We either live with media leaks - or suffer a shuttered society

Police car
Debate Rating: MEDIUM

I’m worried about Andy Rowell.

Ever since his early-morning arrest two weeks ago on the suspicion of ‘misconduct in public office’, he’s been on my mind.

Mr Rowell is the London policeman accused of giving a newspaper “confidential information”. In his case, as in at least two others, no payment has been alleged. No money has changed hands. 

Andy Rowell was arrested on suspicion of leaking something. In other words, he was arrested because he might have given a press contact a tip-off.

I’ve never met the now-suspended chief superintendent, and I’ve no idea what he’s supposed to have told – for free - at least one reporter.

But I’m worried. And if you’re a civil servant or a special adviser, you should be worried too. Because the arrest of someone for passing information to a journalist means none of us is quite as safe, or quite as free, as we’d like to believe.

During the early years of Tony Blair’s second term, the torrent of leaked “confidential information” from the Home Office – where I was a special adviser - was volcanic. Immigration, prisons, probation, crime, policing: nothing was safe. There was always someone in the department willing to pass the press a damning statistic or half-baked policy. No one ever leaks good news.

Furious notes to officials from then-Home Secretary David Blunkett achieved nothing. A lot of heads would shake; a desultory ‘inquiry’ would start; a week later, The Independent or The Guardian or The Times would get another exclusive. At the Home Office, new-policy leaks usually went to the broadsheets. The tabloids got the ones about how many prisoners had their own flat screen television.

Once, an entire 200-page draft of a secret white paper was given to at least four newspapers on the same day. We never found out who leaked it (although we had a good idea). It created an atmosphere of such bad-tempered suspicion, some ministers and officials barely spoke for weeks. I felt sorry for the journalists who’d had to read it.

In its 2009 report Leaks and Whistleblowing in Whitehall, the House of Commons Public Administration Committee said that while leaks can be damaging, they are, bluntly, “an occupational hazard”.

And that’s exactly all they usually are. An occupational hazard; irritating, occasionally humiliating, but rarely a breach of national security or a public danger.

You might argue that police leaks are, and should be, punished uniquely and harshly. Police officers are, after all, the frontline of the law; public trust in them is requisite.

But in English law, there is no difference between a junior civil servant and a senior police officer. The crime of ‘gross misconduct in public office’ is a common law offence; legislators have never provided a definition of a ‘public officer’. Instead, each case must be assessed individually by the courts.

Over the years, army officers, local councilors, civil servants, government accountants, coroners and police officers – even unpaid volunteers serving the public - have appeared in court charged with ‘gross misconduct’.

So, in theory, there is nothing to choose between a police officer and a Home Office civil servant who phones a reporter in a fit of pique; or out of concern that a crime is unresolved; or that a policy will hurt the old and vulnerable. A policeman who gives a reporter a tip is no different to the special adviser – a public servant, don’t forget - who leaks another department’s secret policy because she knows her own minister worries it will mean more rape crisis centres will close (yes, special advisers sometimes do that).

And that’s why I’m so worried about Mr Rowell.

I don’t know what kind of information he is alleged to have given a reporter; I don’t know what his reasons may have been if he did.  

But I do know that the usual methods in cases like this – just as in the civil service – of internal hearings, followed if necessary by disciplinary action, suspension or even dismissal, have been leapfrogged. And that’s a deep new line in the sand that should worry us all.

Because if Mr Rowell has been arrested on suspicion of passing information to the press – and if, as the Met insist, there is no allegation of payment – any public servant who wants a voice, for himself or someone else, has just been gagged.

Unless, of course, she or he is brave enough to face possible arrest and suspension; and strong enough and rich enough to spend years arguing a public interest or whistleblower’s defence in the face of a lost reputation.

Leaks are frustrating and occasionally damaging; but the alternative is a closed government; a shuttered establishment whose servants are too afraid to speak out, even when they should.

And I think that’s far more harmful than anything a West London copper might tell a tabloid newspaper.

Posted 28/02/13 by Kath Raymond Hinton Write a reply

Debate Centre
A really excellent post, Kath.

I think, as you say, we should judge leaks on a case by case basis. I am pretty uncomfortable with police leaking important bits of information linked to high-profile cases. Often, I'll read a story and think: "how on earth do they know this?" Surely, only the police and other officials were at the scene of the crime?

Instances of character assassination in the tabloids come as a result of inside knowledge. And in certain cases, someone is found to be completely innocent. Yet, the mud sticks.

It is hard to make a sweeping judgement. There's a world of difference between leaks connected to a forthcoming piece of legislation, and evidence or information integral to a criminal trial.

28/02/13 15:22 by Ben Mitchell
Top read Kath, and completely agree. The key thing here is payment or other incentivisation.
28/02/13 13:29 by Mike Robb (Agree)
The hypocricy of it all is stunning too. The DwP is known to leak info on exceptional welfare cases but that's okay because it fits in with the government's ideology.
28/02/13 11:46 by James Aisthorpe (Agree)
I'm not sure the alternative to continuous leaks is a shuttered society, but I can see your point. We certainly need to strengthen the perception of the value of whistleblowing cultures, engineered and structured in good faith. Maybe we need a whistleblowing ombudsman, in combination with WikiLeaks' competitors, able to provide reliable access in times of severe need to such channels of communication. It shouldn't be so painful to do what is right. Abuse is abuse, after all, whether committed in sexual contexts by DJs or in political and business contexts by politicians and company executives and employees. The common thread to all abuse is the instinct to cover up - and that surely can't be good for our civilisation long-term.
28/02/13 10:37 by Miljenko Williams
Shared Evidence
London police commander arrested in Operation Elveden
Chief superintendent Andy Rowell held over allegations he passed information to a News International journalist
28/02/13 13:32 by Mike Robb (Agree)
Video Responses
No videos