'You MUST obtain approval from press office', Scotland Yard's Freedom of Information team ordered
Although the police were happy to turn a blind eye to phone hacking at the News of the World, they’re making a habit of keeping tabs on innocent journalists and bloggers.
When a Freedom of Information (FOI) request is made it is meant to be dealt with “applicant and motive blind”. But, Scotland Yard have a system in place where requests from journalists are flagged up. The ‘High Profile Request’ list is circulated to all internal departments in the police force, along with the full name of each requester.
The Met have admitted: “The list includes the applicant and if they are a known journalist that information is included”.
FOI staff are banned from releasing any information to journalists without getting express “approval” from the Met’s Press Bureau. It is unclear whether any disclosures have ever been denied because of pressure from the Bureau.
An email to staff said: ”You MUST obtain approval… before release if this request is from a journalist or identified as high risk.” It said that “high risk” FOI requests include “any request involving an identified member of the media.” It also includes requests from “VIP’s (MP’s etc)”.
Another email, sent in November, again reminded FOI officers of the policy. It said: “All High Profile FOIA requests – particularly those from journalists – continue to be of interest to DPA [Directorate of Public Affairs].” The message continued: if “you feel a request is generating issues which could result in media coverage and you have not already been contacted by DPA please contact Ed Stearns, Chief Press Officer.”
In a phone conversation I had with Ed Stearns in November he defended this policy. “We’d have to be aware if something is likely to become high-profile,” he said. “I don’t think that would be unusual to have that sort of flagged up.”
But how far does the Met pursue its interest in journalists and bloggers? Three individuals, who have asked to remain anonymous, have told this blog that Scotland Yard informally “investigated” them after they asked questions to the force. In one case, the Police Central E-Crime Unit (PCeU) scrutinised articles written by a political blogger after he had talked to a police officer about his work. He claimed he was never charged for a crime and says he “found out accidentally” about the (informal) investigation when an officer “confessed” to having personally investigated his website. The PCeU said there had been no formal investigations into online media.
In my phone conversation with the Met’s Cheif Press Officer, Ed Stearns, I asked him whether the Met made a habit of investigating bloggers.
“Can you categorically say that it’s not regular practice of the Press Office to find out information about journalists?”
“Well, I mean… if… umm… it depends, it depends what – I mean obviously if a journalist has… I mean… In what way do you mean ‘find out information’?”
“I wouldn’t rule it out that we would search on something like Twitter or Google News.”
This is probably fair enough – it is a press office after all. But the question is, does this research into journalists and bloggers affect what information is disclosed – and how quickly? Is this one reason for the Met’s continual FOI delays? After all, “flagging” is one thing, but why does the press office need to give “approval”? What happens if the Press Office does not grant approval?
The Met have attempted to justify their policy on FOI, saying: “The process is not intended to hinder or delay the release of information but to ensure that we release consistent information and are properly prepared for any potential consequences of the release.”
The Information Commissioner’s Office, meanwhile, states: “The correct approach in considering requests for information and the application of the exemptions and exceptions should be on the basis that the application could have been made by anyone, anywhere in the world, for any (non vexatious) reason.”