As the dawn raids on journalists continue, why are police giving them the Sweeney treatment?

Police rummage through underwear drawers.

Forrmer News of the World deputy editor Neil Wallis has taken the arrest of former Times journalist Patrick Foster as an opportunity to ponder the unprecedented and undeniably heavy-handed series of police raids on journalists over the last year.

Foster, 28, was arrested on suspicion of computer-hacking police on Wednesday morning. He was dragged from his bed at 7am and driven off in an unmarked car as his “terrified pyjama-clad girlfriend” looked on. If police had simply googled his name or had a browse through the evidence relating to him in the Leveson Inquiry they could have found out exactly what he is accused of doing.

As a junior reporter on The Times, he guessed the email password of anonymous blogger Nightjack in order to unmask him for a story in 2009. He immediately reported this to his superiors and while everyone seems to have been clear that it was dubious ethically – no-one apparently clocked on to the fact that he had broken a pretty obscure law.

What Foster did was naïve and stupid, and there was clearly a catastrophic failure to give him support and guidance on the part of his superiors at The Times, but it really is baffling to understand why – three years on – the Met Police felt the need to give him The Sweeney treatment.

Without naming names, Wallis goes on to recount in his blog post for the Huffington Post some of the other victims of the current police purge on British journalism. Without excusing bad behaviour, let’s not forget that these journalists are accused of using unscrupulous methods to reveal the truth to their readers. It’s not about personal enrichment and they haven’t physically harmed anyone.

Wallis notes Rebekah and Charlie Brooks were taken away from their newborn baby at 6am in the morning and not allowed to return until late that night.

There have been several suicide attempts, with one journalist attempting to jump off a bridge and another turning up for a police interview with bandaged arms from an attempt to slash their wrists - Wallis reports.

The teenage daughters of one senior executive were apparently ordered out of their beds and told to stand apart while police searched their underwear drawers.

One shocked parent had to watch as their children vomited in fear as strangers marched through their home, Wallis notes.

The wife of another journalist who was sick with cancer was ordered from her bed so officers could search under her mattress.

Wallis writes: “One of the journalists arrested in the early days of Operation Elveden, for example, has still not been charged many months on from his original arrest. His police bail has twice been extended and he has been warned that if he is eventually charged the earliest a court can hear the case is late 2013, possibly 2014.

“That mirrors my personal circumstances. Arrested by a dawn knock on 14 July 2011, I am still under investigation, have already been bailed three times, am due to return bail again next month September 2012, but have been given no inkling whatsoever of what happens then. If I am charged, my lawyers warn it could be at least another year before any trial.

“Like a number of others, I lost my job upon arrest and have been unemployed since. Like others, I see little prospect of that changing. Even if I am cleared, isn’t my career in ruins? The strain is significant.”

This article first appeared in Press Gazette.

Behind bars. Photograph: Getty Images

Dominic Ponsford is editor of Press Gazette

Photo: Getty
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Rising crime and fewer police show the most damaging impacts of austerity

We need to protect those who protect us.

Today’s revelation that police-recorded crime has risen by 10 per cent across England and Wales shows one of the most damaging impacts of austerity. Behind the cold figures are countless stories of personal misery; 723 homicides, 466,018 crimes with violence resulting in injury, and 205,869 domestic burglaries to take just a few examples.

It is crucial that politicians of all parties seek to address this rising level of violence and offer solutions to halt the increase in violent crime. I challenge any Tory to defend the idea that their constituents are best served by a continued squeeze on police budgets, when the number of officers is already at the lowest level for more than 30 years.

This week saw the launch Chris Bryant's Protect The Protectors Private Member’s Bill, which aims to secure greater protections for emergency service workers. It carries on where my attempts in the last parliament left off, and could not come at a more important time. Cuts to the number of police officers on our streets have not only left our communities less safe, but officers themselves are now more vulnerable as well.

As an MP I work closely with the local neighbourhood policing teams in my constituency of Halifax. There is some outstanding work going on to address the underlying causes of crime, to tackle antisocial behaviour, and to build trust and engagement across communities. I am always amazed that neighbourhood police officers seem to know the name of every kid in their patch. However cuts to West Yorkshire Police, which have totalled more than £160m since 2010, have meant that the number of neighbourhood officers in my district has been cut by half in the last year, as the budget squeeze continues and more resources are drawn into counter-terrorism and other specialisms .

Overall, West Yorkshire Police have seen a loss of around 1,200 officers. West Yorkshire Police Federation chairman Nick Smart is clear about the result: "To say it’s had no effect on frontline policing is just a nonsense.” Yet for years the Conservatives have argued just this, with the Prime Minister recently telling MPs that crime was at a record low, and ministers frequently arguing that the changing nature of crime means that the number of officers is a poor measure of police effectiveness. These figures today completely debunk that myth.

Constituents are also increasingly coming to me with concerns that crimes are not investigated once they are reported. Where the police simply do not have the resources to follow-up and attend or investigate crimes, communities lose faith and the criminals grow in confidence.

A frequently overlooked part of this discussion is that the demands on police have increased hugely, often in some unexpected ways. A clear example of this is that cuts in our mental health services have resulted in police officers having to deal with mental health issues in the custody suite. While on shift with the police last year, I saw how an average night included a series of people detained under the Mental Health Act. Due to a lack of specialist beds, vulnerable patients were held in a police cell, or even in the back of a police car, for their own safety. We should all be concerned that the police are becoming a catch-all for the state’s failures.

While the politically charged campaign to restore police numbers is ongoing, Protect The Protectors is seeking to build cross-party support for measures that would offer greater protections to officers immediately. In February, the Police Federation of England and Wales released the results of its latest welfare survey data which suggest that there were more than two million unarmed physical assaults on officers over a 12-month period, and a further 302,842 assaults using a deadly weapon.

This is partly due to an increase in single crewing, which sees officers sent out on their own into often hostile circumstances. Morale in the police has suffered hugely in recent years and almost every front-line officer will be able to recall a time when they were recently assaulted.

If we want to tackle this undeniable rise in violent crime, then a large part of the solution is protecting those who protect us; strengthening the law to keep them from harm where possible, restoring morale by removing the pay cap, and most importantly, increasing their numbers.

Holly Lynch is the MP for Halifax. The Protect the Protectors bill will get its second reading on the Friday 20th October. 

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