Ian Burrell: Why money talks when reporters want police help

Background

"Payments by journalists to police officers have a long history. One long-retired crime correspondent recalls having a list of officers to whom he would regularly send a £5 note 'wrapped in a plain WH Smith envelope'."

This observation was made by The Daily Telegraph in March 2003, a few days after the editor of The Sun Rebekah Brooks (then Wade) told a committee of MPs: "We have paid the police for information in the past."

The Daily Telegraph, which had not regarded Ms Brooks' admission as a significant story on the day of the committee hearing, probed the issue of media payments to police two days later and concluded, "cash for information is nothing new".

The suggestion of a culture of media payments to the police will be the subject of a "scoping exercise" led by Scotland Yard Assistant Commissioner Cressida Dick, who said yesterday she wants to see if there are grounds for a criminal investigation. While there is no suggestion that The Daily Telegraph paid police for information, it echoed Ms Brooks' assertion that this often happened in Fleet Street. In a letter sent this week to the Home Affairs Committee, Ms Brooks claimed to have been talking in general terms eight years ago. "My intention was simply to comment generally on the widely held belief that payments had been made in the past to police officers."

In 2003, before the phone-hacking scandal spread a chill through tabloid newsrooms, Ms Brooks was not alone in holding that view. The retired and unnamed crime correspondent with the WH Smith envelopes said he believed he was doing nothing wrong simply because he used a middleman.

"What the intermediary does with the money is none of your business. As long as you're not directly paying a policeman, you're OK," he said.

The veteran Mail on Sunday crime reporter, Chester Stern, told The Daily Telegraph he was able to get his stories by wining and dining contacts, but that other journalists went further and paid cash. "Yes it goes on, but it is very much the exception rather than the rule," he said.