Why Leveson’s recommendations are more worrying than you think

In my months covering the Leveson Inquiry, a clear and startling picture was painted of closed, secretive police forces, tense in their relationship with reporters on local and national papers and fiercely protective over the flow of information.

Justin Penrose of the Sunday Mirror described a “state of paralysis” in police-press relations. The Times’ crime editor Sean O’Neill said that “in the current climate, if you arranged to meet an officer you’d be looking over your shoulder the whole time.” The Guardian’s Sandra Laville cited an “over-reaction” by the Metropolitan police in response to the Inquiry, adding that “open lines of communication, which have been there for many years, are being closed down.”

So it is worrying that some of the more terrifying passages of the Leveson report that could perpetuate this closed culture, chill investigative journalism and also have grave implications for whistleblowers have gone almost unnoticed.

First, Leveson recommends increasing sentencing powers for breaches of section 55 of the Data Protection Act and also suggests that paragraph 2 (b) of schedule 1 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE) be repealed. The latter means that police should only request journalistic material as a last resort; repealing it would make it far easier for them to do so. As Index wrote in a policy note published today, the work of journalists who cover  crime or terror stories could be compromised if this proposal is followed through, and sources that require protection might feel less confident in dealing with the press as a result.

O’Neill told me he finds the proposed change to PACE “terrifying”, calling it a “landgrab of massive new powers” that could force journalists to disclose their sources.

Add to this Leveson’s suggestion for an internal whistleblowing hotline, which would, in his view, get rid of the need for confidential briefings to journalists on internal police issues. The judge also recommends that “it should be mandatory for ACPO [Association of Chief Police Officers] rank officers to record all of their contact with the media”, and proposes an end to off-the-record briefings.

“This is music to the ears of people in the Met,” O’Neill said. “They think they should be the guardians of what transparency is.”

“Leveson has effectively just endorsed the approach the Met adopted post-phone hacking, when it went into complete lockdown,” he added.

Leveson might well strive for a more transparent environment — after all, it was the shady culture of collusion between editors, police officers and politicians that allowed reprehensible newsroom practices to fester and helped to severely dent public trust. This is rightly being investigated. But there is nothing wrong with an officer talking to a journalist: contact between them is just one of the ways reporters can scrutinise those in power, and the informal kind might provide more “texture” and “colour” that official sources might not give, as Laville told the Inquiry last March. Both parties are humans, and need to be able to discuss matters openly and without fear if information is to flow freely.

For their part, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg expressed strong concern over the data protection recommendations when they responded to the report last month. Yet amid the recent arrest of an officer in connection with a leak that spurred the “plebgate” row and resignation of Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell, there is greater concern over how police officers and journalists navigate the murky post-Leveson world, as Vikram Dodd alluded to this week.

The reality is that this unsavoury mix of uncertainty and landgrabs fits a wider pattern of a culture yearning for a firmer grip on information: from disciplining a police officer for tweeting to plans for secret courts in the Justice and Security Bill currently under consideration in the House of Lords, there seems to be an appetite for perpetuating secrecy.

It’s hard to know what’s more worrying: that Leveson — so adamant was he about protecting freedom of speech — suggested these alarming proposals, or that so few seem bothered by the prospect of information becoming such a shackled commodity.

Marta Cooper is an editorial researcher at Index. Follow her on Twitter: @martaruco

More on this story:
Read our latest policy note in response to the Leveson Report

Wikileaks publishes over 90,000 US war files

On Sunday (25 July) whistleblower website Wikileaks made public over 90,000 classified US military files on the war in Afghanistan, making it one of the biggest leaks in US history. The documents give a real time account of the conflict between January 2004 and December 2009 from the perspective of US personnel.  Amongst other things they reveal that coalition forces have killed hundreds of civilians in unreported incidents, that a secret “black” unit exists to kill or capture Taliban leaders without trial and that NATO officers fear Iranian and Pakistani intelligence are providing support for insurgents. The documents were released to the Guardian, New York Times and German magazine Der Spiegel for analysis several weeks ago and whilst Wikileaks did impose a publishing embargo until July 25, they did not influence how the news reports were formulated and did not reveal the source of the leak to the news organisations. The White House has not disputed the accuracy of the reports but “strongly condemned” the disclosure, believing that it could “threaten national security”.

Secrets and Sex and the City

Before we go any further, I need to admit that the second Sex and the City movie isn’t for me. This is not, I should explain, because I operate on a higher moral or social plane than girls who like dramas about girls who like shoes. I simply operate on a different plane: I like shoes, but not enough to watch a whole programme about them, let alone a film. But when Sex and the City used to be on TV, I watched it, if I was home. The last film, however, left me thoroughly baffled, as the smart-mouthed women of the TV show now seemed to care more about white weddings than any rational person should. I dislike weddings. And white clothes. So the last film wasn’t for me; the new one, also not for me.

Yet it is an accepted truth that all women must care about a Sex and the City movie, unless they have given up on womanhood altogether. Every newspaper has articles about it — will it be good, should we care, how old is Kim Cattrall now? And the Times ran an article at the weekend, which featured a couple of paragraphs from Dhaffer L’Abidine, who stars in the new film. She begins by saying, “They’re really strict, on the legal side, about the information I can give out, but all I can say is that in the film I am the reason why they go to the Middle East. I can’t say anything more.”

Which reminded me that I have seen this formulation a lot, recently. It seems increasingly common for a film or TV company to prohibit anyone involved in a forthcoming production from giving anything away. Which I am largely in favour of — one of the things I like least about the internet is how hard it has made it to be surprised anymore. Even if you see preview screenings of films, it’s difficult to go in as a completely blank slate.

And the secrecy — or censorship — is often used, I suspect, to try and prevent an audience becoming weary of something before it’s even in the cinemas or on TV. The more popular the show, the more difficult it is to keep quiet. Neil Gaiman posted a picture of himself with Steven Moffat on Twitter this week. A hand carefully obscured the title of the Doctor Who episode he has written, which will air in 2011. If Bob Quick had had that kind of foresight, he might not have had to quit his job last year, after inadvertently revealing his secret anti-terror documents to the world’s media.

But I think things may now have spun out of control. With all due respect to the Sex and the City storyliners, I think it is fair to suggest that literally no-one is waiting for the movie because of an expected riveting plot. They are waiting for it because they want to see what Sarah Jessica Parker wears near a camel. So HBO Films can really calm down on the secrecy.