When she was parliamentary commissioner more than a decade ago, Elizabeth Filkin was a heroine of mine. So rigorous was she in her investigations of MPs, that she was apparently pushed out. She exhibited Cromwellian zeal. That zeal, so apt when she was pursuing politicians such as Keith Vaz and John Reid, has served her much less well in her report on relations between the media and police.
Dame Elizabeth, pictured, was asked to write this report last July by the then Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, after it had become clear that some officers in his force had enjoyed unhealthily close – in some cases probably criminal – relationships with journalists on the News of the World. One consequence was that the police were deficient in investigating the paper's phone hacking. This was plainly a highly undesirable state of affairs, as Dame Elizabeth makes clear in her report.
But just because one newspaper or newspaper group (News International) got far too intimate with the police, it does not follow that relations between all journalists and the Met should be curtailed. That is the likely consequence of Dame Elizabeth's recommendations. She suggests that all officers should keep a record of conversations with journalists, which might be examined by their superiors. Drinking with journalists should be "an uncommon event", and she warns police to watch out for "late-night carousing, long sessions, yet another bottle of wine at lunch – they are all longstanding media tactics to get you to spill the beans. Avoid."
That last injunction makes me sit up. What is the role of a good journalist if it is not to get civil servants, bankers, politicians and, yes, policemen to "spill the beans", with or without the aid of bottle of wine? A free society depends on this process. Every newspaper every day contains information passed on informally and unattributedly by employees without the permission of their employers, and sometimes against their expressed wishes. At the most extreme we call such people "whistle-blowers", but there are plenty of occasions when the information is less sensational, merely illuminating or even simply explaining the not necessarily venal behaviour of a secretive organisation.
Obviously there are things a policeman should not tell a journalist, and that is a matter over which the officer concerned must examine his conscience. But on the whole I would have thought that we know too little, not too much, about the workings of the police – too little about corruption, inefficiency, occasional brutality, and so on. If only more police had spoken frankly to the media about the killing in 2005 of the innocent Brazilian, Jean Charles de Menezes.
The virtual suborning of the Met by News International is one thing; relatively unfettered interchange between police and journalists is quite another. Dame Elizabeth fatally confuses the two. If her recommendations are adopted we will have a more secretive, introverted and probably more corrupt police force which will be even more of an unaccountable sect than it already is. I realise that of all people Dame Elizabeth does not want to undermine democracy, but that is exactly what her report is threatening to do.Reuse content