Is flirting really a tool of a journalist's trade?

Model posing as female reporter
Image caption Critics say the use of "flirting" in the report was odd and sexist

A warning to beware "flirting" journalists has been issued to Metropolitan Police officers amid suggestions reporters may use the tactic to trick them into revealing information.

It sparks images of a predatory hack tossing her hair and winking while urging a police officer to have one last glass of wine in the corner of a dingy bar.

But are our law enforcers really putty in the hands of unscrupulous, wily reporters?

The guidance was issued by former parliamentary commissioner for standards Elizabeth Filkin as part of a report commissioned to clean up the relationship between the force and the media in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal.

Under the heading "ten tactics used by some in the media - beware," it states: "Flirting. Often interlinked with alcohol. Designed to get you to drop your defences and say far more than you intended. Be careful."

But for most people flirting is an innocent act which brightens up daily interaction, according to behavioural psychologist Dr Jane McCartney.

"It takes place all the time, without people being really conscious of it."

There is a fine line between flirting and politeness, such as when men giving up seats on the tube are rewarded with smiles or colleagues giggle over the coffee machine, she says.

'Playing to ego'

But she says it can be used in an overt manner, such as when female reporters posed as constituents to coax Business Secretary Vince Cable into revealing his opinions of coalition policy.

The Daily Telegraph reporters - criticised by the Press Complaints Commission for the undercover sting - were employing some of the feminine charm of which the report warns, Dr McCartney says.

"He's not the first nor by any means going to be the last. You've got someone who's been pulled in by the attractiveness of a couple of young girls who are playing up to part of his ego," she adds.

So if top politicians can fall foul of the flirt, can the same be said of police officers and detectives?

Not so, according to ex-Metropolitan Police officer Colin Sutton.

The former detective chief inspector, who led the hunt for serial killer Levi Bellfield, describes the flirting reference as "a very odd thing to say".

"I have never known any police officer to suggest that he or she had been flirting with members of the press. I've never come across any suggestion of it. It demeans both police officers and journalists to suggest it does go on," he says.

The guidance uses a hammer to crack a nut, increasing bureaucracy for officers, he says.

"There's a wide difference between what's allegedly happened when a police officer gets money for phone numbers and me having 28 meetings with journalists between the charge and trial of Bellfield, to ensure the coverage reflected the work we had done and reassured the public we knew what we were doing."

Experienced professionals

BBC correspondent Ben Ando, who has covered murder cases including those of Rose West and Beverley Allitt during his 23-year career, feels even more strongly.

"I wouldn't mind if we were talking about primary school teachers or something like that - but this is about people used to dealing with the seedier side of life, senior detectives supposed to be the best at dealing with lying, deviant people," he says.

"The suggestion they're so gullible they can be tricked by a journalist batting her eyes or buying them a pint is as insulting as it is patronising. They are experienced professionals."

He thinks the new guidance is unnecessary and that flirting is an everyday part of business life in all sorts of professions.

"If adults can't be treated like adults and trusted to behave in an adult way then it makes 21st Century Britain a sad, petty and overly nanny-ish place. We might as well be at school."

Sandra Laville, crime reporter at the Guardian, says the report was wrong to use the word flirting, calling it "sexist and anachronistic".

"It is a sexist analysis of the relationship between journalists and police officers. Most police officers are men. Most journalists, and particularly most crime correspondents, are men. So who is she accusing of doing the flirting? Female journalists?"

She believes the report's recommendation for police officers to avoid the "fraught issue" of drinking with reporters is similarly misguided.

"Journalists do drink with police officers, lobby journalists drink with politicians, industrial journalists drink with union leaders. It is about building relationships, both with and without alcohol, and building up trust.

"Sometimes meetings lead to news stories. Sometimes it is about understanding the position the police are in, so that as a journalist you can contextualise and report accurately."

For Dr McCartney, to suggest flirting to get information is solely used by women would be a mistaken assumption.

While it is largely a sexual technique, heterosexual men can and do use similar tactics to massage other men's egos to a similar end, she says.

"They are not made to feel powerful, or in control, or 20 years younger in the same way. It's more matey, things like 'that's a fine set of golf clubs or a great golf swing'," she adds.

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