Conclusions and recommendations |
1 While we found it difficult to establish the precise extent of the practice of off-the-record briefings, the examples witnesses cited to us convince us that it occurs too frequently. There is a limited set of circumstances where it is in the public interest for police officers to provide information to journalists about continuing investigations on an off-the-record basis. However, we do not think it is ever acceptable for officers to identify individual suspects to the media before charge, as this has the potential to damage the investigation, any subsequent trial and the reputation of suspects released without charge. Police officers, as well as members of the Security Service, Civil Service and the military should also exercise extreme caution in speaking to the media during counter-terrorism operations, so as not to compromise the investigation or damage community relations.
2 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. Police forces appear to take such breaches seriously but often find it difficult to identify the source of the leak. It is therefore important to effect a cultural change by frequently reminding officers of the harm that may arise from leaking information. We support Liberty's recommendation for the development of detailed and enforceable guidelines to govern briefings to the media by police officers or civil servants during counter-terrorism operations.
3 Forces should be more forthcoming in providing on-the-record information to journalists about individual crimes. We welcome assurances from the Association of Chief Police Officers and the Home Secretary that the Policing Pledge and crime mapping will lead to provision of a standardised level of information across forces. Not only is it in the public interest for this information to be made available but greater openness can contribute towards greater public trust in police data, about which we made recommendations in our recent Report on Policing in the 21st Century.
4 The decision by the West Midlands Police and the Crown Prosecution Service to refer the Channel 4 Dispatches programme, "Undercover Mosque", to Ofcom was regrettable. We hope that the experiences of the West Midlands Police will lead to lessons being learnt throughout the service. Regardless of the rights or wrongs of individual cases, it is not the role of the police to seek to enforce responsible journalism and attempts to do so could be seen as an attack on freedom of expressionand all the more so in this case, since the programme dealt responsibly and accurately with extremism and racist comments being made by clerics in places of worship.