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  1. Media Law
January 6, 2017

Cleveland Police chief apologises to Northern Echo journalists for ‘unlawful’ phone records grab as force set for overhaul

By PA Medialawyer and Press Gazette

The chief constable of a scandal-hit police force has apologised to two Northern Echo journalists after officers unlawfully snooped on their phones.

Cleveland Police chief Iain Spittal (pictured top left) said he had personally contacted those targeted by the force under the Regulation of Invesitgatory Powers Act as part of an investigation in 2012 to find the source of leaks to the press.

Those targeted include Echo reporters Julia Breen and Graeme Hetherington as well as Mirror reporter Jeremy Armstrong, whose phone number was put next to the name of a third Echo journalist.

Press Gazette understands Armstrong has yet to be contacted by the police chief, however.

Speaking at a press conference yesterday, Spittal announced a major overhaul of the force’s Professional Standards Department, and said its replacement could be headed by a candidate from outside the police.

The review, announced with police and crime commissioner Barry Coppinger at headquarters in Middlesbrough, follows a string of scandals at the force.

Last month, the Investigatory Powers Tribunal (IPT) in London heard that the force used anti-terror legislation, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), to find out the source of damaging leaks.

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The force tracked the phones of Hetherington and Breen over months in 2012 – while she was on maternity leave.

The force has also lost a high-profile employment tribunal, as well as facing court cases and disciplinary hearings in recent months.

Last month, James Wharton, Tory MP for Stockton South, said Cleveland Police should be disbanded and merged with neighbouring forces if it did not make improvements.

Although the IPT findings will not be released until later this month, Spittal said the panel had indicated the force’s use of Ripa to find the source of leaks to the media was unlawful.

He said: “Whilst we have not received the final judgment, on behalf of the organisation, I feel it is right to apologise for the use of Ripa in 2012. As a result, before Christmas I made contact with the individuals concerned to offer personal apologies to them.”

Spittal was not in charge of the force at the time of the phone tracking and said that since he joined the force in 2013 there had been no use of RIPA provisions to identify the source of leaks to the media.

The Professional Standards Department would face a “thorough review”, he said, adding: “There needs to be a fundamental change in how we deal with complaints and how we investigate wrong-doing – and now is the right time to begin the change.”

The force would also look at how other regulatory bodies operated and its new head could come from outside the police, he said.

Coppinger, sitting alongside the chief constable, backed the changes but said there was no chance of the force being merged.

He said: “I was disappointed to hear, before Christmas, calls for Cleveland Police to be abolished and merged with other forces. I know that the people of Cleveland would not support this.

“Whilst I am commissioner there will be no question of this force merging with another.”

Echo editor Andy Richardson told Press Gazette: “While we welcome comments made this week by Cleveland Police, and the news of an internal shake-up at the force, this whole affair has left a very sour taste in the mouth.

“The chief constable who made the apology wasn’t even in post when the phone monitoring took place so he has been left to answer for the misdemeanors of others. The guilty parties have, for the most part, fled the scene.

“It is all well and good for the force to be contrite now but it took a panel of top judges to find them guilty of unlawfully using anti-terror powers to snoop on reporters’ phone calls before they took this line.

“The wider question is whether an apology and a pledge to overhaul how it conducts itself will be sufficient to win back the trust of the people of Cleveland.

“Let’s hope they can because this region deserves to have a force that it can trust and one that doesn’t hide from criticism when journalists try to expose matters of public interest.

“These are very tough times for local newspapers and I’m proud that our team of reporters continue The Northern Echo’s long-standing reputation for investigative reporting in spite of the many challenges we face.

“I hope our owners will continue to give us the financial support to  keep providing this vital service to our readers.”

The Mirror and Echo have yet to take a case to the IPT, however Press Gazette understands the matter is with lawyers in both cases.

Picture: PA Wire

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