More than 500 journalists, politicians and press freedom fighters have signed a petition calling on the Metropolitan Police to cancel a harassment warning letter issued to a Croydon Advertiser reporter.
Earlier this week, the Independent Police Complaints Commission ruled that officers were right to issue Gareth Davies with the Police Information Notice after he asked questions of a con-artist.
Three Met police officers visited Croydon Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies on 31 March last year and warned him that if he contacted Neelam Desai again he could be arrested. At the time she made her complaint Davies had sent her one email and also called at her home on one occasion.
Gavin Barwell, MP for Croydon Central, described the IPCC’s ruling as “appalling” and sent a letter to the body last night describing the incident as "a very worrying attack on press freedom”. The letter, published on his website, was also sent to Home Secretary Theresa May, Justice Secretary Michael Gove and Culture Secretary John Whittingdale.
He said: "Mr Davies is a well-regarded local reporter who was investigating a story that was clearly in the public interest. The individual that Mr Davies was investigating complained to the police who, without checking whether Ms Desai’s claims were true, issued a warning to Mr Davies advising him to desist. This is a very worrying attack on press freedom."
Yesterday, in response to the IPCC’s ruling, Press Gazette launched a petition calling on Met Police commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe to cancel the PIN.
The petition says:
On 31 March 2014 three Metropolitan Police officers issued Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies with a Police Information Notice prevention of harassment letter.
This PIN was prompted by him sending one email and making one doorstep visit to convicted criminal Neelam Desai.
Davies was following up on complaints from readers that Desai had conned them out of tens of thousands of pounds.
He was warned that if he contacted her again he could be arrested.
We urge you to cancel/rescind the PIN against Davies for the following reasons:
1. He did nothing to warrant it being issued. As a responsible journalist he had a duty to follow up on concerns raised by readers and put the allegations to Desai in order to give her right of reply.
2. The PIN will show up on an enhanced criminal records check, so tarnishes Davies' character
3. This PIN sets a dangerous precedent and means that other journalists could be deterred from carrying out public interest investigations.
It has so far been signed by more than 500 people, including former BBC journalist Robin Lustig, Guardian media commentator Roy Greenslade, Baroness Jenny Jones, former Sun managing editor Graham Dudman, Oxford Mail editor Simon O’Neill and Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves.
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell said he will be raising the issue with the IPCC, the College of Policing and with other national policing bodies.
He said: "It's outrageous. The job of the police has never been to hamper the enquiries of the media. All the media guidelines are absolutely clear about what constitutes harassment."
Greenslade said: “Gareth Davies was doing his job, a job that reporters have been doing for years and rightly so.
“There was no question of harassment. The police appear to have accepted the word of a convicted fraudster without adequately investigating the matter.
“If this can happen to Davies, it can happen to every reporter at any time. It sets a precedent and journalists must unite to fight against it.”
Jones, a Green Party London Assembly Member, said: “The Met really has to learn that in a democracy transparency and accountabilty are not just expected but legally required.”
Goldsmiths media professor Tim Crook said: “I know Gareth Davies as an ethical and much respected journalist in London. The PIN harassment warning is a major mistake.”
Glenn Ebrey, former Advertiser editor, said: “I was Gareth's editor at the time and can say, categorically, that he acted properly and professionally throughout this case – unlike the Met and IPCC, who have chosen to ignore his version (the truth) of events.
“Gareth's brilliant investigation brought a real criminal to justice. The fact he is being 'criminalised' is nothing short of a disgrace. Please support this petition and stop a good man being punished for simply doing his job very well.”
Crime reporter Katie Storey said: “It's a journalist's job to ask questions on behalf of the public. This does not amount to harassment.”
A spokesman for the Met Police said: "The harassment letter was issued by a local Safer Neighbourhoods team in response to a number of reports from the woman, who felt she was being harassed. The officers did this to ensure that the reporter was fully aware that allegations of harassment were being made against him.
"A harassment warning letter does not constitute any kind of formal legal action, is not a court order and does not represent any form of conviction or caution. When a harassment warning letter is issued, there is also no implication that the alleged harassment has taken place.
"The issuing of a harassment warning letter to the other party involved is intended to formally make them aware that the allegations have been made. This often has the effect on those involved to modify their behaviour to prevent any further allegations of harassment being made and thus prevents the need for police to become involved in any further and more detailed investigations into the matter.
"The issuing of such a letter can later assist with any subsequent prosecution for harassment, but equally it can assist the alleged suspect who may have previously been unaware that their actions were being seen as harassment by the other party."