Leveson Inquiry: Police and press 'were too close'

The chief of the Metropolitan Police has told the Leveson Inquiry that relations between the police and the press were too close in the past.

Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe said that when he took over at the force in 2011, he picked up concerns about an overly "close social relationship".

But a reporter said since the inquiry had started, there had been a "state of paralysis" in police-press relations.

The inquiry is currently examining the press's relationship with the police.

Mr Hogan-Howe said he had been surprised by the Leveson Inquiry's revelations of the "frequency and extent" of meetings between Metropolitan police officers and media representatives.

Lord Leveson has previously heard evidence from former Met chief Lord Blair who said he believed there had been a "significant" problem of a "very small number of relatively senior officers [who] increasingly became too close to journalists".

And last month, Lib Dem MP Simon Hughes said the police were guilty of an "unforgivable" and "completely unacceptable failure" by not widening their original inquiries into allegations of phone hacking at the News of the World.

'Inappropriate relationships'

Since taking over at the Met last year, Mr Hogan-Howe has launched a clampdown on "inappropriate relationships" and police leaks to the media.

Officers' meetings with journalists are now recorded, but Mr Hogan-Howe said he was not trying to stop officers giving "appropriate" information to the press.

However, Mr Hogan-Howe said he accepted he may have set the bar too high and created a too "austere" regime in the Met that has affected normal working relationships between police and the media.

"It's been a difficult line to draw. The bar may be in the wrong place," he told Lord Leveson.

"Public confidence had been damaged at the Met so I needed to set a new boundary."

Sunday Mirror crime reporter Justin Penrose told the inquiry the current clampdown at the Met meant that officers were now being prevented from publicising successful operations.

"We (the press) are being treated almost like criminals to a certain extent," he said.

Mr Penrose told the inquiry that he had previously entertained several police officers, ranging from constables to chief superintendents.

Asked why he socialised with the police, he said: "To cultivate trust.

"These high-profile people dealing with heinous crimes need to trust the person they are talking to, they need to be confident that I will use the information they give me the right way, and going out for drink means they can trust me."

Regional experiences

South Wales Echo editor Tim Gordon said on average his reporters and editors spent 71p a week each on hospitality expenses, including entertaining police.

He said he was concerned that police press officers were not available at weekends, and that Gwent police could not talk to reporters unless they had permission from press officers.

Image caption West Midlands Police said relationships with the regional press were 'professional'

"From my staff, there is a fear that it is becoming harder and harder to talk to police officers," he said.

He emphasised that there was a huge difference between regional press and national press, based on what he had heard from the inquiry.

His view was echoed by Adrian Faber, editor of the Wolverhampton Express and Star.

"My staff live within the community in which we serve, therefore we very quickly get to hear if we've behaved inappropriately," he said.

He added that balance, integrity, trust and accuracy were absolutely critical to the newspaper and its relationship to its community.

When it came to hospitality with police officers, going beyond a coffee, drink or sandwich was when "you start to blur the professional relationship".

"There is the danger of it going too far, but quite where that line comes I'm not sure," Mr Faber said.

When pressed about recording of every contact between police and reporters, Mr Faber said it would "make it very difficult for a relaxed response [by police]."

"I would prefer that there would be access to the police without the police officer feeling they have to record that contact."

Social networks

Appearing at the inquiry after Mr Faber, West Midlands Police Chief Constable Chris Sims said he never accepted hospitality from the media because "it's a professional relationship, it's based upon events, it's based upon a long-term understanding of what's going on" and does not need "artificial relationships".

Mr Sims said it was "not wilful obstruction" that meant press could not get the information they wanted when they wanted it, but a reflection that social networks and daily news outlets were relentless.

Chief Inspector Sally Seeley, who runs the West Midlands Police press office, said officers were expected to notify the press bureau if they had had contact with reporters, to keep track of what information had been shared and ensure the right information had been shared by the most appropriate person.

Mr Sims added that in the era of social networking sites such as Twitter "we want people to be open, we want people to talk... but we want them to do it in a climate where they are getting the full support of Sally's team."

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