Page last updated at 07:55 GMT, Sunday, 18 January 2009

Police leaks to media 'damaging'

Abul Koyair and Mohammed Abdulkahar
The committee was concerned at the handling of the Forest Gate arrests

Police forces are leaking information to the media "too frequently" and should put more "on the record," a report by a group of MPs has said.

The Home Affairs Committee said leaks, while not illegal, were "wrong" and damaged the reputation of the police.

Leaks had occurred in several high-profile cases, including cash for honours and football bungs, it added.

The Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) said it was "committed to openness and accessibility".

Deputy Chief Constable Andy Trotter, Acpo lead on the issue, said police forces used the media to inform members of the public about their work and to seek help from them with the investigation of crime.

"We believe that wherever possible, briefings should be on the record and attributable, with an officer, who is clearly identified, complying with the policy of the senior investigating officer or whomsoever is in charge of the case," he said.

High-profile individuals

John O'Connor and crime correspondent Jeff Edwards debate the issue of police leaks

John O'Connor, a former Commander of the Flying Squad, said: "I do think that many of the corrupt leakages should be pursued more diligently and more robustly and I think that there should be a much greater emphasis, far more pro-active work by the press bureau at Scotland Yard, they should take the lead on it."

The committee pointed out that while it is not illegal for the police to leak information - except in cases involving the Official Secrets Act or where doing so compromises a serious crime investigation - the practice does breach discipline regulations.

It said it was never acceptable for the media to be given details of anyone under arrest before a charge is brought.

That person could turn out to be innocent and resulting press coverage could "unjustifiably taint individuals' reputations," it added.

The report said several complaints had been raised by high-profile individuals over such incidents.

Harry Redknapp and Lord Levy
Harry Redknapp and Lord Levy have both complained about police leaks

Ex-Portsmouth manager Harry Redknapp was angry that officers from City of London Police were accompanied by photographers from a national newspaper when they searched his property during an investigation into allegations of corruption in football.

The High Court subsequently ruled that the raid had been unlawful.

Former Labour fundraiser Lord Levy alleged that officers had tipped off the media about his questioning at a north London police station as part of the cash-for-honours inquiry.

Ordinary individuals could also be affected, the MPs said, particularly during counter-terrorism operations.

Human rights organisation Liberty, which gave evidence to the committee, raised the case of Mohammed Abdulkahar and Abul Koyair who were arrested under terrorism legislation at their home in Forest Gate in June 2006.

Media reports at the time, citing unnamed sources, said police were looking for a "chemical vest" or "poison bomb," but no such items were found and both men were released without charge.

Liberty director Shami Chakrabarti said such incidents could damage efforts being made to improve community cohesion.

But former BBC journalist Professor Jon Silverman argued that there were some occasions where off-the-record briefings were in the public interest.

He said that in some cases they could actually be used to prevent the release of certain information at a crucial time in an investigation.

"There are cases where the police know... that journalists have got hold of information... and the off-the-record briefing is actually intended to draw journalists into a kind of circle and say, 'Look, it would be extremely unhelpful to publish this information at this stage for X, Y and Z reasons,'" he said.

Undercover Mosque

The report concluded that police should provide more on-the-record briefings and efforts should be made to ensure that the level of information provided is standardised across all forces.

Labour MP Mr Vaz said "While it may not always be illegal for police to leak to the media it is certainly wrong and can be very damaging to an investigation or to an innocent individual - remember we are talking often about people who have not been charged with any crime or wrongdoing.

"Almost as important, it damages the reputation and integrity of the police themselves."

The committee also expressed its regret over the decision by West Midlands Police and the CPS to complain to broadcast regulator Ofcom about Channel 4 documentary "Undercover Mosque".

The MPs said it was not the role of police to enforce responsible journalism.

The Dispatches programme, aired in 2007, tackled claims of Islamic extremism in the West Midlands, but the police and CPS wrongly accused those behind it of distortion.

Both were eventually forced to issue an apology and pay 100,000 in legal costs.



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