New rules for police and media relationships to be drawn up, Theresa May tells Leveson

 

New guidelines that will bring "common sense" to relationships between the police and media have been drawn up, Theresa May told the Leveson Inquiry.

The Home Secretary has received guidance from police chiefs that recommends officers should not accept gifts, gratuities or hospitality "except if it is of a trivial nature".

Mrs May said it was important officers did not put themselves in a position where "people could feel that they are being influenced by the receipt of such gifts".

The Acpo (Association of Chief Police Officers) new guidance will bring a "clearer" set of rules for meetings between the police and journalists, she added.

"I think it's trying to apply common sense to the relationship the police should have with the media," she said.

Mrs May hoped new draft guidance from the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) would provide greater clarity and consistency about relationships between the Press and police - and denied it would have a "chilling effect".

Previously forces drew up their own guidelines, with wide divisions in what was deemed acceptable.

Acpo suggests allowing officers to receive only "light refreshments" during meetings with reporters, seemingly ruling out lavish lunches.

The guidelines call for "more robust decision-making" and recommend having a single force register of gifts and hospitality governed of the head of professional standards.

They will be based on "a shift to blanket non-acceptability save for a certain circumstances and a common-sense approach to the provision of a light refreshments and trivial and inexpensive gifts of bona fide and genuine gratitude from victims and communities".

The guidance continues: "One extreme can properly be considered to be a breach of criminal law (the Bribery Act 2010) through to the low-level hospitality which could in no way be considered as a breach of integrity on any party involved."

Mrs May said: "I think that is a sensible approach that is being taken by Acpo in an attempt to find a greater consistency.

"What's important isn't that they have a single force register but that everybody knows that there is a general belief that they shouldn't be taking gifts, gratuities and hospitality, except where they are of a more trivial nature."

Lord Justice Leveson hoped tighter rules would not stop beat bobbies tipping off local reporters to community news stories.

He said: "It is obviously important that, for example, neighbourhood police officers should be able to speak to local press about events in the neighbourhood - good news stories, concerns, seeking witnesses, all that sort of material - and it seems to me sensible that everything one can do to encourage that sort of contact is worthwhile."

The Home Secretary added: "The important thing is for officers to know where the line is drawn between who they are able to speak to and what they are able to say in those conversations.

"It shouldn't have a chilling effect but I think what's important is that we have a framework that doesn't have a chilling effect and a framework that enables common sense to be operated in these relationships."

Mrs May later set out her reasons for not ordering a fresh investigation when new phone hacking allegations surfaced in the New York Times in September 2010 - four months after she took office.

She told the inquiry: "It wasn't the role of the Home Secretary to decide whether information in a newspaper should be investigated.

"It is the role of the police officers to decide whether information that is printed is new evidence or hints at new evidence such that they feel it is necessary to investigate that."

Mrs May denied suggestions that she had initially "parked" the phone hacking issue amid claims that the relationship between Scotland Yard and News International was too close.

The inquiry heard that Mrs May was sent a briefing note preparing her for possible questions she might face after Sir Paul Stephenson quit as Met Commissioner on July 17 over his relationship with former News of the World executive editor Neil Wallis, who was hired by Scotland Yard as a PR consultant but was later arrested on suspicion of phone hacking.

It included preparation for issues MPs were likely to raise when she made a statement to the Commons, including one that suggested it was wrong that Sir Paul felt he could not talk to David Cameron or the Home Secretary about the matter because it might have "embarrassed the Prime Minister because of his relationship with Andy Coulson", the former News of the World editor who had earlier quit as the PM's director of communications.

Mrs May was asked if she felt Sir Paul had been unable to raise the issue but replied: "I don't recall any such conversation."

She told the inquiry that, by the time revelations that murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler's phone was hacked were published on July 4, she had "growing concerns" about the way the Press was regulated but still broadly favoured the system that was in place.

Mrs May claimed she was surprised by Sir Paul's resignation at the height of the hacking scandal amid claims he accepted hospitality from Mr Wallis at Champneys health spa in Hertfordshire.

She said she did not try to stop him quitting, "partly because the letter was already on its way to Her Majesty (the Queen) with his resignation".

Mrs May added: "I expressed surprise because I had already had a conversation that weekend with Sir Paul when he had spoken to me about the allegations that appeared in newspapers about his stay at Champneys and had given no hint in that conversation at his resignation.

"Therefore, when he rang me later that weekend to say he had resigned, obviously that was a surprising turn of events."

The Home Secretary backed plans to ensure senior police officers were media-trained so they could deal with journalists.

She said: "This is something that is obviously now being looked at in relation to the guidance that Acpo has produced and it is something I would expect would be one aspect the police professional body would in due course take up."

She believed training would be needed in various situations, "whether it is talking about their force and promoting what their force is doing in relation to particular incidents or particular events that have taken place".

Inquiry counsel Robert Jay QC asked Mrs May about politicians' relationships with journalists and how ministers and MPs pass information to reporters.

She told him: "Politicians will speak to journalists, journalists will speak to politicians.

"These conversations will sometimes take place over lunch, sometimes over dinner, sometimes over coffee, sometimes in the corridor."

The Home Secretary defended the right of politicians to engage with newspapers saying: "The media reflect the public; politicians listen to the public through a variety of forms.

"The media is one of those forms."

PA

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