When Nick Davies broke the Milly Dowler story in the Guardian on Monday http://bit.ly/lKawqd one paragraph stood out:
“According to one senior source familiar with the Surrey police investigation: “It can happen with abduction murders that the perpetrator will leave messages, asking the missing person to get in touch, as part of their efforts at concealment. We need those messages as evidence. Anybody who destroys that evidence is seriously interfering with the course of a police investigation.”
A large raft of the paperwork discovered under warrant in this massive NOTW inquiry relates to allegations that police officers were routinely paid by journalists at the News of the World and elsewhere for information and background checks.
In fact that is why Andy Coulson and former Royal reporter Clive Goodman are being questioned under caution by Knacker of the Yard as I write. Coulson has already told parliament and a Scottish court that to the best of his knowledge police officers were not paid by News International.
Now that paperwork relating to over £100,000 in payments to serving officers has turned up, life has become a little more difficult for David Cameron’s former spin doctor. I suspect a “no comment” interview from both men will be the order of today.
But let’s look again at the Davies quote. “According to one senior source familiar with…” followed further in the paragraph by “we need those messages as evidence.” There can be no doubt that Davies, a remarkable investigative journalist of some standing, was getting his information from a serving police officer.
Knowing the Guardian, said police officer would not have received so much as a cup of coffee for this information. But he has still broken the law and were he to be discovered could be drummed out of the force and face a prison term.
In all likelihood he was given the green light, or is senior enough in rank, to speak “off the record” and to give Davies the nod or steer required. Good for him. Had he not we would not know the awful truth of the Milly Dowler voicemail deletions.
But it does raise serious questions. Police forces across the UK have fostered relationships with “friendly” journalists, the ones they can count on not to stick the boot into their force. The ones who will regurgitate what they are told into print without a second thought, or a tricky question.
But imagine if that was the only source of information coming from a police force. What then? A sanitised version of events spun the right way and the reader none the wiser, that’s what.
Newspapers across the country have paid serving police officers for information since the first front pages were printed. If Nick Davies bought his police source a curry and a beer as they chatted the story through, would that be OK in the circumstances?
If he gave a donation to a police benevolent fund at the officer’s request, would that be acceptable? It doesn’t matter. A serving police officer has disclosed privileged information to a third party. A criminal offence. The huge public interest defence would outweigh this of course, in the Dowler case.
But consider the same scenario except the officer giving the information demanded some type of payment, be it in cash or goods. The public interest in the story is still there, and the story should be told. That’s a decision only an editor can make, and most if not all would opt to pay the cop, albeit in various roundabout ways.
And so they should.
These payments made by NOTW executives to serving police officers are the reason the first Met inquiry into hacking went nowhere. Can Of Worms. There was already a long established symbiotic relationship neither party wished to reveal.
The danger comes when the information being sought is not in any way, shape or form in the public interest. It’s not about what interests the public, it’s about whether the story is something people should know about. Corruption, malfeasance, fraud, theft. Failings within public bodies and security apparatus.
Paying a cop to discover if Marvin from The Scheme has been hosted at HMP Barlinnie falls outwith the public interest test. As does the rest of the showbiz related rubbish which no doubt makes up the majority of that £100,000 in payments.
But if we want to live in a free, democratic society where journalists can serve the public interest, we’re going to have to put up with those abuses. No system is perfect, but I’d rather have it that way.
And that’s the reality. As officers north of the border prepare to wade in with a scoping exercise into abuses within Scotland’s media community, it will be very interesting if they examine the relationships between certain senior officers and members of the fourth estate. Very interesting indeed.
Without rank and file cops talking – paid or unpaid - you wouldn’t be getting real news, you would be getting the sanitised version their bosses want you to read.