Ex-police chief: No return to 'good old days', no 'informal' relations, a 'more honourable press'

The former media lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers said last night that there will be no return to the “good old days” of “informal” relations between police and the press.

Andy Trotter, who retired last year from his ACPO role and as chief constable of the British Transport Police, ruled out the possibility of any conversations with the media that are not “on the record”.

He described the days when journalists and police officers could talk over a pint as “perfectly wrong” and said that a “proper” journalism code of ethics being put in place is “long overdue, so we can have a much more honourable press and a more honourable public service where people don’t pass on things they shouldn’t”.

Trotter was also critical of the way Press Gazette’s Save Our Sources campaign has used the “facts” surrounding the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act, although he agreed with the resultant law change, which now requires forces to seek judicial approval before obtaining journalistic phone records.

Asked by Press Gazette whether the British Transport Police was among the 19 forces to have used RIPA to secretly obtain the phone records of journalists in the last three years – as revealed by the Interception of Communications Commissioner’s Office (IOCCO) report – Trotter said he did not know but that it was “unlikely”.

He also said that police forces rejecting Freedom of Information requests from Press Gazette about RIPA as “vexatious” was the wrong response and that they should say: “We don’t answer questions on that, because otherwise every villain would be making an FoI to find out whether they’ve been looked at.”

He was speaking on a City University and Press Gazette panel event, which also featured Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, the National Union of Journalists general secretary Michelle Stanistreet and Sir David Omand, former director of GCHQ.

Chaired by Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford, it addressed the question: "Journalists, surveillance and the police: How can the secret state learn to live with the fourth estate?"

“I was the national lead for police and media for about seven years, and one of my objectives was to have an open and proper relationship… not so much with the media, but with the public,” he said.

“I think a vigorous free press is absolutely vital: One that holds power to account, one that does listen to genuine whistleblowers, allows the opportunity to raise matters they feel they cannot raise through official sources is absolutely right.

“And to have our vigorous, somewhat disorderly British media, is… something that no one would want to threaten in any way.”

He added: “But we mustn’t forget that actually the media quite like secrecy too. One of the things that quite interested me… in discussions with journalists is that they want to go back to the good old days, they want to go back to the days when they could have a hole-in-the-wall discussion with detectives over a pint – maybe for some money, maybe not – and have their own sources to pass things on.

“Now, those days were perfectly wrong. And there’s no way we should ever wish to go back to those, or those sorts of relationships.

“And I sought, post-Leveson and pre-Leveson, to have policy, national guidance, that encouraged on the record discussions with people from a named source, so we knew who was talking about this matter. Not people passing on your confidential data to a journalist, not someone leaking… a VIP’s address to the media… not passing on information that should never have been passed into the public domain – not whistleblowers at all, but people passing on matters that relate to individual investigations, which they should not have been passing on.”

Trotter said that “of course” journalists enjoy leaks from government sources. “You’ll often see something that says ‘sources close to’ a certain minister, and things such as that. And the media love that: ‘sources close to the Home Secretary’ or ‘senior Home Office officials say’," Trotter said.

“This is a conspiracy between a journalist and these leakers, who are paid out of the public purse, to pass on [information].

“Now, I can’t control them, but what I could do is give guidance to the police: that if this is a matter that should be discussed in public then let’s certainly do so. But let’s do it from a named source, a named individual – and no more hole-in-the-wall conversations with journalists.

“Bribing public officials is wrong, accepting bribes from journalists is wrong, and we should certainly be against that. Hacking people’s phones is wrong. Journalists listening to people’s private conversations is wrong. Those things ought to be investigated, and should be investigated.

“It’s not good enough to then say this is not something too terribly serious – I think it is serious. And these things should be investigated seriously. I hope that through these series of trials, I hope that people have learnt their lesson, I hope that public officials have learnt their lesson – that they should not be leaking people’s private details.

“And let’s not forget, some of these things are the tawdry details of people’s private lives… a lot of this is about pretty poor practice. And I think some sort of proper code of ethics for journalists is long overdue, so we can have a much more honourable press and a more honourable public service where people don’t pass on things they shouldn’t. “

Roy Greenslade, a Guardian and Evening Standard media columnist in the audience, told Trotter that, in fact, informal discussions were “the only way to get stories”.

He said that in his early days as a reporter “the only real stories I got were by forming relationships with informal sources in terms to the police, with police sergeants, duty sergeants, and that was how stories – stories that I wouldn’t have got out any other way – emerged.

“So the very nature of your formalising relationships and saying they must all be transparent is in fact nothing more than PR. It’s not really how journalism works, and not really how you get stories.”

Trotter responded: “I can fully understand the dilemma of the journalist – because quite clearly you want a story.

“And I wish I had a pound for every journalist who told me about the good old days when they would just go to a police station and sit down with the detective sergeant who would tell them everything. Well, the nick has probably been closed after cut-backs and the detective sergeant is probably busy doing something else these days, so you’re not going to get that arrangement any more. It isn’t going to happen.

“Now, I think it’s incumbent upon the police – and I encourage all police officers to do that [he gives classes for the College of Policing] – is about having a much more open relationships with the media. Not just the traditional media, but new media – making sure we get things out there, put as much things out there in the public domain and invite people in to come and talk to us about things.

“But we’re not going to have the days of those personal contacts in the same sort of way. Because let’s not forget, some – but by no means all – of those relationships were entirely inappropriate, and they shouldn’t have happened. And they were passing around people’s confidential information, sometimes in some very serious cases that were ending up in the public domain.”

On the Save Our Sources campaign, Trotter said it had been run conducted with the “traditional doggedness of journalists”, but he said there had been another “fairly traditional” side to it – accusing journalists of trying to “mislead the public”.

“How many times have we heard from journalists that RIPA is counter-terrorism legislation? How many times have we heard things about serious crime? It isn’t,” he said.

“It covers a whole range of different crimes. You see this over and over again as part of this campaign – to misinform the public that the police have been misusing some legislation.

“And every paper that I’ve read has at some stage misquoted the act – and it’s there for you to see, it’s quite clear what the act says, and the [Interception of Communications Commissioner] has said that it is unhelpful for the media to misinform the public about this.”

He added that “RIPA is about communications data, that is the who called who – not about the context”. He said: “And this is where people who say that they should have used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act have misread the act – the Police and Criminal Evidence Act deals with material that the journalists have. This is about who spoke to who when.”

He added: “I suppose I baulk at the way that the campaign has misused some of the facts in order to support [its aim].

“I think most senior police officers agree with the outcome of that [the IOCCO recommendation that judicial oversight is needed]. The judicial oversight will take away a lot of the angst that we had around this as an issue.

“But going forward, we’re not going to go back to the bad old days of those hole-in-the-wall conversations.

“We’re not going to go back to the bad old days of secret [meetings] between journalists and police officers. I want an open, on the record discussions, where you the public know who’s saying what about what, and therefore you can then judge.”

Trotter also defended the use of RIPA to secretly obtain the phone records of The Sun as part of the Plebgate investigation, and The Mail on Sunday during investigations into the Chris Huhne affair. Trotter said Plebgate was a "desperately serious" matter.

On the Plebgate investigation, in which the Metropolitan Police secretly obtained the phone records of The Sun newsdesk and political editor Tom Newton Dunn, he said: “I think in those circumstances I think it would be perfectly reasonable to try and find out who they’d been speaking to.

“Because you can’t have a situation where people are passing on information to the media they shouldn’t be passing on. There is a route to pass those things on.

“If that route was blocked then I would fully understand it. But there is full protection in law for whistleblowers.”

Asked by The Guardian’s Jasper Jackson whether police forces have been correct to reject Press Gazette’s Freedom of Information requests asking about the use of RIPA against journalists and branding the questions “vexatious”, Trotter said: “Certainly, I think that was the wrong response. Because what they should have said is: ‘We don’t answer questions on that, because otherwise every villain would be making an FoI to find out whether they’ve been looked at.’

“That was the proper answer that was the proper answer. The ‘vexatious’, I think, was the incorrect answer. We never tell people they’re under surveillance.”

He added: “Let’s not forget, this isn’t a game. We’re talking about very serious criminality, we’re talking about child sex abuse online… we’re talking about all sorts of things here which are making the policing of these issues harder and harder and harder.”

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