Savile investigator Mark Williams-Thomas: ‘Police officers are very worried about talking to journalists’

A former detective turned television presenter, who helped expose the Jimmy Savile sex abuse scandal, says following the Leveson Inquiry “many police officers will just not speak to journalists”.

Mark Williams-Thomas, whose investigations featured in the ITV documentary Exposure: The Other Side of Jimmy Savile, also fears tougher regulation of the media could mean the “press will be scared to report major issues”.

Lord Justice Leveson has called for off-record briefings to be scrapped and all meetings between reporters and police chiefs recorded.

A total of 57 people including 23 Sun journalists have also now been arrested as part of Operation Elveden, Scotland Yard’s investigation into inappropriate payments to public officials between 2004 and 2011.

Williams-Thomas, a child protection expert formerly employed with Surrey Police, says relations between newspapers and police forces have changed dramatically.

He said: “Police officers are very worried about talking to journalists. Not because they are giving anything away, but because they have suspicion on this if they talk to a journalist.

“Officers for many years have conducted themselves appropriately in meetings with journalists, it is the very small minority that abuse this position.

“Many police officers will just not talk to journalists. This is where we are at the moment.”

Unofficial chats with senior officers and detectives can be essential for gathering information, which helps journalists better understand investigations.

Often the information cannot be made public because it could prejudice criminal proceedings or impact an ongoing criminal case.

Williams-Thomas added: “Off the record briefings and conversations are vital as they enable the media to be guided.

“This adds to sensitive and appropriate reporting and without it in many cases this will make the police role even harder and public less informed. It is vital to remember Leveson is a recommendation, not a ruling.”

Lord Justice Leveson also recommended police whistle-blowers first contact the Independent Police Complaints Commission instead of speaking to journalists.

There has, however, been concern that the relationship between journalists and the police will inadvertently become more secretive rather than transparent.

“It is always a danger that this may occur,” said Williams-Thomas.

The Exposure documentary, which aired in October, featured five women who were allegedly abused by Savile. The dramatic revelations uncovered by Williams-Thomas sparked a public outcry and massive police and NSPCC investigation.

More than 200 criminal offences across 28 police forces have now been linked to Savile.

Williams-Thomas, currently studying for a PhD in criminology at Birmingham City University, fears the media could be hesitant to cover controversial stories in future.

“I think the reality is that the impact will lead to greater media speculation, or the opposite greater control of the media, i.e. a press that is scared to report major issues.

"[It is] important to remember that the role the media have in exposing wrongdoing is vital [such as] Hillsborough and Savile.

"The reality of Leveson is that if criminal offences took place then they need prosecuting but this does not mean the whole system needs change.

“Sadly in this country when the pendulum is seen to have swung past centre one way, the response is to overreact. Whereas what we should be aiming at is the pendulum in the centre.”

This story was first published on the blog of Paul Harper.

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