Shooting the messenger? Sharp rise in council media leak investigations revealed - Press Gazette

Shooting the messenger? Sharp rise in council media leak investigations revealed

Year (financial year, from April to March) Number of leak investigations
2009/10 1
2010/11 1
2011/12 6
2012 (financial year not specified) 1
2012/13 5
2013/14 11
2014 (financial year not specified) 2
2014/15 4
Unknown 6

Figures obtained by Press Gazette appear to show a sharp increase in the number of media leak investigations conducted by local councils in recent years. (Picture: Reuters)

Formal investigations by local authorities into leaks to journalists – which they have disclosed – have increased from one each in the 2009/2010 and 2010/11 financial years to six in 2011/12. In the 2013/2014 financial year there were at least 11 official leak probes.

The leak investigations include one by Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council into the source of material given to Times journalist Andrew Norfolk, which revealed the extent to which the authority had failed to protect local girls from organised sex abuse.

Last year, following the publication of the Jay Report, which revealed the full scale of council failings in Rotherham, Norfolk said in a Times article: "Future councils, tempted to chase leaks rather than act on their failings, must take heed."

Freedom of Information requests sent to more than 400 local authorities in December returned details of 37 probes undertaken since the 2009/10 financial year.

The majority of the suspected leaks were to local newspapers, with police involved in some of the investigations and computer data gathered as part of some.

Dates were not provided for six of the investigations. But of the 31 that were detailed with dates, 29 were commenced from the 2011/12 financial year, when the Leveson Inquiry into press ethics was held. This mirrors the trend uncovered by Press Gazette among police forces.

Unlike police forces, councils do not appear to have used spying powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to view journalists' phone records as part of their leak inquiries. Press Gazette asked all the councils if RIPA has been used, and none said that it had.

In total, 435 local councils – whose FoI emails were taken from the FoI Directory website – were asked to provide details of press leaks investigations conducted over the last six financial years.

The London Borough of Brent and Northamptonshire County Council carried out the most investigations – three each – over this period. And the councils for Aberdeenshire, Brighton and Hove City, Pembrokeshire and Warwick District admitted to having carried out two each. 

The majority said they had not recorded undertaking official leak investigations during this period. Five refused to answer the question, with four citing personal information or cost exemptions under FoI.

The Greater London Authority was the only council to neither confirm nor deny that it held the information. Press Gazette has asked that the GLA conduct an internal review over this rejection.

The London Borough of Brent did not provide further details of the three press leak investigations carried out over the period other than to say that they related to “the possibility of information having been released to the local media”.

It said: “No further written record of these investigations is held by the Council and no evidence was found to substantiate any allegations.

“There has been no disciplinary action taken against any employee for releasing information over the period specified.”

Northamptonshire County Council's response was also short on details, but did say its investigations were carried out in September 2010, April 2011 and May 2011.

The employee found to have leaked in April 2011 was given a formal warning, while the other probes resulted in no further action.

Aberdeenshire Council has carried out two leak investigations over the last six financial years, both into suspected disclosures to the Banffshire Journal.

It did not specify a date for the first. “The individual suspected of the leak was invited to meet with the council’s chief executive and monitoring officer," the FoI response said. "The leak was denied and no further action was taken.”

The second probe was held over August and September 2014. The council said it was “regarding a leak of information from private committee reports to the Banffshire Journal”.

It said: “Elected members of the committee concerned were interviewed and reminded of their responsibilities regarding exempt information, and a briefing was given by the council’s monitoring officer on the requirement of confidentiality. No further action was taken.”

Brighton and Hove City Council also undertook two press leak investigations over the period, both in December 2013 and both to the Argus newspaper.

The first related to “unauthorised disclosure to the Argus of an Adult Social Care staff briefing document about budget savings in that directorate”.

And the second was conducted after an “unauthorised disclosure to the Argus of details concerning the internal investigation into the alleged conduct of Ian Withers, Head of Audit, which had led to his suspension”.

Pembrokeshire Council carried out two press leak investigations, again relating to local press disclosures, one in the 2011/12 financial year and the other in 2013/14.

The council said: “Unauthorised disclosure of confidential correspondence comprising two letters from the ‘Ministerial Improvement Board’ sent to elected Members and senior officers in 2011/12 and one confidential letter relating to an employee in 2013/14…

“Indication was that unauthorised disclosures were made by Members. Press pleaded journalistic privilege and refused to reveal their source of information.”

Warwick District Council carried out two investigations in the 2013/14 financial year, both relating to local newspaper disclosures.

It said: “The investigation for one was undertaken by the police and the other by Council officers. Both investigations were unable to identify the source of the leak.”

Aberdeen City undertook one unsuccessful investigation in the 2014/15 financial year with the “information was reported in the local print press”.

Basingstoke and Deane Council investigated a suspected leak, unproven, to the Basingstoke Gazette in March 2014. It was investigated using a “key word search of email titles”.

Birmingham City Council investigated one suspected leak to a blog in the spring of 2013. The FoI response said: “The Council has undertaken one investigation relating to information leaked to the press in the period set out in your request.

“A confidential report was published on the Chamberlain Files website in the spring of 2013, and as a result, an investigation to try and identify the source of the leak was undertaken.

“The Council undertook a search of the Council’s email servers, as permitted under the Lawful Business Practice Regulations, to identify if the document was leaked via email, but this did not allow the Council to identify the source of the suspected leak.”

Cambridgeshire County Council also carried out one investigation over this period, with the leak taking place in September 2013.

It said: “One inquiry was carried out in regard to a complaint made against a councillor under the Members’ Code of Conduct which involved a press leak. There have been no such inquiries relating to staff.”

Minutes from a council meeting in August 2014 reveal that Councillor Maurice Leeke was suspected of breaching “the Members’ Code of Conduct by disclosing confidential information and bringing his office or the authority into disrepute”.

They said: “The alleged disclosure of information had taken place in a press release issued by the Liberal Democrat Press Officer on 11th September, which had indicated that the Council’s Appointments and Remuneration Committee was due to discuss a pay rise for senior officers at its meeting on 16th September.  The contents of the committee report ‘Corporate Leadership Team Pay Review 2013/14’ were confidential at the time of the press release and of the committee meeting.”

Cheltenham Borough Council said its internal audit team had investigated one suspected leak in 2014 to the Gloucestershire Echo. The allegation was not proven.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar (Western Isles Council) carried out an investigation in May 2012 “following a complaint by a member of the public”.

It said: “The leak was alleged to have occurred during the run-up to the local government elections. A senior officer conducted the investigation which was primarily carried out by interviews of employees.

“The investigation found that there was no case to answer and there was therefore no action against council employees.”

Dorset County Council said it had investigated an alleged leak in the 2014/15 financial year.

The FoI response said: “This was part of an investigation that involved a number of issues. During the investigation, the allegation of passing information to the media was withdrawn. The council was entirely satisfied, from the information provided, that no ‘leak’ had occurred.

“We are not able, due to confidentiality, to provide any further information. We can confirm that RIPA was not used and that there were no other investigations in other years.”

East Riding of Yorkshire Council investigated an alleged leak to the Beverley Guardian and Yorkshire Post newspapers in October 2014.

The council said: “The alleged leak was fully investigated by the Monitoring Officer and no evidence of a leak was discovered.”

Flintshire County Council said its internal audit team had conducted one press leak enquiry in March 2010. The council said: “It was started because of press enquiries concerning a confidential report on personnel issues. The source was identified but not confirmed, there was no disciplinary action and the case was closed.”

Horsham District Council investigated one leak, in August 2012, when a confidential document was sent to the local press.

The council said: “On 10 January 2012, a consultant produced a draft options appraisal report entitled ‘Horsham District Cultural Reinvestment Strategy’, which was intended for internal use only.

“This document assessed the Council’s options in developing and managing its service provision, outlining some options for changes in the delivery of cultural services. 

“This document was reported to have been delivered anonymously in an unmarked envelope to a number of local press offices.”

The response added: “The Communications Manager (Horsham D.C) received notification on 17 August 2012 that the document had been widely circulated and was asked whether HDC wished to comment. County Times Article published 23 August 2012…

“A number of interviews with officers and councillors took place. The investigation was unsuccessful in terms of finding the source of the leak.”

The London Borough of Camden council confirmed it had investigated one alleged press leak during the period but did not provide further details, citing an exemption under section 40(2) of the FoI Act, protecting personal information.

The Royal Borough of Greenwich also investigated one leak during the period over a News Shopper article. The council refused to provide further details, saying these were already in the public domain on the News Shopper website.

One leak investigation has also been carried out in the London Borough of Islington over the last six financial years.

The council said: “An information leak to a local newspaper was investigated in 2014 using our normal methodology, including interviewing staff, checking ICT systems and other forensic audit techniques.

“It was not possible to identify the source of the leak, nor whether or not it was an employee.”

Maldon District Council investigated one suspected leak in 2012, but did not provide any further details.

Powys County Council conducted one investigation in May 2013. It called in the Local Government Ombudsman to probe the “leaking of confidential information regarding a council facility”.

A councillor was suspended for one month in July 2013 for leaking to the Mid Wales Journal.

Rotherham Metropolitan Borough Council “commissioned one enquiry into managing confidential information, which reported in July 2013… as a result of information being published in The Times which suggested that sensitive personal data may have been disclosed”.

It said: “No individual was identified as having disclosed information.

“The report was jointly commissioned with other senior officials, including the District Commander of South Yorkshire Police. 

“The Police did not conduct the investigation, although police officers were interviewed.”

South Ayrshire Council investigated one suspected leak between December 2013 and February 2014 after a story appeared in the Ayrshire Post on 29 November 2013.

The council said: “This was investigated in line with the Council’s Complaints procedures.

“The outcome was the complaint could not be upheld as there was no evidence of the information being leaked from the Council to the publication in question.”

Asked whether RIPA was invoked as part of the investigation, the council said: “The investigation included the audit of email traffic, questioning relevant individuals within the Council and within the publication concerned.”

South Lakeland District Council investigated one suspected leak in the 2012/13 financial year to the Westmorland Gazette. It said: “The outcome was inconclusive and it was not possible to establish the source of the leak.”

South Lanarkshire Council investigated one suspected leak to the press in December 2012 over information on a “confidential recruitment process”.

It said: “The leak was investigated by the Head of Legal Services and it was reported to both the police and the Scottish Information Commissioner.

“The fact that a leak was being investigated appeared in The Sun and the Hamilton Advertiser, though neither newspaper published details of the leaked information itself.

“The investigation did not result in the identification of the person who leaked the information.”

South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council reported one instance of “unauthorised information provided to the media in the period listed” to the Shields Gazette.

“This case involved an elected member (now deceased) who was investigated by the Standards Committee, having already been given a police caution for the unauthorised disclosure of exempt, highly sensitive and confidential personal information about individuals in January 2012,” it said.

“Papers were leaked by the then elected member to the Shields Gazette newspaper. It should be noted that the confidential papers were successfully recovered from the newspaper on the same day they were leaked without the contents being reported and without the use of Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.”

Telford and Wrekin Council investigated one leak in October 2011 to the Shropshire Star. It was investigated “internally by Audit & Assurance Manager (reporting to Interim Chief Executive & Monitoring Officer)”.

Thurrock Council investigated one alleged leak in July 2013 after The Sun and Thurrock Gazette both indicated they had obtained an email memo sent to staff.

The council said: “The council was notified via email from The Sun on 16 May 2013, that they had seen information that was contained in an email memo titled ‘Benefit Fraud Case Update’. The Thurrock Gazette also emailed the council on 13 May 2013, confirming they had obtained proof of a benefit fraud investigation.

“The initial investigation into the leak of information was undertaken by the Head of Legal and was inconclusive after undertaking checks through the vaults and interviewing relevant officers/members. “A referral was then made to the Information Commissioner.”

Wokingham Council investigated the December 2011 leak of “draft communications plan and frequently asked questions regarding redevelopment of Twyford Orchards”.

It was allegedly leaked to the Twyford Advertiser but the investigation did not “determine where the leak came from”.



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