London police are too close to the media and senior officers must be more transparent about contact with journalists, according to a report prompted by the phone- hacking scandal at News Corp. (NWSA)’s News of the World tabloid.
Metropolitan Police Service officers should avoid drinking with reporters, make a record of all meetings and beware of potential “flirting” by journalists seeking unauthorized information, according to the findings issued in London today.
“The close relationship which developed between parts of the MPS and the media has caused serious harm,” according to the 56-page internal report by Elizabeth Filkin, the former head of investigations into wrongdoing in Parliament. “What goes on at the top affects the whole organization.”
The report was commissioned in July, after revelations that the News of the World’s phone-hacking activities were more widespread than previously known, and that the police failed to investigate thoroughly after the first probe ended five years ago. Authorities have arrested eight people, including a serving officer last month, as part of a related criminal investigation into police bribery by the tabloid’s reporters.
While the new proposals are a “good start,” the problem goes deeper than flirting and hospitality, said Tamsin Allen, a lawyer with Bindmans in London who represents phone-hacking victims, including Labour party lawmaker Chris Bryant.
‘Systematically Leaked Information’
“There is also evidence that corrupt payments have been made to police officers by journalists, and that the police have systematically leaked information to the press,” Allen said.
Bryant and former U.K. Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott are among a group of victims seeking a court declaration that police, which started a new investigation in January, should have reopened the probe sooner and alerted people whose phones may have been hacked. Bryant has said police colluded with the News of the World to mislead lawmakers about the extent of the scandal.
News Corp. closed the 168-year-old News of the World in July to help contain public anger after it was revealed reporters had hacked into the voice mail of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler in 2002, when she was still missing. Paul Stephenson, the police commissioner at the time, resigned the same month over the force’s decision to hire former News of the World editor Neil Wallis as a public-relations adviser.
Phone-hacking evidence seized in 2006 from the News of the World’s private investigator Glenn Mulcaire was left unexamined for years, and celebrity phone-hacking victims had to sue the police to win access to evidence that resulted in at least 70 civil lawsuits against News Corp.’s British publishing unit. A judge-led inquiry into the ethics of the U.K. press will also examine how police handled the scandal.
“There should be no more secret conversations -- no more improper contact,” Metropolitan Police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said today. “Meetings will no longer be enhanced by hospitality and alcohol.”
Flirting is “often interlinked with alcohol” and is “designed to get you to drop your defenses and say far more than you intended. Be careful,” Filkin said in the report. She didn’t suggest an outright ban on alcohol with reporters.
Alcohol, she said, can involve “late-night carousing, long sessions, yet another bottle of wine at lunch -- these are all long-standing media tactics to get you to spill the beans.”
“In an age of 24/7 news, it was not the ’flirting’ that mattered but the seduction that followed,” said Mark Lewis, the lawyer for the Dowler family. “People were convicted by the press on evidence given by police officers” and the distraction resulted in officers who “failed to spot crime.”
The report uncovered a widespread belief that the Metropolitan Police gives unequal access to different parts of the media and that “certain special relationships have developed.” The report cited an unnamed journalist who said the relationship was counterproductive, because reporters need to be “nice” to officers and aren’t critical in their reporting.
“There is a widespread view that a certain amount of leaking is inevitable,” Filkin said in the report. “Leaks are notoriously difficult to prove to an evidential standard for a criminal prosecution.”
Filkin said her proposed guidelines will result in more communication between police officers and the press, not less. More officers should be free to speak with reporters and provide transparent, authorized information, she said.
News Corp. faces a trial in February, when a judge will decide how much the company should pay in damages to six victims in a so-called test case, including actor Jude Law. News Corp. agreed last year to pay about 100,000 pounds ($156,000) to actor Sienna Miller and 3 million pounds to the Dowler family.
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