Journalist arrested in minister's son's drug inquiry

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The Independent Online
The police are usually grateful to journalists who expose crime. They are less keen when the crime is selling cannabis and it is a cabinet minister's son who is exposed. Paul McCann, Media Correspondent, on a crime that dare not speak a name.

The Metropolitan Police have taken the highly unusual step of arresting the journalist who alleges she bought cannabis from a cabinet minister's 17-year-old son. Dawn Alford, a reporter on the Mirror, was arrested on suspicion of possessing a controlled substance after she went voluntarily to Vauxhall police station in south London yesterday. Ms Alford was arrested but not charged and released on police bail.

It is usual in newspaper "sting" operations for the police to ignore journalists' temporary possession of drugs when they are exposing a crime. However, a police source said yesterday that in this case, because they had not been informed in advance of the "sting", and because the journalist held on to the drugs for over a week, the case had been muddied.

By charging the journalist the Met also hopes to wash its hands of the case and let the Crown Prosecution Service decide whether to proceed against either the minister's son or the journalist.

Ms Alford was unavailable for comment yesterday, but has told friends that she feared she has been followed since the story broke on Christmas Eve.

Piers Morgan, editor of the Mirror, said last night: "This is an outrageous decision which is, in my opinion, specifically designed to deflect attention from the criminal activities of a cabinet minister's son to the entirely justifiable methods deployed by a newspaper to uncover them.

"Police have not to my knowledge ever questioned this procedure in the past ... and we will today be appealing directly to the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, to immediately launch an inquiry into how this farcical situation arose."

Despite the 1933 Children and Young Persons' Act which forbids the identification of anyone under 18 charged with a crime, the identity of the minister was spreading in media and political circles yesterday as people returned to work after the Christmas break.

It is now only a matter of time before the minister's identity becomes widely, if unofficially, known - at least seven "news group" discussion sites on the Internet were buzzing with speculation yesterday.

Only one of the discussion groups had correctly identified the minister, while other Internet aficionados were posting lists of cabinet ministers and details of their children's ages on discussion sites.

Scottish newspapers have contemplated naming the minister because under Scottish law the son achieved his majority at 16 and is not protected. Their reticence is understood to be down to political calculations rather than points of law, but they could fall foul of the Press Complaints Commission.

Lord Wakeham, chairman of the PCC, said yesterday: "The code is quite clear. When material about the private life of a child is published, there has to be justification other than fame, notoriety or position of the child's parents or guardian."

Internet users were appealing to those with access to foreign media to put them in the picture because of reports that the minister has been named overseas. In fact, the story has not rated follow-up stories abroad. Those with cable and satellite television hoping to learn the identity of the minister from foreign news programmes will also be disappointed; the news stations have pledged to abide by British law.