Wallis, an executive at News International, Colin Myler, former News of the World editor, and Lucy Panton, crime editor of the News of the World.

Jay repeatedly asked Yates if he believed these appointments, at venues such as the Ivy Club, were appropriate. Yates explained “In terms of what we know now, in terms of what has happened, I suppose it is [inappropriate], but it wasn’t at the time.”

He added: “I think it’s hugely important that senior officers of the police have a relationship with the press.”

Yates was asked about an email to Lucy Panton about an Al-Qaeda plot, and story. The email mentioned Yates as “crucial” and added that it was “time to call in all those bottles of champagne. Yates dismissed this as a “turn of phrase” and denied ever being plied with champagne by Panton.

The former Met officer was also asked about an occasion when he had drinks with James Hanning of the Independent. Yates described him as an “interesting interrogator” and added “he challenged some of my preconceptions on phone hacking. It was interesting to talk to him because he was giving a completely different view on what happened. He saw a “grander conspiracy”.

When asked if Hanning had shared with him his belief that knowledge of phone hacking went right to the top of News International, Yates denied this.

Yates accepted making a “fundamental misjudgement” in his definition of phone hacking victims, but also explained that at the time it was not considered a particularly serious matter.

In relation to revelations earlier in the week that Lord Prescott was not made aware of the extent of the information which had been gathered about him, Lord Justice Leveson voiced his concern that “persistent requirements” made by Yates, did not reveal the answer.

Yates replied: “It is deeply regrettable, and I can’t account for it, I’m afraid.”

Peter Clarke, former Assistant Commissioner of Specialist Operations appeared before the court first, and described the “complicated relationship between the police and the press. Clarke explained that at different levels within the police, there were different levels of relationships with the media.

He said: “I felt that that it was useful to have more informal meetings with groups of journalists from across media outlets at lunches to discuss broad issues of strategy”

When asked by Jay if there was favouritism towards a particular news agency, Clarke said; “I was totally disinterested between them. If my memory serves me, it tended to be on one occasion we would have broadsheets, another red-tops, another broadcasters. We had representation from across the media groups.

During his time as the head of the anti terrorist branch SO13 9between 2002 and 2008), Clarke said that any relationship with the press was to promote the public interest.

Clarke explained that “public interest is paramount” with regards to relations between the press and the police. He added: “any engagement with the media was to try and help protect the public, and to keep them safe.”

He said: “I was not interested in trying to make the police look good, that was not my agenda, it was to try and support the counter terrorist operation at that time.

In relation to the expansion of the inquiry which Clarke admitted he never wanted to happen, he described the pressure put on the SO13 unit, during the time of the original phone hacking investigation, telling the court that at the same time, there were 70 separate terrorism inquiries underway.

He explained that he could not have justified releasing officers to work on the phone-hacking investigation, because of the terrorist threat.

Putting it bluntly, Clarke told the court that phone hackers “don’t kill you, terrorists do.”

Clarke told the court that the 11,000 pages of Mulcaire’s notebooks which were seized were not analysed at the time because the investigation would have been an “enormous undertaking” and would have involved “dozens of officers over weeks if not years.”

He added: “The fear was what that resource commitment would lead us…it was disproportionate to other competing demands at the time.”

Clarke also discussed the obstruction from News International following the arrest of Glenn Mulcaire on the 8 August 2006. He said: “In terms of the investigation, it became immediately apparent that we weren’t going to get any co-operation from News International. Usually, companies bend over backwards to try and preserve their reputation and assist in inquiries. This was a closing of the ranks from very early on.”

Throughout his testimony, Clarke remained firm that all those involved in the case were not affected by News International, “those officers conducted an honest inquiry, they were uninfluenced, as was I by News International.”

Andy Hayman, former Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner also appeared at the hearing.

He told the court that he entered his role with a “reserved” approach to the media. He said “I didn’t feel I needed to engage because I felt that sometimes that kind of relationship was difficult.”

But Jay’s questioning led to the discussion of several meetings between Hayman and Lucy Panton and Neil Wallis. Discussing a “working lunch” in March 2007, Hayman said; “I can’t remember the purpose, I can remember the lunch, but it would not be anything different to anything other than what I’ve already explained, the support that newspaper was trying to give the ongoing terrorist inquiry.” Jay revealed that this lunch was paid for with a Metropolitan Police Service American Express card.

Hayman supported earlier comments from Clarke, that resources were struggling to balance between the phone hacking investigation and on-going terrorist inquiries.

Hayman said: “Without wishing to sound alarmist, the pot was actually running dry, so we had nowhere really to go. Within the Met that was exactly the same … that would have a massive attack on the counter-terrorism.”

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