Anthony Longden Column: Mutual mistrust between police and press a worry for all

Anthony Longden

The row over a newspaper reporter being given a police harassment warning just for doing his job, is escalating.

Gareth Davies is the award-winning chief reporter of the Croydon Advertiser. In March 2014 he was investigating the activities of Neelam Desai, a woman who admitted frauds worth a total of £230,000, as well as being involved in a series of dating website scams.

The journalist sent one email to Desai and visited her home on one occasion. This, apparently, is viewed by the Metropolitan Police as outrageous behaviour.

Three of its officers (why so many?) visited Davies, and he was flabbergasted when they told him that if he contacted Desai again, he could face arrest.

Someone at the Met needed to intervene with the application of some common sense, but this didn’t happen.

The Advertiser made a formal complaint to the Met about the warning, a Police Information Notice (PIN), but it was swatted away by the force, which claims Davies’s attempts to contact Desai went ‘beyond what was reasonable’.

The paper appealed to the Independent Police Complaints Commission, quite reasonably pointing out the PIN hadn’t been investigated, that Davies had acted responsibly throughout, and that there were errors in the inquiry process. It added that while Desai was complaining to police about media harassment, she was also repeatedly ringing Davies posing as her cousin

The newspaper’s remonstrations were to no avail. Paul Berry, casework manager at the IPCC, dismissed the appeal and defended the indefensible with that old saw that the officers concerned had followed the correct procedures. He added that while they ‘need to have a basis for the alleged harassment, there is no requirement for an investigation’. So that’s all right, then.

Only, of course, it isn’t. The journal Media Lawyer asked the Met for a copy of its guidance to officers on issuing PINS, but got no response.

It didn’t hear back from Scotland Yard either, when it asked whether allowing officers to issue a PIN without having to conduct an investigation effectively reverses the principle that someone is innocent until proven guilty, as well as allowing the police to assume someone was guilty unless he or she could prove their innocence.

This hardening of police attitudes towards the media is a dangerous trend, and it should be of concern to all journalists, especially since it frequently involves misapplication of the law.

Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, has called the IPCC’s ruling ‘appalling’. He wrote to the commission, describing the incident as ‘a very worrying attack on press freedom’, copying his letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, Justice Secretary Michael Gove, and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.

In it, he states: ‘Mr Davies is a well-regarded local reporter who was investigating a story that was clearly in the public interest.’

Media commentator Roy Greenslade summed things up in his Guardian column: ‘This decision by the IPCC is a disgrace.
“Davies acted as any reporter worth his or her salt should have done. He approached a convicted person and, when rebuffed, he did no more than send a follow-up email. This was not harassment. It was journalism.’

More than 1,300 journalists (and counting) have signed a petition organised by Press Gazette against the PIN and the IPCC’s bizarre ruling.

The News Media Association, which represents national, regional and local newspapers and magazines, has also called on the IPCC to reconsider the matter.

In a letter to the commission, NMA chief executive David Newell, says: ‘…no journalist acting in accordance with the provisions of the Editor’s Code of Practice should find him or herself on the receiving end of a document which is, whatever its nature and limits, a creature of the criminal law.’

Newell added that Davies’s approaches to the self-confessed fraudster were completely in line with the professional standards expected of journalists and publishers by the courts, and as a matter of ethics.
While that row continues, there has at least been some good news for journalism elsewhere.

The Oxford Mail has won a battle to get Thames Valley Police to answer questions about whether it had used the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA) in order to spy on journalists.

The Mail asked whether TVP was among the 19 forces that had used RIPA to find out who journalists had been talking to. The force replied that the request was vexatious, adding the work necessary to respond would place to great a burden on the organisation.

Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, allowed an appeal by the paper, giving the TVP 35 days to respond to the Mail’s questions.

Editor, Simon O’Neill, said: “It’s just a shame that forces… have been so incredibly unhelpful and secretive about this. It’s worth remembering that if they can do it to a journalist, they can do it to anyone. We really have to guard against the steady creep of authoritarian powers and the state secrecy that goes with it.”

In this post-Leveson age of mutual mistrust it is getting increasingly hard to find a road back towards restoring some kind of sensible working relationship. But we must keep trying.

And finally…

“Anarchism is a game at which the police can beat you.”
– George Bernard Shaw

* Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues.
He completed a three-year term as an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission, and sat on its reform committee.
Now a consultant and journalist, he advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis PR firm. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards