Crime reporters defend their links to police officers

Crime reporters have lamented the current atmosphere of more restricted contact between the press and police at the Leveson Inquiry today.

Testifying this morning, the Guardian’s Sandra Laville said that there has been an “over-reaction” by the Metropolitan police in response to the Inquiry into press standards, and that “open lines of communication, which have been there for many years, are being closed down”.

“It affects everything I do at the moment,” she said. She told the Inquiry that when she recently approached a senior ranking officer to ask him about a subject he knew well, he said he had to ask the Met’s press officer who then refused her access to him. Laville said this was “absolutely not” how it was in the past.

The reporter stressed that the country’s police force needed to be held account, which could not be done by journalists relying solely on official sources. She warned that limiting information to official sources might drive information “underground” and turn it into a “black market”.

“I think we already have laws and guidelines in place and I think they should be reiterated,” Laville said. “You can regulate as much as you like, unless you can trust them [police officers], I don’t think it’s going to work.”

The Independent’s Paul Peachey added that there was a concern that the current eagerness to drive information through official channels — namely the police press office — would lead to less contact between the media and the force, and that restricting information further would be a “worrying trend for the way we hold the police in this country to account.”

Jonathan Ungoed-Thomas of the Sunday Times told the Inquiry he disagreed with recording every exchange between journalists and police officers, as suggested in the recent Filkin report into press-police relations. “It would be a mistake to unnecessarily restrict flow of information between journalists and police officers,” he said.

Laville defended using informal contacts as a source for information alongside official channels, noting that they often bring “texture” and “colour” that official sources might not provide.

She disagreed with the view of former Metropolitan police commissioner Lord Condon that hospitality can be “the start of a grooming process that can lead to inappropriate or unethical behaviour”, calling the suggestion “faintly ludicrous”.

“These people are grown-ups, they make life and death decisions,” Laville said.

She said that she saw it as “perfectly legitimate” and part of “normal human relationships” for meetings between journalists and police officers to take place in a social setting, noting that taking contacts out for drinks occurs in every journalistic sector.

She noted differences between Condon’s and Lord Stevens’ commissionerships in dealing with the media. “Under Lord Condon you could not talk to an officer without a press officer present,” Laville said, noting that his successor adopted a policy of “more openness”.

She stressed that the press and police have for years had a “mutually beneficial relationship” and that it was in the public interest. “It’s lasted for a long time because it actually works,” she said, but added that she believed that training on both sides could help to “understand each other’s worlds”.

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