Friday, 3 September 2010

New York Times puts Met PR in the dock

That it has taken the ‘Paper of Record’ to bring to light not only more evidence of continued News of the World phone-hacking, but also the lackadaisical approach of the Metropolitan Police towards investigating illegal phone-tapping operations, is only one extraordinary part of this unfolding story.

The entire New York Times article can be read HERE (it’s eight pages long so one for lunchtime probably!) but for those who have better things to do the facts are these. Firstly, unnamed sources within News International are now saying that Andy Coulson, then editor of NOTW and now David Cameron’s director or communications, knew full well what was going on and actively encouraged it.

There’s no surprise there, but what is extraordinary is the role of the Metropolitan police. Apparently, the Met’ has chosen not to investigate evidence of industrial-scale phone hacking of celebrities, MPs, members of the security services, football administrators because they were too busy, choosing to limit its investigations to hacking of Prince Harry’s phone.

What’s more, the Met’ has chosen not to inform those hacked by the NOTW that they had been targeted, which means that the targets can’t launch civil lawsuits against News International which could cost the organisation hundreds of millions. Gordon Taylor, Chief Executive of the Professional Footballers Association, has already taken them for £700,000 for one hack.

The article infers that the cosy relationship between the Met’ and the NOTW, encouraged and defended by police communications people (subsequently denied), has got in the way of the legal system. In other words, neither party wanted to disturb the flow of tip-offs about arrests in return for positve police-friendly headlines.

There are a number of concerns here, not least that hacking, according to the article, continues at the NOTW to this day and also the role of Coulson as special adviser to the Prime Minister.

However, I believe there is also a wider issue, namely the precise role of civilian PR representatives within the police service and, critically, how proactive they should be in publicising the work of the police.

I have no problem with the publicising of CSR related ‘good works’or arrest rates. However, working in PR, I know that the natural inclination of the PR person is to justify our existence with news headlines and 'good coverage'. I worry that this tendency has potentially led to television cameras and the press pack outside football manager Harry Redknapp’s house at four o’clock in the morning when the police knocked on his door. What were they doing there? How did they know?

If, and it remains an if, civilian PR people are responsible for these tip-offs then many would argue that they exceeding the boundaries of their job and encouraging the sort of cosy relationships which could potentially hinder the proper investigation of criminal activity.

The Met' is under pressure now and may well have to re-open its investigation, but the New York Times has also highlighted a wider issue which deserves debate in the PR community and beyond.


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