The Leveson effect: Sharp increase in police media leak investigations, relations with journalists at ‘all-time low’

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  • HMIC figures show 98 press leak investigations in nine months during the Leveson Inquiry
  • Compares to 302 in five years to Leveson, and 66 between 2005 and 2008
  • More than 30 forces reject FoI on press leak numbers and RIPA use
  • Kent and Lancashire only forces to respond – collectively showing 14 probes in 13 years
WHAT WE KNOW
Period Number of press leak investigations
2005/06 8 – across 33 forces
2006/07 25 – across 33 forces
2007/08 33 – across 33 forces
Five years from April 2006 352 – across England and Wales forces, as well as Northern Ireland and Strathclyde
Sep 2011 – May 2012  98 – across all England and Wales forces
Last three years 8 – across the only two forces to respond to FoI

Press Gazette has discovered a sharp increase in police investigations into media leaks during the Leveson Inquiry.

What appears to be a heavy clampdown on non-sanctioned communication between police and journalists has come despite the fact that police whistleblowers were among those who helped Guardian journalist Nick Davies expose the hacking scandal which prompted Leveson.

Such leak inquiries have involved use of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act to obtain journalists' phone records and find their police sources in cases where no one was found to have broken the law.

Police evidence to the Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary (HMIC) shows that forces in England and Wales conducted 98 media leak investigations in the nine months to May 2012, compared with 302 in the five years to mid 2011. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, there were 66 media leak inquiries across 33 UK police forces from 2005 to 2008.

Press Gazette has sought information from police forces about media leak inquiries over the last ten years via the Freedom of Information Act. Only two forces have revealed the information, with every other force rejecting the FoI request or failing to respond within the 20-working-day limit.

Every police force in the country (bar Sussex, which has not reponded to a request sent nearly three months ago) has also declined FoI requests from Press Gazette over use of RIPA to view journalists' phone records over the last ten years.

All forces have however provided information for Interception of Communications Commissioner about RIPA use against journalists over the last three years for a report which is due by the end of next month.

Daily Express reporter and chair of the Crime Reporters Association John Twomey condemned the figures and said that police-press relations are at an “all-time low”.

He said that the high frequency of media leak investigations – the vast majority of which he believes would not relate to criminal investigations –  means police employees are being “intimidated” out of speaking to the press.

“They will be discouraged for years from having any informal relations with journalists. It is very sinister stuff,” Twomey told Press Gazette.

“It’s not surprising really that we are at a terrible juncture in police-press relations and you can’t really see any improvement in the short-term.

“They’ve got to come to a better understanding of how they interact with everybody – how they interact with senior politicians, how they interact with the media.

“They’ve got to get their sense of proportion back, bearing in mind they’ve spent millions and millions of pounds pursuing journalists… could that money have been spent elsewhere on serious crimes?” 

Press Gazette revealed last month that 302 press leak inquiries were conducted by police forces across England and Wales in the five years from April 2006.

This does not include five by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, 45 by Strathclyde Police in Scotland and all investigations by other Scottish police forces.

Press leak investigations have come under the spotlight in recent months after the Metropolitan Police admitted to using RIPA to secretly access the phone records of The Sun while trying to find the source of its Plebgate story.

Since then, evidence of four other police forces – Thames Valley, Essex, Suffolk and Cleveland – using RIPA to find journalistic sources has emerged.


Press leak investigation FoIs

Kent Police and Lancashire Police are the only forces to have provided figures on the number of press leak investigations carried out in recent years under FoI.

More than 30 forces have rejected the FoI, which also asked about the use of RIPA, with cost exemptions being cited by some, and others saying disclosure would go against the interests of "national security".

Kent said it could not answer the FoI – for a period of ten years – in full, but did reveal it has conducted four probes in the last three years.

Lancashire disclosed all ten of its inquiries over the last ten years – three in 2013.

One of the investigations stemmed from the media reporting that a man had been arrested on suspicion of murdering a child in 2009.

Another was launched after the "suspected disclosure of corporate information" last year.

Two out of the ten probes – none of which resulted in an internal leaker being identified – referred to potential law-breaking.

Both Kent and Lancashire forces declined to say if RIPA had been used in the 14 inquiries disclosed.

They said they could neither confirm nor deny whether it held the information, citing the following exemptions:

Section 23(5) Information relating to the Security bodies;

Section 24(2) National Security;

Section 30(3) Investigations;

Section 31(3) Law enforcement;

Section 40(5) Personal Information

Section 44(2) Prohibitions on Disclosure

Kentish Gazette editor Leo Whitlock said his local force's refusal to say whether RIPA had been used "makes you wonder what they have to hide".

He said: "This lack of openness erodes trust and has a chilling effect on investigative journalism.

"It seems an odd position to adopt. On the one hand Kent Police needs our help to make their case during a time of austerity, to give crime prevention advice and to help them to catch criminals through witness appeals etc. 

"On the other, they are using their clandestine techniques to spy on journalists without seeking judicial approval.

"If this power is being used legitimately, forces such as Kent should be powerful advocates of judicial oversight."


Further evidence of increase in frequency

Last month, it emerged that 302 press leak investigations were carried out across England and Wales police forces between 2006 and 2011.

Additionally, evidence submitted to the Leveson Inquiry showed a further 50 in this period – 45 by Strathclyde Police in Scotland, and five in Northern Ireland.

In December 2012, police forces sent follow-up reports to HMIC disclosing the number of press leak investigations – 98 in total – they had carried out over a five month period, between September 2011 and May 2012, during the Leveson Inquiry.

According to HMIC, 48 of these probes related to the local media and 50 to the national media, including in cases stemming from the phone-hacking scandal.

At the time of the inspection, six people had been suspended as a result of the investigations, eight were referred to “external bodies” and 41 had been closed with no further action taken. Ten “had been resolved locally or through management advice”.

Of the 44 forces, 26 had conducted press leak investigations in this nine-month period. They were:

Metropolitan Police: 23

Greater Manchester: 15

Avon and Somerset: 6

City of London: 6

Merseyside: 5

North Wales: 4

Surrey: 4

Dyfed Powys: 4

Wiltshire: 3

Nottinghamshire: 3

Thames Valley: 3

Essex: 2

Leicestershire: 2

Lincolnshire: 2

North Yorkshire: 2

Northumbria: 2

Warwickshire: 2

West Midlands: 2

British Transport: 1

Cleveland: 1

Cumbria: 1

Derbyshire: 1

Devon and Cornwall: 1

Dorset: 1

Sussex: 1

West Mercia: 1

These 98 probes across 44 forces compares with eight conducted over the course of a year by 33 forces in 2005/06.

This figure was disclosed by the British Transport Police's then deputy chief constable Andy Trotter, on behalf of ACPO, to parliament.

Trotter told the Home Affairs Select Committee of the eight in 2005/06 as well as 25 in 2006/07 and 33 in 2007/08.

Trotter is quoted as saying: “We launch inquiries whenever we have information that there has been a leak, but clearly journalists do not give up their sources very easily.

“Even when we track telephone traffic between them, proving the offences is quite difficult and, of course, we find it is not always police officers; there are sometimes others who are privy to information.”

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