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  1. Media Law
April 2, 2014updated 24 Jun 2015 4:40pm

Journalist putting allegations to fraudster is served by police with harassment notice

By Dominic Ponsford

An award-winning local newspaper journalist investigating a convicted fraudster has been served by police with a “prevention of harassment” notice.

Croydon Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies has doorstepped the woman once and emailed her twice in order to put allegations to her. He insists he has behaved in an entirely professional and polite manner at all times.

But on Monday afternoon he was visited by three police officers at the Advertiser’s Redhill head office and handed a “Prevention of Harassment Letter”.

It states that fraudster Neelam Desai claims Davies contacted her via Twitter and email on more than two occasions “seeking to interview her for a story for a local newspaper.

“She has stated that she does not wish to be contacted or written about by Mr Davies as she feels harassed by these actions. Mr Davies has failed to accept this, but continued to write and and make unsolicited contacts which result in Ms Desai feeling intimidated and persecuted."

The letter states in bold type: “HARASSMENT IS A CRIMINAL OFFENCE."

It then states that harassment can take many forms, including "abusive communication” or “repeated attempts to talk to or approach a person who is opposed to this".

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Davies has been conducting an in-depth investigation into Desai which has resulted in five page-leads over the last month.

She is alleged to have met men on an Asian marriage website and then tricked them out of large sums of money using fake identities. One alleged victim claims to have been conned out of £35,000.

Desai, 33, of Beulah Grove, Selhurst, has separately pleaded guilty to a string of frauds involving an international travel business she ran under a false name and is set to be sentenced at Croydon Crown Court on 25 April.

Davies’ first contact with Desai was last month, when he called at her home to put the first set of allegations to her. He says she slammed the door on him, but they continued to speak through the letter box. She called the police and after a police car quickly arrived on the scene Davies left. He said that Desai had not asked him to leave.

Desai later made a complaint to the PCC and Davies learnt that she had alleged he had put his foot in the door and grabbed her in some way, which he emphatically denies.

Davies went to a police station to volunteer his version of events and was told that Desai had dropped the matter.

As more allegations about Desai’s activities have been made, Davies has contacted her twice more via email. He said the emails simply stated the allegations, informed her of the deadline and gave her the opportunity to respond.

Davies (pictured below) received a phone call at work in Redhill, Surrey, on Monday from a police officer who said fresh allegations had been made by Desai. He said he was asked to attend Gypsy Hill police station in London immediately.

When he said he couldn’t attend straight away, the officer told him that they would come to him:

“Three police officers turned up at the office, showed me this piece of paper and said they were serving me with a harassment notice.

“They said: 'Neelam Desai says you have been sending her emails, contacting her on Twitter and asking her for her story.'”

Davies showed the officers the emails he had sent.

“They said: 'We are not here to argue the case. She’s saying you are harassing her, you have to know that if you do this again you are liable to be arrested and prosecuted.'

“I said: ‘This is my job. I do intend to write more stories because more and more victims are coming forward to talk to us. What can I do?'

“One of them said, because you’re a journalist that doesn’t give you special privileges. You say you are just doing your job, but that’s what the News of the World said and look what happened to that.”

Davies said he is now concerned about what will happen if he emails future allegations to Desai and if he approaches her for a comment after her sentencing hearing.

“I’m being told if I carry on doing my job I could be liable to be arrested. I’m determined to carry on doing my work because I don’t feel I’ve done anything wrong.

“Our job is to ask questions. We have to put allegations to people.

“The ridiculous thing is that a number of her victims haven’t been able to speak to a police officer for love nor money. But I send her a couple of emails and I have three policeman at the door.”

Davies was weekly print journalist of the year and digital journalist of the year at the South of England Media Awards.

A Met Police spokesperson said: "The letter was issued by one of our local safer neighbourhood team officers in response to a number of reports from the woman who felt she was being harassed. The officer did this to ensure the reporter was fully aware the allegations of harassment were being made against him. The first contact by the police was on 5 March, the most recent was 1 April."

Email pged@pressgazette.co.uk to point out mistakes, provide story tips or send in a letter for publication on our "Letters Page" blog

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