Ministers are facing pressure to devise guidelines to govern briefings to journalists by police during anti terrorism operations.
A Commons watchdog committee has backed pressure group Liberty which has called for the development of proper guidelines in the future. Police officers and civil servants who breached the guidelines would face disciplinary action.
The Home Affairs Select Committee yesterday told Home Secretary Jacqui Smith that it supported Liberty following an inquiry into the relationship between the police and the media.
The MPs said they were “concerned” to hear accounts of the damaging impact of off-the-record briefings, particularly during counter terrorism operations.
The MPs said “the leaking of information from police officers to journalists is not in itself a criminal offence, unless it breaches the Official Secrets Act or impairs the investigation of a serious crime. It is however a breach of police discipline regulations.”
The MPs said: “We support Liberty’s recommendations for the development of detailed and enforceable guidelines to govern briefing to the media by police officers or civil servants during counter terrorism operations.”
The MPs said that off-the-record briefings to journalists “occur too frequently.
“There is a limited set of circumstances where it is in public interest for police officers to provide information to journalists about continuing investigations on an off-the-record basis.”
Jon Silverman, a former BBC Home Affairs correspondent and professor in Criminal Justice and Media at the University of Bedfordshire, told the MPs that he was aware of journalists who had paid police for information.
Deputy chief constable, Andy Trotter, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers’ Media Advisory Group, told MPs: “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 we find it is not always police officers, there are sometimes others who are privy to information.”