Police bribes probe: journalist cleared

By Dominic Ponsford A journalist has been cleared of bribing a
policeman after a massive inquiry into police corruption prompted by a
story leaked to The Sun two years ago about the comedian Lenny Henry.

Freelance
reporter John Ross would have faced jail if convicted of paying £200 to
detective constable David Dougall for a package of restricted police
documents.

But he was acquitted by a jury at Inner London Crown Court of “aiding and abetting wilful misconduct in public office”.

Afterwards, Ross said: “I was on trial for Fleet Street. This is a great day for the free press.”

Ross
said his prosecution was originally part of a wider police inquiry,
which also involved Sun crime reporter Mike Sullivan and several
stories that appeared under his byline.

He said the first of
these was a January 2003 Sun story revealing that the police were
investigating racist threats issued against Henry. It is understood
that Henry was outraged that details of the investigation had been
apparently leaked by the police and as a result refused to co-operate
further with the inquiry and launched a complaint.

Ross believes
the police dropped their investigation against The Sun because: “It
would have revealed a lot of conversations between Mike and senior
officers and they didn’t want to open that can of worms.”

Last
week’s trial instead concentrated on an incident on 12 July this year
when Ross met Detective Constable David Dougall in the restaurant Ha
Ha, near Charing Cross in London.

Ross said he was called by Dougall, a regular contact of his, and told to meet him at the restaurant because he “had something”

for him.

Unknown
to the pair, Dougall was under surveillance and anti-corruption
officers swooped after Dougall handed over an envelope of documents.

Ross
was accused of paying Dougall £200 for the documents, but he
successfully argued in court that the cash was an unrelated loan.

He told Press Gazette: “I often used to lend him money, and he always paid it back.”

Ross
said the documents were low-grade intelligence which, although marked
restricted, were of little news value. He said they appeared to have
been downloaded from the police intranet, a system that he said can be
viewed by more than 40,000 police officers and staff.

Ross, 58,
has been a freelance journalist for 20 years and said scoops he has
played a hand in have included breaking news of the death of the Queen
Mother, the shooting of Jill Dando and the 1994 death of MP Stephen
Milligan, who was found wearing stockings and suspenders with an orange
in his mouth.

Ross believes the inquiry against himself and
Dougall has cost more than £1 million and has included a six-month
surveillance operation against the policeman.

Dougall, 42, of New Eltham, has admitted misconduct in a public office and is awaiting sentence.

Ross
believes the investigation against him has been part of a wider
Metropolitan Police crackdown on stories that haven’t come out through
official channels.

He said: “Since this investigation, there haven’t been any major celebrity crime stories.

This
case was about whether the cops can talk to crime reporters. The
commissioner and his complaints department are saying ‘no, they can’t’.
You can only get your information through official briefings, which are
a waste of time really.”

He added: “If I had gone down I would
have gone to prison without a doubt. After this, perhaps cops will
start talking to us again, that’s why this is a big victory for the
free press.”

Among those giving evidence on behalf of Ross was
Sky News crime correspondent Martin Brunt, who talked about the
relationship between journalists and the police. He said afterwards:
“If I’d been given those documents under the circumstances I’d have
thought wow, great story potentially.”

In 2003, Sun editor
Rebekah Wade, formerly editor of the News of the World, admitted to a
parliamentary inquiry into the press and privacy: “We have paid the
police for information in the past.”

The Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) issued a statement in response to questions from Press Gazette.

It
said: “The investigation was prompted by concerns raised by officers in
relation to a number of instances where details of investigations
involving ‘high-profile’ individuals appeared in the media. While we
are not prepared to discuss individual cases, the investigation found
that in a number of cases, complainants refused to co-operate further
with police enquiries because of a perception that information was
being leaked to the media.”

Regarding the suggestion that it did
not want to open a “can of worms” by pursuing The Sun, it said: “All
information in this case was passed to the Crown Prosecution Service
for appraisal and it was its decision as to whether individuals should
be charged with any offences.”

It added: “The MPS takes all allegations of corruption, relating to officers and staff, extremely seriously.

Maintaining
the integrity of the organisation and public confidence in the police
service is a fundamental element to everything we do.

“The MPS is
committed to identifying not only corrupt officers and staff, but also
to pursuing those individuals who seek to corrupt our staff. We will
thoroughly investigate any such allegation and endeavour to prosecute
individuals who attempt to corrupt public officials.

“The MPS
will continue to treat with the utmost seriousness any allegation of
corrupt practice by any of its staff or any attempt by an individual or
group to one of its employees.”

The Sun declined to comment.

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