Stephen Glover: A spot of late-night carousing between police and press is vital for democracy

Media Studies: What is the role of a good journalist if it is not to get policemen to 'spill the beans'?

Stephen Glover
Monday 09 January 2012 01:00 GMT

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 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 threatens to do.

BSkyB is not as powerful as some believe, it seems

A respected organisation called Enders has done some fascinating research for Daily Mail and General Trust (DMGT). It seeks to show how much news we get from various sources. Enders says that "the average UK adult receives 57.4 minutes of news a day". Of this, 62 per cent is broadcast, and 38 per cent comes from newspapers, either in print or digital form.

Admittedly such implausibly precise figures are rather laughable, but they nonetheless tell a story. They suggest that the BBC in all its forms is responsible for 47.2 per cent of the "average person's" news. By contrast, the Murdoch-controlled BSkyB is said to account for just 7.6 per cent.

I only mention this because when Rupert Murdoch wanted to acquire the 61 per cent of BSkyB he does not already own, some of his critics ( including DMGT) claimed the company was already bigger than the BBC. Not, according to Enders, if you are talking about the reach of its news output.

The Mail gets support from an unlikely ally

The Daily Mail reasonably congratulated itself last week for its role in reopening the Stephen Lawrence murder case 15 years ago when the authorities had grown tired of it.

More surprising was the response of The Guardian, which praised its old sparring partner the Mail in an editorial. Meanwhile Jonathan Freedland, once spoken of as Alan Rusbridger's successor, wrote a column in favour of the tabloids, singling out the Mail.

No doubt these plaudits came from the heart. But is The Guardian also anxious not to be cast as the destroyer of the popular Press? When I came across Mr Rusbridger some months ago, I got the impression he was worried that in exposing the phone-hacking scandal his paper had released forces it could no longer control.

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