Investigative journalism must not be criminalised
Guardian, 9/10 September
Police questioning of journalists such as the Guardian’s Amelia Hill who seek to uncover corruption is a worrying trend
The questioning under caution of the Guardian reporter Amelia Hill by the Metropolitan police is part of a worrying trend: for the police appear to be using their power not to root out corruption or bribery, but to stop a reporter doing her job, namely to winkle out the truth about an issue of public importance.
Hill reported a number of stories about the phone-hacking scandal, including the revelation of Milly Dowler’s phone being hacked by News of the World. It was this story that finally compelled police and politicians to fully investigate a scandal that some had known about for years. Commentators have seen Hill’s questioning as part of a wider attempt to criminalise contact between journalists and off-the-record sources.
But there is nothing unusual about police and reporters hanging out together. In the old days of crime reporting this was commonplace and it was not unduly difficult to strike a balance between keeping the public informed without endangering investigations. But in the age of public relations and spin, such free conversations are looked upon by the authorities as highly dangerous – not to policing so much as to those in power. Such free conversations might lead to challenging questions.
The danger with a centralised police PR operation is that information is used not to benefit the public but to benefit those in power, often to the detriment of the public. It is for this reason that officers “leak”, because they want to solve their cases and they know they can only do so with the help and co-operation of the public.
The situation Hill has apparently been questioned about calls to mind two recent cases. Philip Balmforth was a former police inspector and vulnerable persons officer responsible for Asian women in the Bradford area of West Yorkshire. He was praised in a House of Commons early day motion signed by 56 MPs in March 2008 for being a “knight in shining armour” who “does everything he can to protect people and give them time to assess the situation they are in”. Yet a week after he was praised in parliament he was facing a disciplinary hearing for “damaging the reputation” of West Yorkshire police, all because he spoke directly to a journalist.
“I had a speech ready for every journalist – after being told the publicity had to stop,” Balmforth told me. “The speech was: ‘You must contact the press office.’ But many in the media would ask for ‘off the record’ background to the problem, which I would willingly give, subject to contacting the press office before using it (who would always refuse).
Balmforth spoke out in the Times challenging the official figure given by the government’s forced marriage unit that there were 300 cases of forced marriage annually, saying he dealt with that many in West Yorkshire alone.
We should be grateful to Balmforth for alerting us to the problem of forced marriage. Instead he was stripped of his position by the police force. He has now retired.
Another police officer who dared to question one force’s use of covert surveillance was himself put under surveillance and his friend Sally Murrer, a journalist at the Milton Keynes Citizen, was arrested and threatened with life in prison.
Mark Kearney was once a Thames Valley police detective, a covert surveillance and intelligence officer. In 2007, Kearney was working as part of a secret intelligence unit at Woodhill prison near Milton Keynes, which bugged inmates’ telephones and their visits. When a supervising officer from a police force wanted someone bugged, they had to go to Kearney. He didn’t have authority to deny these requests but he was becoming uncomfortable with their frequency. And it wasn’t just prisoners that were bugged – it was their visitors, too. One of those visitors happened to be an MP, Sadiq Khan. Kearney spoke out internally against this surveillance.
It was around this time that Thames Valley police’s professional standards department and Hertfordshire police opened Operation Plaid, an investigation to find out whether information was being passed to journalists. Officers began intercepting all Kearney’s and Murrer’s phone calls and text messages. After two months’ of surveillance, they arrested Kearney and charged him with eight counts of willful misconduct in a public office.
Murrer had eight police officers at her house and four more searched the local newspaper office. They took her notebooks, computers, phone and contacts book.
“I was absolutely convinced I would go to prison,” Murrer told me. “The ferocity of the investigation was unbelievable. They won’t stop until they get me, I thought. They told me I’d go to prison for life.”
Police accused Sally of obtaining confidential information from Kearney and then selling it to the national press. They charged her with three counts of the ancient common law offence of aiding and abetting misconduct in a public office.
Reading the official transcript from her police interview, which was used as evidence against her, it could appear that Mark told Sally something confidential. But when Sally’s lawyers listened to all the tapes, they discovered large sections of Sally’s rebuttals omitted. The police can’t alter the time code on tapes so they accounted for the missing sections by saying the tape was inaudible or had a fault.
“Once we got hold of those tapes and played them back we discovered they were perfectly intelligible,” Murrer said. “We half wanted to go to trial. It would have exposed so many things that were wrong with the police.”
The charges made against Kearney and Murrer were thrown out when Judge Southwell ruled the evidence inadmissible in court because the police had not followed proper procedure in relation to a journalist’s right to carry out his or her job. That was 18 months and £1m later.
In the absence of competition, it is only through a diversity of opinion and public scrutiny that some level of accountability of the police can exist. It was not the police who uncovered corruption and abuse in relation to the phone-hacking scandal. It was journalists. Now those journalists appear to be criminalised for conducting the best kind of journalism: finding out the truth about issues of national public importance.