I made a brief submission to the Leveson Inquiry based on my observations as a former member of Police Authority, an academic who works on police accountability, and as a political activist. I’d been waiting for my submission to be recorded on the Inquiry site before publishing it myself but it never has been. That is curious because the last thing I heard (an acknowledgment on 24 January) was that “All submissions are read and considered by a member of the Inquiry Team, yours has been passed onto the Solicitors Team.” I do “appreciate that [they] have received a [very] large amount of evidence”.
If I had been writing the submission later I would have taken account of Elizabeth Filkin’s report on the Metropolitan Police’s relationship with the media, which showed that the picture about how information ‘leaks’ to the press, and how journalists report stories that should be confidential, is more complex than I thought.* I would also take account of the much greater information now known about the widespread nature of phone hacking. I would also though set the behaviour of politicians more in my sites – the local elections in May this year showed yet again mostly the Labour Party simply making untrue statements in their election literature (that I saw). Political parties and political activists should make statements only that they believe or at least suspect (on objective grounds) to be true or that are genuine statements of political opinion. The fact that post the Oldham case political parties are still making untrue statements (although maybe not so much direct untrue personal abuse) undermines faith in our democracy. Tony Blair and Nick Clegg must also take a large amount of responsibility for that. They both delivered a lot of what they said they would but will be remembered for misinformation and a broken promise. The press, politicians and political activists must all behave better. That is what Leveson should conclude.
* Report: ‘The Ethical Issues Arising From The Relationship Between Police And Media’, 4 January 2012.
From: Reid, Kiron
Sent: 20 January 2012 18:15
Subject: The ethos of the police. Inquiry Module 2. The media and political behaviour, Module 3.
Dear Sir or Madam,
The Leveson Inquiry is generating a great deal of welcome debate about the role of the press in a free society. I note that the enquiry is considering the boundaries of acceptable behaviour and the debate about them, culture of organisations, the professionalism of individuals and organisations, and accountability of individuals and organisations.
I wrote this draft email when you were engaged in module one (before I was familiar with your work programme), concentrating on police culture and the media. While you were finishing module one, realising that a future topic is “the future conduct of relations between politicians and the press”, I concluded that these topics are all linked and therefore I have added some comment at the end on politicians, or more specifically political activists and the media, especially in light of the Oldham East & Saddleworth case.
Your initial Key Questions concentrate on the news media itself. I want to comment on another aspect that is relevant to your work – police culture and information. The police leak information routinely that should be kept confidential. That culture should change. That is my experience and impression as an academic interested in police complaints and accountability, and as a former member of a Police Authority. I am not talking about the serious allegations about the selling of information. That presumably is rare. I mean that information that arguably should be secret routinely appears in the press as soon as the police are dealing with it. This seems to be done when it does not apparently negatively affect their institutional interests.
My example would be of people arrested. Personally I think that such information should be kept confidential before charge and yet this is out there in the media straight away. (Of course there are times when a defendant wants publicity for their arrest). There are some issues of principle – I disagreed with the Government dropping Coalition and including Liberal Democrat party policy to give anonymity to defendants in cases where complainants were anonymous, notably rape cases. The Government appeared to do this because of very selective lobbying by pressure groups. That is a different issue. I find the police as an institution are keen to keep confidentiality when they believe it assists them, but their professionalism and impartiality is undermined when information leaks. I do not believe that this is usually malicious or corrupt but a cultural matter – there should be a culture of ensuring confidential information is confidential unless an exception for good policing reasons.
On the other hand, I have argued in favour of greater disclosure (for example in my writing about police complaints issues, in case comment and articles*) but the key theme is about openness of procedures and processes and enhancing professionalism. Nick Clegg highlighted in a speech in July “there have been huge improvements in the way professional and public bodies are now held to account through professional codes of conduct and independent scrutineers.” These developments have taken place under or on the initiative of several previous Governments, continuing under the current one.
A continual process of renewing a commitment to professionalism is important for all jobs and ending the police culture of leaks is one aspect. My experience as a member of a police authority (meaning that I had a lot of inside information) ended in 2002, and as an elected city councillor (meaning I paid very close attention to local stories involving the police (in 2007), therefore policies and practices may have moved on that I do not know about since those times.
To be open, I am a member of the Liberal Democrats and have made similar points in a submission to Nick Clegg’s call in July 2011 for views on what should be done in an inquiry. (Email to party members 6 July ‘Phone Hacking’). I also agree with points made in Nick Clegg’s speech ‘Freedom, accountability and plurality of the media’, Thursday 14 July, which highlighted boundaries and culture, professionalism and accountability.
Politicians have to take a large share of the responsibility for the situation that we find ourselves in with both press and politicians probably at their lowest ebb of trust ever. I will be brief at this point as this is for your later module, and also I could give my own opinions and evaluation at length but will stick to the core issue here. The Oldham East and Saddleworth case showed this at its most extreme and worst but it is symptomatic of far wider bad behaviour.
You will no doubt deal with the impact of the obsession of politicians with the media after the rise of ‘New Labour’ and in the early years of the Labour Government and how this obsession spread to all parties. The bad behaviour of politicians in how they behave in their public roles (in the Council chamber, in public meetings, in Parliament), how they campaign and how they court the media are all linked.
This is for the same reasons that I disagree with the otherwise persuasive letter in The Times of Friday 18 November by Walter Greenwood of Newcastle upon Tyne. Yes, most of the press and journalists were not engaged in phone hacking. However, press behaviour and culture more widely has brought the press in Britain to this position. Likewise the behaviour of Phil Woolas’ team in his campaign to hold his seat was extreme and appalling, but it was mirrored in dozens of seats in the General Election and in numerous local elections by appallingly bad (but usually not as bad) behaviour. (The campaign that led to the court case was against Elwyn Watkins who is a friend of mine).
I wrote this on my personal and political website (as a Liberal Democrat activist):
‘I agree with Chris Davies MEP’s comment: “If Elwyn’s petition fails, and the judges allow Woolas to keep his seat, then the message they will send is that there are no limits to the way in which truth can be twisted in the name of politics.”
The Examiner is one of the most disgraceful racist inflammatory Sun loving leaflets that I have ever seen. I’ve reported the BNP to the Police for less. Of course there is fair criticism of Elwyn Watkins, local Liberal Democrats and Liberal Democrat policy in the leaflets. But if the judges just read what Labour wrote it is impossible to see anything other than a catalogue of the most appalling lies and smears, largely based on racism. Many of us have been involved in campaigns that we would now be ashamed off but no one in 2010 could ever justify this.” ’ **
The leaflets in that case are extreme but they illustrate a culture where anything goes to win an election. As I wrote, there are probably few political activists myself included who are not ashamed of our behaviour in the past. Some years ago all main political parties signed up to a code of conduct from the Commission for Racial Equality to ensure that inflammatory references to race were avoided in election leaflets.
It is now time that all political parties and their candidates, agents and campaign teams accepted that they should not put a statement in a leaflet unless they know or believe it to be true or genuinely believe that it is a fair comment on a real political issue.
I was horrified when senior Labour party politicians (including former Ministers) defended Phil Woolas after the result and criticised the law because they were criticising a law that says you cannot put out deliberately untrue statements about your political opponents in your election leaflets. With time I can accept that reaction was probably more to do with tribal political behaviour and misplaced loyalty than them encouraging criminal behaviour which is what I stated at the time. At the time I believe they should have been prosecuted.
Politicians, at every level, have to accept they must act ethically or otherwise are on weak ground to blame the media. A starting commitment not to put out literature which contains knowingly or recklessly or wilfully blind untrue statements must be the start. I specifically exclude criticism of personal attacks and personal content. Personal criticism – of someone’s political behaviour and record is fair game. Personal attacks that have nothing to do with a person’s ability to do a job as an elected representative should similarly have no place in modern grown up politics.
* As an academic I give references for completeness; the articles are not about the arguments above but contain in some sections relevant arguments. For example about greater disclosure in ‘Police Complaints: Disclosure of Witness Statements to Complainant’ commentary on R. v the Police Complaints Authority, ex parte Anthony Lloyd Green  EWCA Civ 389 (2002) 66 JCL 402 at 406; (2005) ‘The Home Secretary and Improved Accountability of the Police?’ 69 Journal of Criminal Law 232 at p. 247.
** http://kironreid.co.uk/en/article/2010/436715/re-oldham-east-potential-verdict 30/10/2010.
PS There was great debate among my students and a panel of professionals last term at a professional networking quiz and Q&A arranged by our Law Alumni Association where obviously the Inquiry was a prominent topic of the evening.
Mr. Kiron Reid,
Lecturer in Law, Director of Careers & Employability,
School of Law,
University of Liverpool,
00 44 (0)151 794 2801