The PM Privacy Commission spoke to Chief Constable Andy Trotter, chair of ACPO's Media Advisory Group, on Friday June 24, 2011. The commissioners are Sir Michael Lyons, Lord Faulks QC and Baroness Liddell.
Please note the PM programme, BBC Radio 4, must be credited if any part of these transcripts are used.
NB: This transcript was typed from an audio recording. The views expressed by the witness are their own.
Because of the possibility of mis-hearing and the difficulty, in some cases, of identifying individual speakers, the BBC cannot vouch for their accuracy.
ML Welcome back to the privacy commission and the next witness who has come along to help us with our enquiries is Chief Constable Andrew Trotter who is currently head of the British Transport Police after holding senior posts in the Metropolitan Police. And more specifically for our purposes is Chair of ACPO's Media Advisory Group. Andrew, welcome and thanks very much for joining us.
AT Thank you.
ML One of the core purposes of the commission is to explore the extent of which the public can take confidence in the current arrangements to protect privacy of the individual. The police clearly have a part to play there. Do you want to say something about that role and whether you believe the current arrangements are adequate?
AT I do have some concerns; on the one hand I want a very open relationship between the police and the media and a healthy relationship where we are as open as we possibly can be within the restrictions around sub-judice and other privacy matters. And one of the things I pushed as Chair of ACPO's Media Advisory Group is for us to remove any unnecessary barriers to that communication. I wanted to be on the record, I wanted to be open and frank and I've encouraged forces to have spokespersons who are senior in rank who can give the facts around incidents very very quickly to the public. I think generally speaking those relationships have improved a lot. My area of concern is around the way of people who are on the periphery of criminal enquiries can find a great invasion of their privacy. I think we've seen examples of that of late in Bristol and in other parts of the country. I've been carrying out de-briefs with the Chief Constables of Cumbria and Northumbria, talking to Avon and Somerset and Gwent about various incidents on their grounds in the last year and coming up with a range of concerns. But as far as privacy is concerned, obviously one of the major issues is the naming of people who have been arrested. This is a bit of a thorny issue. On the one hand members of the media are very keen that we give them all the details that they want. There is nothing in law to prevent us giving that detail to people arrested. Although things are in action at the arrest phase it's perfectly proper if we so wished to give them the detail of an arrested person. The habit has been hither to give very brief details, for example; a 26 year old man has been arrested and he is at a London police station. There's no legal basis for that form of words; that's something which has evolved over time. We then end up with what I call the verbal dance with the journalist who rings up and says "have you arrested John Smith?". Then we say "we can't tell you". If I said in the paper tomorrow you've arrested John Smith would you be angry with me? And then you get this rather unhelpful sort of debate goes on. Of course now what happens is we have newspapers and television saying that sources nearby, local sources have said this person has been arrested. That then immediately goes out and we get someone who may or may not of been arrested is now named. And we've seen some pretty unfortunate incidents as a result of that with Facebook entries, lots of tweeting, campaigns against the families of people who have been arrested, who've later turned out to be not guilty at all and not been charged at all. So it's an interesting debate this one and I think certainly the police are feeling somewhat uneasy about this particular position.
ML Did those particular case studies that you referred to or indeed wider experience begin to focus you on changes that might be made in the future?
AT I'm very nervous about restrictions on the media; they play a very powerful role in our society. Free and challenging media is key I think to our democracy. Holding us to account, and in many cases in the past have uncovered police malpractice and quite rightly so. So I am very nervous about restriction, but I think we have an unfortunate halfway house. We haven't got the American position of absolutely everything goes and is conducted in the glare of publicity from day one. And equally haven't got the protection people should have from an invasion of their privacy. Sometimes catastrophic damage to their personal lives as a result of allegations that turn out not to be proven. I do think we need to reconsider this particular issue, I know there was a private members bill a while ago on the naming of people who've been arrested which we didn't find success. But, I think, there's quite a lot of support for that and there are some caveats which we need to think through. But I'm veering towards thinking we should be tougher on this. We should have something that perhaps prevents the publication of the names of people who've been arrested; which say with same safeguards that need to be thought through.
HL The police have had a bit of a rough time recently, not least around the phone hacking issue and all the associated access to bank accounts and to medical information and it does lead people to ask about the "below the radar" relationship between the police and the media. Do you have any thoughts on that?
AT Well there's always been relationships between the police and the media; where from the old days you might have a detective down the pub with a journalist swapping stories over a pint. And that's, you know, those days are gone. We've obviously had the proper relationships with the media, you know, where we talk to them both formally and informally and make sure that there are good relationships between the police and the media. I encourage forces to get to know the journalists; particularly the London based national journalists, because these are the ones that will turn up on your doorstep. If you have a Cumbria or a Northumbria, and you won't know them, some of the things I've been trying to help forces with is establishing proper relationships with national journalists, so if there are rubbing points or difficulties you know who to talk to. I've also been talking to the Press Complaints Commission about their approach to this, and to the Attorney General's office about how we might look at real time intervention where there are pressures between the communities and the media. Returning to your point around the Police, I think we should have relationships with the media. I think we should know who they are. I think we should be prepared to give open and honest briefings to them. Clearly there is no place for anything that is in anyway unethical. There are often allegations about unethical relationships with the police and the media; very difficult to find proof about that and it is something that does concern me. I have only got one particular case where I know of a police officer passing on information unlawfully and he was dealt with and he was sacked. Now there are many allegations about this but my concern around this is easy allegations to make, very difficult to prove, because journalists won't give up their sources. If there are corrupt police offices then I'm likely to admit to it and it's the easiest thing in the world for journalists or perhaps even members of government to say "oh it was the police who must of done this". When we know that leaks come from all sorts of sources and these days of course, every citizen is now a journalist with their phone, their camera and their mobile phone and sending things into the national newsagencies extremely quickly. My overall take on this as somebody with considerable experience in this field, I think relationships are healthy, generally above board and proper and where they are not they should be investigated rigorously.
HL How do you get over this bad publicity that has been recently? Is the police looking at mechanisms whereby we can restore the kind of faith which I think has been damaged because particularly among people affected by all of the phone hacking to the extent that a new operation is currently underway.
AT Clearly there is an investigation ongoing by the Metropolitan Police. It would be quite wrong of me to comment in any detail about that. My only observations are of someone who observes as any member of the public observes at the moment and we see various people settling, you know, with newspapers over this issue, we don't see the judicial process going to its full extent yet because its still being investigated. I think the facts of this will come out in due course and I think it's premature to jump to any conclusions about what did or didn't happen in the previous parts of this investigation. Because I think there is probably more to this than meets the eye and it's very easy for people to make allegations and very difficult for the police to respond at the moment whilst there is still investigation going on. I mean, I think outside the sort of the central area of London where this is a big story, I think the reputation of the police depends much more on what we do; much more on our successes and our failures. What I see is crime down every year on year by whatever measure one uses. I see prisons full to bursting, so people are looking at means to removing people from those prisons in other ways. And I see public confidence by the various surveys around the country going up all the time. I think its worth putting in some context, this particular business around the phone hacking is very much a media, central London, show business sort of issue and there are issues way beyond that impact on the reputation of the policing. I think the lack of reporting of good news is not a news story but that is a common trait now amongst the media. It is very very difficult to get stories about crime down; it is only bad news stories that make anything these days.
HL One of the themes that has been coming out of our previous discussions with people is about the balance of power; the very considerable power that the media has and the damage of the misuse of that power can do as well as the good that the proper use of that power can do and it has been suggested a couple of times to us directly, that politicians are frightened of the media, of particular newspapers and also that the police are frightened of particular newspapers. How do you respond to that?
AT I think politicians do take notice of certain newspapers. Certain newspapers are extremely powerful. Ones only got to look at the readership, ones only got to look at the stories that appear in a newspaper and very quickly seem to find residence amongst politicians and look at the relationship sometimes in special advisers of newspapers and various think tanks. You know, it is quite an interesting field at the moment the way the media is behaving in this particular area. As far as the police being afraid, I think my immediate reaction is no, I'm not afraid of anybody. It would be silly not to take note of newspapers that have big circulations and I am very clear that we need to make sure that we deal with those stories in the newspapers swiftly and robustly if they are inaccurate. I encourage police forces around the country to make sure they get their facts right first obviously and then to respond with some vigour. And let's not forget we do have the PCC to turn to, we do have OFCOM for the broadcast media; and we should not be slow to make a point if we think things are being misreported. Because I think after a while police forces just get rather fed up with poor reporting and perhaps tend not to respond and I think we should respond. We should be quite prickly where appropriate. When we're wrong we should apologise and we should say so, but if we're not I would like to see a more robust response to the things that I see, because this constant drip of negative stories does have an impact on people I think. And what starts off as just a piece of political rhetoric becomes some sort of reality after awhile because of constant repetition.
EF We've been discussing private lives and the right to privacy, party in the context of famous people, footballers and the like, but I want to ask you about ordinary people who sometimes find their privacy invaded and the circumstances I'm thinking of which might be relevant to you are when there is some big disaster or some serious criminal offence police are swiftly onto the scene often closely followed by journalists and there maybe people at the scene affected by what's happened who've never encountered journalists before, who've never thought they'd be in newspapers. And the police of course know the way things work. Do you think the police have a role to try and protect people who might be exploited by journalists to see that their privacy is not invaded?
AT No, I think you know our job is to do what we have to do at the scene of the incident. I'm very wary of any sort of restriction to be placed by the police on journalists. You know commencement with the needs of the crime scene or whatever and one of the things I've tried to do over the years is stop unnecessary prohibition on journalists. We used to have situations years ago where photographers were sometimes put into a vantage point which was further away from the scene of the general public could go to. You know we've changed those things to give people access wherever appropriate. It actually makes the scene easier to manage if you give them what they want, if you give them regular updates; then they tend not to stray, they tend not to go under the scene, they tend not to hire helicopters and cranes and things such as that and get in the way. And that's been my experience and I have had very little trouble with journalists, even at major scenes where we have looked after them properly, given them what they wanted, that is something we and my force do well and I think most other forces do as well. We do then get this issue around photographers for example, you know, should they be taking photographs of dead bodies or awful scenes. My view is that is a matter entirely for the newspaper concerned. It's a judgement for the editor. The photographers themselves may have been in Kosovo, Rwanda and various other places, Iraq and Afghanistan and seen many dreadful sights. Then it is a matter for the newspaper to decide on their taste, not for us to intervene or anyway sensor, or attempt to, what people do. Where we do have a role is where we see witnesses, people who have either yet to be interviewed or have been interviewed, pursued by journalists, and this has happened of late where people are friends of the victim finding their house being surrounded by journalists, misbehaviour where journalists sometimes on occasions have almost been provoking trouble on an allegedly troublesome estate. We do have a role there, but we should use a proper means by talking to the editors, talking to the PCC, talking to OFCOM, about that behaviour. Because there are times when this desperation to get the story and to be first; and particularly now that every newspaper has a website, that has really changed their attitude. We no longer have several hours before they have to file their copy, it's got to be in now. And the desperation to be in front of the other one is something that I don't think the public take much notice of but matters a lot to journalists. Therefore they end up becoming much more aggressive, much more aggressive with the police and our press officers, much more aggressive with the general public, in this desperation to get that story. And their checking of the facts suffers as a result of it as well. And this is my real area of concern about the media. It's almost as if I want to say to them, "can you calm down. There is a story here but you are not there to second guess the investigation. You are not there to speak to witnesses before the police do. There is a reason why we have a plan and an order in which we talk to witnesses. You're not there to reveal details of the murder scene that has not yet been released, because there is often a reason of why we do that". And we saw that, you know, particularly in some recent cases journalists doing all of those things in a very unhelpful way. And when I say "might claim public interest!" there is no public interest in causing damage to a police investigation. And just so you can say you got your story out half an hour before somebody else is not worth the damage that that causes. And these are commercial enterprises and whilst they claim public interest; now commercial enterprises looking for commercial advantage and I think they put at risk their genuine role in supporting and pursuing the public interest by their behaviour on occasions such as that.
EF Now I understand that you're main concern quite understandably is to preserve the integrity of the evidence. But nevertheless, people who haven't been exposed to these sort of things before often think of police officers as authorative figures for whom they might have help and advice. Do I understand your answer to be you don't think its part of your job to say "look be careful about speaking to journalists" or...
AT There's a number of different situations, let's take for example when we are dealing with the victim and the victim's family; we'll have a family liaison officer appointed to look after that person. Part of that role will be to do with how they deal with the media and quite clearly they will have very careful protection and help, whether we are doing press conferences or things such as that. And that is very much part of our role because not only the damage that can be done to that individual or to the case, to their privacy, to their future, to the family structure sometimes after these events can be catastrophic. My earlier point was really to do with general scene management where I wouldn't want to see a prohibition on press activity, so commence it with the needs of the scene and the crime and things such as that. I won't to move away from the days when the journalists and photographers were unnecessarily restricted from what they could do, which caused a lot of bad feeling. And you know unnecessary harassment for photographers if there was a particular issue. But when it comes to particular people who are directly involved in the case we clearly have a role and I think it's a role generally speaking that we discharge quite well. I don't think people realise just how much we do for victims through our family liaison officers who sometimes can be with victims and their families for years after supporting them at press conferences, at scenery visits, at inquest, at trial and anniversaries and things such as that. You'll sometimes see years later at ceremonies; you will see the family liaison officer back there with the families. And they are highly trained, a very tough job sometimes, quite volatile circumstances and are vital to protecting people from the excesses of the media.
EF Yes, I understand the distinction you make. Just one more thing I want to ask you about. Do police officers routinely liaise with the PCC?
AT I don't think routinely. Funnily enough I have been talking to the PCC more than ever of late about these issues and they are coming up to one of the Association of Chief Police Officers conferences soon; we're looking at this in particular and I want to engage with them more. I want forces to be much more aware of them and to make greater use of them because sometimes when we do debriefs on some major cases we almost discover what we should of done afterwards and I think there is a role there for PCC, for OFCOM, and for the Attorney Generals office in real time. So in the middle of the night when perhaps when an estate is being surrounded by media where their trucks are all over the village green or whatever and causing lots of trouble for the people; there is a means very swiftly of getting hold of the key organisations and say "please will you stop behaving like this". Because we have had on some cases, you know, potential for serious violence involving attacks on the media. You know because of the animosity that they can cause and the misunderstanding of the complexity on some of the relationships on some of the estates, that is where these incidents happen. They do tend to turn up; usually London based, and not really understand what they are going into. We do need in quick time to be able to deal with some of those and not discover what we should of done afterwards. And I think there is a role for the PCC and I was funnily enough only looking at their website just before I arrived here. Just looking at the way they have handled their cases; the numbers resolved and not resolved, and looking at the prevalence of certain newspapers in those complaints as well. I think it is something that I would like to see them have a higher profile.
ML- Can I take you back to your answers on the issue of the press? As I listen to a careful answer it left me with the impression that you were trying to give reassurance, perhaps down playing current controversy around theft of personal information. In suggesting it is a temporary storm of media interest only to the community. Given if what we see in the newspapers is to be believed, actually this involved theft of information from politicians, we're potentially talking about something which could be corrupting of government. And I think there will be many listeners worried that the police, one of our bulwarks of our democracy in this country. Do you want to come back on that subject?
AT Well clearly there is an investigation going on into this and a lot of police officers have been devoted to it. This is one of these issues where some simple crime prevention can be avoided and it was known at the time that just having proper protection on your mobile phone could stop people hacking into it. We've seen a number of people, not only politicians, but footballers or whatever have apparently had their phones hacked into. Clearly that must be dealt with. I think the point that I was making in answer to the question was in the context the reputation of the police. There's an investigation, a number of officers are dealing with it and there will be some, no doubt, resolution at the end of it. The invasion of privacy is clearly a serious matter, but as far as reputation of the police is concerned I think as far as that investigation matters; the various controversies surrounding I think will be revealed in due course. And I think there's a much broader issue around reputation and that was the point I was trying to make that if one puts it in some context, and in my force for example we cover from Inverness to Truro, those are not the issues that get raised with me when I go to those areas. This is something that very much concerns the media and on itself and if one looks at which newspapers have been championing this, and which newspapers have not mentioned it at all, this is an internal issue to some extent with them. And if we look at the interest that it stirs around the current show biz characters involved. What I would say of course in the evidence that's just been given to yourselves is some reassurance for some of the victims who are very impressed with the investigation and it was rather good to hear of those positive endorsements for the Metropolitan Polices' approach to this particular investigation. And in their usual thorough way they will get to the bottom of it and I think all will be revealed in due course. And I no way wish to underestimate the importance of invasion of privacy.
EF Thank you very much. We always offer an opportunity to witnesses to speak as it were directly to the listener at this stage. If you want to say something about the issues that we're dealing with, balance of press freedom against personal privacy rights and the role of the police in that.
AT Yes I think the relationship between the media and the police is a very important one. I'm a passionate believer that we have got to be as open as possible, remove any restrictions that are not based in some fact or law. That we should have as much as possible already published on our website so we don't get freedom of information enquires, so it is there for you to see. And we should open up as much as we possibly can. So commence it with the needs of say a criminal investigation on privacy of individuals. Once we've reached that point then I think we need to be really clear about what it is the press can say and what the police can say to the press. I think the relationships between the press and the police are better and healthier and more correct than they had been. And we have been working very hard with the Society of Editors and others from the media in working on our protocols and procedures in a spirit of absolute openness with nothing to hide, and I think that's paid off and I think generally speaking the press in this country do a very good job and we have a free press which is vital to our democracy and I want to make sure that those relationships with the media continue in a healthy and ethical and proper way.
EF Thank you very much.
AT You're welcome.