Boys in blue tip the scales

High profile or celebrity criminal court cases are increasingly subject to trial by media, as press, radio and TV reporters make public every lurid detail of each case.

But while criticism is heaped, sometimes with just cause, on journalists for overstepping the mark in how they report cases, little attention is focused on where their information comes from.

Defence lawyers who have fallen foul of this practice often blame the police for leaking the information to the media, arguing that no one but the police would have been privy to the details in question.

“There's a 'pub and favours' culture which exists between police and journalists,” says Law Society spokesman David McNeill.

“Sometimes this is shown to ludicrous effect, as with the arrest of Bruce Grobbelaar, described by The Sun newspaper as the 'trial of the century'.

“Grobbelaar only needed to look out of his window and see all the assembled journalists and camera crews, to discover that he was about to be arrested.”

David Hewitt of Cuff Roberts, who defended Grobbelaar, believes the hacks gathered on his client's doorstep as a result of a police tip-off. “We believe there was collusion, and made a complaint to the chief constable of the relevant police force, but there was no satisfactory outcome.”

The issue of leaked information is one of the most common complaints over which solicitors contact the Law Society, and many believe it is about time police officers were subject to a stricter duty of confidentiality, similar to that placed on solicitors.

Louise Christian, senior partner at Christian Fisher, says: “Police have enormous powers to investigate people, but there is no legislative code which governs the way they deal with the media. Given the fact that they have access to such an enormous amount of confidential information, there ought to be.

“It's part of the problem of police accountability. The rules which govern their contracts aren't published.”

Christian believes the issue should be a matter for public debate. “It goes right from a very trivial level of police tipping off the tabloids if someone famous gets arrested, to leaks which are really quite serious and might prejudice a criminal trial.

“I do a lot of deaths in police custody cases and I'm always finding that the police are giving their account to the media before they have consulted with relatives. When Colin Roach was killed in the foyer of Stoke Newington Police Station, police gave out a statement that Roach was mentally disturbed and had killed himself, before they had even contacted his relatives.”

When questioned about the practice of police leaking sensitive and confidential information to journalists while criminal proceedings are active, neither the Bar Council nor the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) were prepared to discuss the issue.

A Bar Council spokesman says the issue does not really concern barristers, and a CPS spokeswoman seemed indignant at the suggestion that police might be doing that sort of thing.

“From our point of view, we couldn't possibly think that about the police. If the police did leak information, it would scupper their whole reason for being there and bringing cases to trial.”

However, the police themselves take a less blinkered view, and the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) is undertaking a full review of police disclosure of information about live proceedings to journalists, the results of which are expected early this year.

The review follows a High Court ruling last July, on the “get stuffed” case, in which journalists accompanied police to the arrest of a taxidermist accused of breaching the trade in endangered species legislation.

“The judge said he deplored the practice of the police, in allowing the media to be present while alleged crimes were being investigated, and told ACPO to look at this issue,” says an ACPO spokesman.

The existing police disciplinary code prohibits improper disclosure of information by police, but the spokesman says he does not know of any cases where officers had been disciplined for the offence.

“If they have it would be an internal matter for an individual police force,” he says.

A Home Office spokeswoman says members of the police can be dismissed for leaking sensitive material and, if their disclosure is seen as serious enough, it could be viewed as a criminal offence and referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. She too has no data on whether this had ever happened in practice.

Although the Police Complaints Authority has no statistics on the number of complaints made about police leaks, its 1996/97 annual report referred to a “growing tendency” for the media to be on the scene to record high profile arrests and raids.

“Although we understand police eagerness to project a vivid image of dramatic action against alleged criminals, there are obvious concerns about TV camera crews bursting uninvited into someone's home,” the report states.

“Even more disturbing are TV news shots of suspects being taken by police from their homes, only to be released with little or no publicity some time later.”

A PCA spokesman says the matter is being taken seriously, but,because of the difficulties in proving exactly which police officer was guilty of leaking information, it is very hard to uphold complaints of this nature.

“Our most high profile case was that of Gillian Taylforth and Geoff. Their car was stopped and they were allegedly performing a lewd act. Mr Knight was cautioned and that should have been the end of it. Then it was leaked to The Sun. But we were not able to substantiate who leaked the information, so could not uphold a complaint.”

Mark Stephens, senior partner at Stephens Innocent, describes the leaking issue as one of the most important in the criminal justice system. “It's frequently an unseen problem and often the defence do not know how to deal with it.

“The Grobbelaar case is one of the most blatant examples. The image of someone being led away in handcuffs is a very long-term and prejudicial one in our minds.

“We also see the official sanctioned release of information such as in the case of the Taylor sisters, and Gillian Taylforth and Geoff Knights. In the Colin Stagg case, images of the press being herded around Wimbledon Common by police press officers, and the image of an axe waving in the air, were very prejudicial.

“Someone tipped a tabloid off about the drugs found under Paula Yates' bed, but there's no way of knowing who.

“I've made five complaints to the Police Complaints Authority about individual cases, but have given up now because I've got nowhere.”

And it is not only high-profile people who are affected. One solicitor recently contacted the Law Society because video footage of his client filmed at an ID parade turned up on a real-life TV cop show. The unsuspecting client thought the ID parade had been filmed to ensure that it was conducted properly.

He wrote to the chief constable of the police force concerned but, according to the Law Society, “got very little back”.

Although ACPO is reviewing the situation, Stephens does not believe that there is any easy way to bring this practice to an end.

“Police can put information into the public arena prior to a charge, so they are not caught by the Contempt of Court Act. It's quite clearly a breach of the police disciplinary code. But everything is off the record and you need a high standard of proof to convict.”

McNeill agrees: “Leaking is leaking. It's not like issuing a press release, and police have a degree of protection because journalists protect their sources. Journalists take most of the risks, take their own legal advice and edit accordingly.

“In the age of the spin doctor everyone is getting a bit slicker. My advice to lawyers is, if you're dealing with a high profile case, sharpen up your media skills.”