Police Harassment Warnings – Reporters Beware

THE Independent Police Complaints Commission has just upheld a decision to issue a reporter with a harassment warning in a case which should worry all investigative journalists.

Croydon Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies contacted Neelam Desai by email and in person following her conviction for frauds totalling £230,000.

Desai claimed the contact was more widespread, but the Advertiser is adamant only two contacts were made.

Davies was later visited by three officers from the Metropolitan Police who issued him with a Police Information Notice, also knows as a harassment notice.

Davies and his paper complained about this to the Met, and to the Independent Police Complaints Commission. Both the Met and the IPCC have found nothing wrong with the decision to issue the notice, you can read the coverage in UK Press Gazette.

At the time of issuing the notice the Metropolitan Police issued this statement:

“The harassment letter was issued by a local Safer Neighbourhoods team in response to a number of reports from the woman, who felt she was being harassed. The officers did this to ensure that the reporter was fully aware that allegations of harassment were being made against him.

A harassment warning letter does not constitute any kind of formal legal action, is not a court order and does not represent any form of conviction or caution. When a harassment warning letter is issued, there is also no implication that the alleged harassment has taken place.”

What I think is particularly disturbing about this case is the way in which such notices can be issued and the lack of an effective right of appeal.

I looked around the for statutory basis for a PIN and, frankly, struggled a bit and that is because they do not have any statutory basis. It appears to be a power that police have taken upon themselves.

This has been the cause of some concern and was the subject of a House of Commons report in March this year.

If you look at the conditions for issuing such a notice listed there, they are:

” there has been a “course of conduct” (not just one event); and

the perpetrator knows or ought to know that their conduct amounts to harassment.”

There may in this case have been a ‘course of conduct’ in that two approaches were made to Desai. However, I would be very surprised if there was a single journalist in the country who ‘ought to know’ that one email and one approach in person would amount to harassment.

If that is the case then pretty much every investigative journalist in the UK should be served with such a notice. If this logic were to be applied elsewhere, criminals, con artists and rogue traders nationwide will be able to get journalists off their back by going down to their local police station and complaining about harassment.

The other issue, over which there is some dispute, is the effect of a PIN. It has been suggested that such a notice will appear on a DSB (formerly known as a  CRB check) into a person’s criminal record. Clearly this is a very serious matter, though a spokeswoman at the IPCC suggested that it was not the case that such notices would always appear.

What is disturbing is that the only avenue of appeal is to the force issuing the notice, and then to the IPCC, which in itself does not reinvestigate the case.

There are no doubt many cases where harassment notices are a very important tool for the police in preventing harassment. I do not think the intent in creating them was to allow convicted criminals to evade legitimate inquiries from a journalist.

Any readers of this site will already know that there are myriad laws in the UK that make a journalist’s job that much more difficult. Here is yet another.

The UKPG has set up an online petition calling for the withdrawal of the harassment notice issued to Gareth Davies.

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News websites – take care with comments, ECHR ruling

NEWS website operators need to take care, following a judgement in the European Court of Human Rights.

This was the final appeal by an Estonian news site called Delfi, which took the case to the ECHR after it was found liable for third-party comments placed upon its site. The appeal claimed Estonia had failed to protect its Article 10 rights to freedom of expression by allowing such liability. The judgement can be read here – http://t.co/D1IPjE3Ltp

The case arose after the site carried reports of ice roads to islands off the coast of Estonia being damaged by the activities of a ferry operator. Some of the comments below the story from readers were aimed at the ferry company directors and amounted to libel and hate speech.

The Estonian courts held Delfi liable for the comments because of its failure to promptly remove these comments when notified of them.

The European Court of Human Rights rejected the appeal. It said Delfi by running the story had invited the comments and, knowing this was a controversial issue, ought to have been quicker to act when notified of a problem.

The implications for UK news sites do not immediately seem apparent. It is already well-established practice here that where comments are unmoderated, liability only occurs where a publisher fails to remove material once they have been notified of it.

Most news sites operate post-moderation and remove comments or other material that is flagged up to them.

However, what the Delfi judgement does suggest is that sites need to be prompt to remove. This could have a chilling effect on sites in receipt of a complaint where there is some dispute about the meaning of the comments.

Many websites already, understandably, err on the side of caution and take down material upon complaint. This judgement only reinforces that policy and inevitably this will lead to material that is not actually legally actionable being removed. Determined claimants will, once again, be able to stifle legitimate publication by way of legal threats.

I also think Google, Twitter and Facebook should keep an eye on judgements like this. The Delfi judgement says that it does not apply to social media. If I were in their management, I would still be concerned about the ‘direction of travel’ of the European judges.