Police risk allowing Harassment Act to be used by scumbags to stop legitimate journalistic questions

It’s not unusual for celebrities to sometimes resort to using the 1997 Prevention of Harassment Act to protect their privacy.

And frankly sometimes they have a point.

In 2008 agency Big Pictures paid Sienna Miller £37,000 in damages plus legal costs after being accused in a civil action of subjecting her to a campaign of harassment. The court heard how photographers chased her all the way from Stroud to Heathrow airport and caused her "substantial alarm, fear and enormous distress”.

Other celebrities such as Harry Styles. Lily Allen and Cheryl Cole have also used the same tactic.

But up until yesterday, I had never heard of the police stepping in off their own bat to threaten a journalist with criminal prosecution for harassment, which is allowable under the same 1997 Act.

It is an alarming development, not least when you look at the circumstances of this latest case.

Croydon Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies isn’t some sleazy paparazzo, he’s a local newspaper journalist investigating real injustice.

He has been investigating a series of allegations that a local woman conned men out of money by using false identities and hooking up with them via a wedding website.

Davies was going the extra mile and doing the sort of proper shoe leather journalism which many deskbound web-focused reporters no longer have the time to do.

His crime was to confront her in person on her doorstep and put the allegations to her in the best tradition of our trade and then to send her two politely-worded emails.

Desai is a convicted fraudster who is facing sentencing on another matter later this month.

So perhaps the police might have been more inclined than not to side with Davies on this occasion when she started making her complaints of harassment.

Davies says that Desai’s alleged victims have had trouble getting a hearing from police. So how ironic that her complaints saw three police officers visit him in person at his offices and serve him with a Prevention of Harassment Letter.

Gareth left this meeting feeling that if he contacted Desai again, or even wrote about her, he could be arrested for harassment.

One would like to think that no court in the land would convict Davies given the facts of the case. But as we all now know, being arrested is no picnic in itself. Many of the 63 UK journalists arrested as a result of hacking-related police investigations have now been cleared but before first going through the ordeal of dawn raids, searches, time in the cells and many months on bail.

The Met Police, and UK police forces as a whole, need to urgently review the way they interpret the Prevention of Harassment Act if they are going to start using it in this way.

Because if they don’t it will soon be used by scumbags, con merchants and corrupt individuals across the country to throw sand into the gears of any persistent journalistic investigations.

Gareth has said he will stick to his guns, and continue investigating allegations brought to him about Desai. But other reporters may decide it is not worth the risk and hassle to continue under such circumstances.

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