Liberty calls for new protocols for off the record anti-terror media briefings

08 May 2007

Supported by the Shadow Home Secretary David Davis, Liberal Democrat Shadow Home Secretary Nick Clegg, and the Home Secretary’s appointee to the Metropolitan Police Authority Lord Toby Harris, Liberty called for the protocols to be established with immediate effect. The human rights group warned that off the record briefings during terror raids can prejudice fair trials, undermine community support and unfairly politicise anti-terror efforts by the police.

On February 6 2007, Liberty submitted a Freedom of Information request to the Home Office seeking information about calls between its officials and the media during an anti-terror raid in Birmingham after news reports indicated that leaks may have originated from Whitehall. The Home Office response clearly reveals that existing procedures for media briefings are inadequate.

Liberty Director Shami Chakrabarti said:

“Professional news reporting and accurate public information are vital in the face of the terrorist threat. So it’s high time that there were clear protocols to avoid the distorted, unaccountable and badly timed briefings that are so damaging to police operations, fair trials and community confidence.”

In a paper released today, “Setting the Record Straight – the dangers of off the record briefings during anti-terror operations,” Liberty highlights unsourced reporting of raids including in the West Midlands in late January 2007, the Forest Gate incident in June 2006, and the Ricin plot of 2003.

Contact: Jen Corlew on 0207 378 3656 or 0797 3 831 128

Notes to Editors

On 24 April 2007 Deputy Assistant Commissioner Peter Clarke of the Metropolitan Police said of the anti-terror operation in Birmingham on 31 January that, “on the morning of the arrests, almost before the detainees had arrived at the police stations to which they were being taken for questioning, it was clear that key details of the investigation and the evidence had been leaked. This damaged the interview strategy of the investigators and undoubtedly raised community tensions.”

Liberty 's conclusions on the protocols are:
• The current situation where no proper guidelines, protocols, guidance or procedures exist regarding off the record briefings to the media by police officers or civil servants during anti-terror operations is unacceptable and potentially disastrous. Such guidelines should be developed as a matter of urgency.

• In developing such guidelines the over riding concern is that nothing should be done to jeopardise any potential trials or ongoing operations.

• The guidelines should be based upon the presumption that the flow of information about anti-terror operations should be as open as possible rather than ‘on a need to know’ basis.

• The guidelines should ensure that information comes from appropriate and readily identifiable sources within the police or civil service to allow for proper accountability. Failure to adhere to the guidelines will be a disciplinary matter.

• A commission should be established as a matter of urgency to draft such guidelines for the police and civil service concerning off the record briefings in line with the above conclusions.

Liberty has identified the following codes, guidelines and protocols for working with the media but emphasises that only the Media Relations Standard Operating Procedures of the Metropolitan Police Service deals explicitly with off the record briefings. They include the Official Secrets Act; Code of Conduct for Special Advisers; Civil Service Code of Conduct; Association of Chief Police Officers Media Advisory Group – Guidance Notes; Police Code of Conduct 7 on Confidentiality; Media Relations Standard Operating Procedures of the Metropolitan Police Service; Civil Service Code of Conduct Sections 5 & 6

On 1 August 2005 Liberty wrote to the Rt. Hon Attorney General Lord Goldsmith expressing concern about the nature and extent of media coverage of the 21 July 2005 bomb plot in London and requested that he issue an informal warning to press about contempt of court issues.

Liberty (the National Council for Civil Liberties) believes that its history of campaigning for civil liberties and fundamental human rights for more than 70 years, especially during times of terrorist activity, has given it expertise in this area.