News: No charges over Operation Weeting “leaks” – journalism and the public interest

29 05 2012

The Crown Prosecution Service announced this morning that there will be no charges in relation to an allegation that an Operation Weeting police officer leaked confidential information to “Guardian” journalism Amelia Hill (pictured).

The CPS said that, between 4 April 2011 and 18 August 2011, Ms. Hill had written ten articles for the “Guardian” which evidence suggested contained confidential information derived from Operation Weeting, including  the names of those who had been arrested.  It was satisfied that there was sufficient evidence to establish that the police officer disclosed that information to Ms Hill.

However, in a statement released this morning, Alison Levitt QC, Principal Legal Advisor to the Director of Public Prosecutions said, in a statement that she had concluded that there was insufficient evidence against either suspect to provide a realistic prospect of conviction for the common law offence of misconduct in a public office or conspiracy to commit misconduct in a public office.  She said

In this case, there is no evidence that the police officer was paid any money for the information he provided.

Moreover, the information disclosed by the police officer, although confidential, was not highly sensitive. It did not expose anyone to a risk of injury or death.  It did not compromise the investigation. And the information in question would probably have made it into the public domain by some other means, albeit at some later stage.

In contrast, there was sufficient evidence to charge both Ms Hill and the police officer with offences under the Data Protection Act 1998, even when the available defences are taken into account.  However, the CPS had concluded that the public interest did not favour a prosecution.  In relation to Ms Hill

the public interest served by her alleged conduct was that she was working with other journalists on a series of articles which, taken together, were capable of disclosing the commission of criminal offences, were intended to hold others to account, including the Metropolitan Police Service and the Crown Prosecution Service, and were capable of raising and contributing to an important matter of public debate, namely the nature and extent of the influence of the media. The alleged overall criminality is the breach of the Data Protection Act, but, as already noted, any damage caused by Ms. Hill’s alleged disclosure was minimal. In the circumstances, I have decided that in her case, the public interest outweighs the overall criminality alleged”.

In relation to the police officer, no payment was sought or received, and that the disclosure did not compromise the investigation.

The decision was welcomed by the campaigning group “Hacked Off” which commented that that case

“underlines the need for greater clarity about journalism and the public interest. Hacked Off raised this early in the Leveson process and others are working on the matter too. It is often suggested – usually by those seeking a licence for privacy invasion – that defining the public interest in relation to journalism is impossible. This is not so: several definitions exist and overwhelmingly they draw a clear line between (a) information that helps the public or protects it from harm and (b) intrusive gossip and trivia. On the evidence available, Hill’s case falls in (a)“.

Hacked Off goes on to suggest that it would help police, prosecutors, journalists and the public if there was one clear definition for of public interest for legal purposes.

“Too often today, legitimate investigations are ‘chilled’ by fears of prosecution which result from lack of clarity and insufficient legal protection“.

The decision was also welcomed by the “Guardian” which said

“We welcome the Crown Prosecution Service’s sensible decision to abandon this worrying attempt to criminalise legitimate contact between journalists and confidential sources. Nevertheless, the paper makes no comment on the validity of the Met police assertion that the officer it identified was Amelia’s source in this case.

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2 responses

11 06 2012
Law and Media Round Up – 11 June 2012 « Inforrm's Blog

[...] News: No charges over Operation Weeting “leaks” – journalism and the public interest [...]

2 01 2013
Media and Law Review of the Year, 2012: Part 2, May to August – Judith Townend « Inforrm's Blog

[...] Crown Prosecution Service announced that there would be no charges in relation to an allegation that an Operation Weeting police [...]

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