Paul Peachey: Theresa May is missing the point about police relations with the media

 

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So that's the last of the champagne for now. In the post-hacking, Leveson era, it's clear that any discussion of a "chilling effect" refers to the fraught relationship between police and media rather than the ideal temperature to serve a bottle of bubbly at a convivial lunchtime meeting.

The Leveson Inquiry heard yesterday that senior officers had drawn up draft proposals suggesting that a "blanket non-acceptability" of hospitality from journalists should become the norm in the wake of the hacking scandal and claims of overly close relationships. It could mean that officers must refuse lunches, dinners and drinks – with only "light refreshments" acceptable.

That's a shame. Police officers are busy people. Crime reporters are grateful if they can spare the time for a coffee, lunch or a drink on their way home after work. Imagine the uproar in Westminster if the same restrictions were placed on politicians and ranking civil servants. Those informal contacts, crime reporters contend, are vital for context, discussion and stories.

The guidelines, Theresa May insists, shouldn't mean a "chilling effect" and will not stop officers speaking with journalists but "the important thing is for officers to know where the line is drawn between who they are able to speak to and what they're able to say in those conversations".

The Association of Chief Police Officers, which is drawing up the guidelines, says that a working relationship is vital. But that message will now be more controlled: officers will probably have to note details of their meetings with journalists. Many already do.

But despite the Home Secretary's comments, senior officers have spoken repeatedly of a "period of austerity" and relations sunk into deep freeze for several years in the aftermath of the hacking debacle. Unsurprisingly, it is harder to encourage officers to speak informally than it was 13 years ago when I had my first job reporting crime. Police officers are engaging company and enjoy talking about their work if they are allowed. In my experience, they know where to draw the line.

The Metropolitan Police has been bruised by the affair and the implications of high living thanks to the News International expense account. The impression, fiercely denied, followed an email to the News of the World crime editor suggesting it was "time to call in all those bottles of champagne" to secure an exclusive about an airline bomb plot. But a large institution does not lose its commissioner, assistant commissioner and a powerful civilian member of staff without being more wary of the media that played a role in their demise. At the Leveson Inquiry, the rivalries in the upper echelons of Scotland Yard have been laid bare. Surely any ambitious detectives seeking advancement would be less likely to see advantage in close relationships with the press? To focus on the nature of hospitality is missing the point.

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