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  1. Media Law
October 10, 2014

Revealed: SOCA report sent to police forces warning of ‘threat’ posed by journalists

By Dominic Ponsford

All UK police forces have been warned that journalists represent a “threat” to officers as a potential corrupting influence.

Press Gazette has seen a report published by the Serious Organised Crime Agency in conjunction with the Association of Chief Police Officers headed “The Corruption Threat”.

It was based on Operation Milometer which assessed the threat to some 300,000 UK law enforcement workers from corruption.

Press Gazette understands that the summary was widely distributed to police forces across the UK in 2010.

It said: “The threat from corruption is real. Criminals are keen to acquire law enforcement information or to corrupt law enforcement statff in order to prortect their activities.

"Attempts to corrupt often involve determined attacks on organisations and individuals and the use of sophisticated tactics to identify and exploit potential vulnerability."

It then lists various “corruptors” along with their threat level:

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  • Partner, family member or friend: severe
  • Criminals: severe
  • Private investigators: substantial
  • Journalists: moderate
  • Commercial interests: low.

Among the factors which the report says can make officers vulnerable to corruption are:

  • Personal vulnerabilities such as drug abuse or undeclared debt
  • Disaffection or poor performance
  • Lack of adequate supervision
  • Employees living and working in the same area
  • Social and/or family links to criminals outside of the workplace.

It has emerged in recent weeks that police forces have used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to secretly obtain the phone records of journalists who were not under suspicion of breaking the law. In the case of The Sun, the information was used to track down and sack three officers accused of leaking information about the Plebgate affair (even thought the Crown Prosecution Service said the officers acted in the public interest).

A well-placed source, who asked to remain anonymous, told Press Gazette: “Having served within the police service for many years I find myself appalled at the criminalisation of journalists and the attack on a free press.

“The police jealously protect their own sources, even to the extent of collapsing trials to save them from being exposed.

“They forever quote that they have a duty of care to protect them, yet they are hunting down journalistic sources and putting them at risk. In the vast majority of cases this is done for no other reason than to protect the reputation of the force in question.

“It is an abuse of power and it should not be allowed to continue.”

Former crime correspondent Nigel Green now lectures in journalism and researches the changing relationship between police and the press.

He said: "This report is probably well-meaning and designed to reduce the risk of police officers and other staff being corrupted.

"However, the worrying aspect is the way some may interpret the inclusion of journalists in this list.

"Since I started working as a crime reporter in the mid-1980's, there has been a huge shift in culture, with journalists and police officers deterred from direct contact, particularly at an informal level. Instead, we now get a carefully-controlled release of information, often based on cosmetic and political factors.

"For many forces, this now verges on paranoia, with journalists held at arms-length by PR and media services departments and officers having to declare even the most inane encounters with journalists.

"The problem with a report like this, in which journalists are listed alongside criminals, is that it will further deter police officers from having any contact with journalists that isn't authorised by their commanders and/or PR departments – and then monitored closely.

"It's interesting that factors such as disaffection and poor performance are cited – but what if police officers are justifiably disaffected and want to pass on genuine public interest stories ? Will this be another tightening of the screw on the flow of information?"

In recent years a number of journalists have been arrested on suspicion of breaking the law by making payments to public officials, including police officers.

ACPO’s National Policing Lead for Professional Standards, Chief Constable Jacqui Cheer, said: “It is vital that police officers and police staff maintain the highest standards of integrity if they are to have the trust of the communities that they serve.  Therefore, there is a responsibility on chief officers and professional standards departments to identify potential threats to police integrity and communicate these to their officers and staff.  The ACPO assessment of corruption risks highlights the potential threats from partners, family members, friends and journalists as well as criminals with regards to the safeguarding of the information held by police forces.

“There have been a number of high-profile cases which have highlighted the problems caused by police officers and police staff conducting inappropriate or unprofessional relationships with journalists and media outlets. In some cases sensitive and personal information has been inappropriately disclosed and then published.

“This adversely affects the confidence of people to provide such information to the police which in turn hinders our work. Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary highlighted the damage caused by inappropriate relationships and unauthorised disclosures in their reports into police relationships in December 2011 and December 2012. 

“Professional and transparent relationships with journalists are an essential part of modern policing and play a vital role in preventing, investigating  and solving crimes.  Journalists also play an important part in holding the police to account in the public interest.  Police officers are encouraged to engage with the media, but must do so in a way that is capable of withstanding scrutiny.”

ACPO also highlighted to Press Gazette the College of Policing guidance on relations between journalists and the police which states: "A robust, open and transparent relationship between the police and the media is vital in a democratic society. The police service should strive for an open, professional and strong relationship with the media and expect to be held to account on behalf of the public."

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