Monday, 24 January 2011

Do we need to police the PR people?

The resignation of Andy Coulson as David Cameron’s chief spin doctor (God I hate that phrase!) tears another gigantic hole in the carefully constructed News International defence that all this phone-hacking nonsense was the work a single rogue reporter.

What is becoming clear is that both News International and the Metropolitan Police are now in deep trouble over this issue. Sienna Miller and Paul Gascoigne have recently joined the list of celebrities who are actively pursuing claims against the newspaper and there are demands that the police themselves be investigated for their conduct of the investigation with a public inquiry.

If we do get a public inquiry one clear avenue of investigation is the role that PR people played in the decision to limit the scope of the investigation to the hacking of Prince William’s phone, whilst ignoring all evidence that thousands of other phones had been tapped including, potentially, the then Prime Minister (Gordon Brown) and various other politicians, many of whom were working in security sensitive roles.

The New York Times in its mammoth piece on phone hacking published late last year claimed (subsequently denied) that communications people within the Met played a key role in persuading officers to limit their investigations by reminding them of the close relationship the Met enjoyed with the tabloids and the positive reporting granted to them.

If this is the case, and it remains a matter for conjecture, then it adds a further layer of concern about the role of PR in the publicising of police operations (witness the raid on Harry Redknapp’s house which was carried live on GMTV).

Certainly, there can be little doubt that the media is sailing very close to the wind in terms of prejudicing fair trials by some of their reporting. The question is to what extent are PR people behind some of these stories and tip-offs?

My own (albeit developing) view, is that those working in PR in the criminal justice system may well need to be policed (and protected) with a Code of Practice which details what can be told to the media and when.

The problem, of course, is that stories are often planted to aid an investigation in order place pressure on a suspect. This seems legitimate but the danger is that these tactics become the norm and go into everyday use rather than being used sparingly.

I’ve no idea who should be responsible for drawing up such as Code (the CIPR, PRCA?) or whether it would work, but I certainly think there needs to be a debate about it.


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