This article by Professor John Tulloch, Lincoln School of Journalism, is an extract from The Phone Hacking Scandal: Journalism on Trial, edited by Richard Lance Keeble and John Mair (Arima 2012). The book will be launched at an event in London on Tuesday 7 February. It is reproduced with the permission of the author and publishers.
Abstract: This paper explores aspects of the early history of relations between London-based journalists and London’s police from the origins of the Metropolitan police in 1829 with the aim of providing a historical context within which the present crisis can be placed. It analyses the reasons for the development of a uniquely close relationship on the basis of a set of permanent, mutual needs, despite recurrent attempts to regulate and control police-press communications.
Apart from the issues of ‘corruption’ raised by the monetary relationship between police and press, the changing nature of the needs of the popular press for a regular supply of crime-related stories and ready access to victims and perpetrators, are balanced against the requirements of the police for positive publicity in its political struggle for resources, the development of police careers, and crime prevention and law enforcement.
“No one pays like the News of the World do.” (Attributed to the private eye Jonathan Rees, Davies 2011)
‘20 per cent of the Met [force] has taken backhanders from tabloid hacks.’ (Paul McMullan talking to Hugh Grant, New Statesman 2011)
‘Police investigating allegations of illegal payments to officers by journalists arrested a 48-year-old man today. The man, believed to be a journalist, was arrested at about 10.30am at an address outside London in connection with allegations of corruption and was taken to a south west London police station.’ (Press Gazette, 4 November 2011)
One fall-out from the recent revelation of what appears to be an extraordinary cash nexus between the News of the World and the Metropolitan Police and the possible involvement of other popular newspapers is that we may need to revise the essentially comforting proposition in the academic literature on crime and the media that payments to police for information by the press have been comparatively rare.
To take one major example: Steve Chibnall’s classic book Law and Order News, published in 1977, has been highly influential for a generation in setting a frame within which British police – press relations could be viewed. (Chiball 1977b, and see Chibnall 1975a and b, 1977a, 1980, 1980,1981). Crudely summarized, this frame was that instances of the payment of police sources have been comparatively minor and that payment is only part, and a small part, of the rich spectrum of police / press relations – and mainly used, Chibnall observes, by less experienced reporters, ‘on the fringe of a specialization’ without the right contacts:
‘I was told of one such journalist who was obliged to take a bottle of whisky with him every time he visited a policeman: A second complained ‘I’m in a moral dilemma – I will not pay policemen for information (athough I’m prepared to buy them a beer or a meal) and I do not have the regular contacts which most crime reporters have. So what do you do when you want information? Well, the best sources are either bent policemen who want money for stories, of disgruntled policemen who don’t usually want payment…’ (Chibnall 1977b, 149-50)
In a brilliantly suggestive scenario, Chibnall describes a pattern in which friendship and trust links between journalists and police officers are ‘characterized by exchange’ (152). Journalists and police are in a trading relationship in which intangible invisible goods such as friendship, sociability, information, gossip and the reinforcement of mutual esteem counts for more than cash:
‘The most obvious exchange resource the journalist has at his disposal is money. But, although direct payment of certain types of sources is recognized as legitimate, it is generally considered as inappropriate (although not unknown) method of getting information from the police. It is far too crass and unsubtle and defines the reporter / source relationship as one of business rather than friendship.
The offer of food and drink, on the other hand, carries connotations of sociability rather than commerce or corruption … other, more powerful exchange resources… derive from [the reporter’s] position within an organization offering the possibility of instant communication with the public…crime reporter is able to act as intermediary between the press and the police …can facilitate the launching of formal public appeals about crimes but he can also help the police to communicate with specific individuals or minority groups…favourable comment on police activities…’ (153-4)
Over time, Chibnall argues, this leads to a process of ‘assimilation’ – and police officer and journalist bond and begin to reflect each other.
Overall this is a comforting picture of human sociability. It confirms a human side of the police and of the journalist, where mutual manipulation is softened by friendship. But this essentially sentimental picture is called into question by the News of the World revelations, as another one of journalism’s sustaining myths.
Two conclusions might be drawn: 1. That the comforting myth was in part true, and there has simply been a major change in the relationship between the media and the police in the last 30 years. Specifically we might point to the rise of the modern private investigations industry, worth £250 million a year (Milmo et al 2011) and acting as an intermediary by means of which this relationship, like many others under capitalism, can be outsourced.
We might add some observations about extraordinarily rich or desperate newspapers in ferocious competition. This is broadly the conclusion of Nick Davies, who argues that ‘there has always been a little dirty places, a little illegal stuff going on in the shadows of Fleet Street’ (Davies 2008, 266) but confesses ‘its never easy to look back…and see how the germ first started’. He locates the origins ‘in the old days’ some time before the 1970s, when ‘crime reporters regularly bunged cash bribes to serving police officers in order to procure information’.
Davies argues that the new regime at Scotland Yard inaugurated by Sir Robert Mark ‘crushed the old corruption in the mid 1970s’ but that by the early 1980s newspapers had established a new way to bribe police officers through the mechanism of private investigators (Davies op cit,267). Davies’s succinct account is echoed in the rambling, surreal testimony of the former News of the World journalist Paul McMullan before the Leveson Inquiry. When asked if police officers were prepared to accept money in return for information, he said:
‘Yeah, not as much as they did in the 1980s, but now I think it would be very difficult to offer a policeman pretty much anything for anything. But certainly, as – well, the 70s was a notoriously corrupt time, but then it got stamped on and got progressively harder to get information from the police unless it was in an official way’. (Leveson Inquiry 2011)
But one might draw a contrary conclusion: 2. that something has been missed, and /or not much talked about, in descriptions of the history of crime journalism, and that ‘assimilation’ was often on the basis of a mutually profitable relationship between police and journalists.
Of the industrial scale of the operation by the late 90s there is no doubt – Davies relates that, in March 2003
‘the Information Commissioner’s Office raided the home in New Milton, Hants, of a private investigator named Steve Whittamore and seized a mass of paperwork which turned out to be a detailed record of more than 13,000 requests from newspapers and magazines for Whittamore to obtain confidential information, many of them potentially in breach of the law. Several staff from the Guardian’s sister paper, the Observer, were among Whittamore’s customers.’ (Davies 2011)
Estimates vary widely as to the number of metropolitan police officers and detectives the News of the Screws may have had on its books by the time its 168 year career was brought to a tragic halt in July 2011. The revelation of industrial scale bribery confirms the suspicion that journalists paying the police for information is now deeply rooted in the culture of the British popular press. But was it ever thus?
Few things are more tedious than the historian’s reflex of ‘Nothing new…’ But it can be argued that this goes back to the birth of the popular press and that we simply have no reliable evidence to assess its scale. What can be inferred is that crime news was one of the basic staples in the rise of the press in the early nineteenth century, along with gambling, sexual scandal and sport. Along with sport and scandal, crime was commodified.
The Newgate Calendars of the late 18th century, full of bloody murders and last dying speeches on the scaffold, blazed the way, and were the most popular and profitable publications of their day. Newspapers created a rough and ready form of ‘soft’ social regulation to which the early police played a ‘hard’ role. Dickens refers disparagingly to the ‘Old Bow-street Police’ and their propensity to hang around with Grub Street denizens:
‘we think there was a vast amount of humbug about these worthies. Apart from many of them being men of indifferent character, and far too much in the habit of consorting with thieves and the like, they never lost a public occasion of jobbing and trading in mystery and making the most of themselves. Continually puffed besides by incompetent magistrates anxious to conceal their own deficiencies, and hand-in-glove with the penny-a-liners of that time, they became a sort of superstition. (Dickens 1850 in Slater 1997, 266 my emphasis)
The Bow Street office was finally disbanded in 1838 (Metropolitan Police 2011). Dickens himself played a significant role in the rise of the modern British police, and his enthusiastic promotion of the Metropolitan Police, in 1829, and the creation of the Detective department in 1842 (ibid), directly parallels the creation of the modern popular press. (See Collins, 1965; Shpayer-Makov, 2010)
The prime exponent of this popular press was to become The News of the World, from its start in 1843, but it joined a host of weekly popular newspapers, such as Robert Bell’s Penny Dispatch (1841) and Edward Lloyd’s Penny Sunday Times and People’s Police Gazette (1840), in shocking crime news, and a diet specializing in ‘seductions, rapes, murders and any other sort of horror’ (Morison 1932, 242). Until the advent of Alfred Harmsworth and the rise of the popular daily newspaper of the 1890s, this was the largest and economically most buoyant part of the British press, organized on a prototype of the factory lines that 50 years later would become commonplace.
Given its size and profitability, it is at least plausible that paying, as well as wining and dining police officers and detectives for tips, was fundamental to this culture of Victorian popular journalism, but these papers – particularly Robert Bell’s – were also frequently prepared to attack the newly established police as well as the church ‘and anything else established.’ (Morison 242)
This was not just a working class market. The middle-class magazine Household Words, which Dickens started in March 1850, fished in the same waters with somewhat different motives and featured a substantial number of articles on the police, many concentrated in the first issues and focusing on the work of detectives. Although the evidence is slight, it is highly likely that Dickens made payments to favourite police officers, as well as publicly hosting parties for detectives in his offices (Dickens 1850). He wrote stories for his magazines based on the use of his police contacts, edited and rewrote police articles by his contributors, and accompanied police raids into the East End. In an age that was very suspicious of the organised state, he functioned as a one-man propagandist for the new police force.
This campaign involved a high degree of selective perception and contemporaries criticized what appeared to be a hero-worshipping tendency – most unlike Dickens – that seemed to take him over when he got near a detective or an imperturbable man in blue. Other critics, such as Humphrey House in his classic book The Dickens World (1942), puts it down to his authoritarian tendencies and his obsession with neatness and precision, and – House was writing in the Freudian-ravaged 1930s – his anality. Untidy criminality needed to be sorted out and his articles about night tours with the police and the detective parties in his office, House says, ‘show a kind of clerical satisfaction in the functioning of a well-run organization.’ (House, 202)
The account has considerable explanatory power, although it ignores a fundamental source of the detective – author love-in – for Dickens and for other journalists. This is the fundamental congruence of their respective crafts, well summarized by Haia Shpayer-Makov:
‘To a great extent, the activity of Victorian and Edwardian detectives was similar and, increasingly they were expected to do similar things. The essence of their work relied on investigation – on the act of probing and exposing…both developed the skills of taking evidence, interviewing witnesses and, on the basis of scattered pieces of information, constructing a narrative, often explaining a burning or puzzling issue. Their professional status depended on their ability to perform these tasks repeatedly and successfully.’ (Shpayer-Makov 2009)
Payment of course was, by its nature, covert. One of the most celebrated policemen of the Victorian age, Inspector Charles Frederick Field (1805-1874), chief of the detective branch from 1846, owed his prominence to Dickens. After Field retired in December 1852 and opened a private inquiry bureau, Dickens is reported to have subscribed £300 to a testimonial (a sizeable sum equivalent to about £8000 today), although there is some dispute about this [i].
Other evidence of payments is a bit scarce. As an editor Dickens was tight with money in his payment of contributors to Household Words. (Buckler 1951, 1180) However, in a letter to his chief sub editor W. H. Wills in April 1851 setting out his plan for another police article that became ‘The Metropolitan Protectives’ (Household Words 1851) he wrote:
‘any of the Scotland Yard people will do it, I should think; if our friend by any accident should not be there, I will go into it. If they should recommend any other station house as better for the purpose, or would think it better for us to go to more than one under the guidance of some trustworthy man, of course we will pay any man and do as they recommend. But I think one topping station-house would be best.’ (Stone, 253-4 my emphasis)
Over this period, the Metropolitan Police acquired an unsavory reputation for corruption and incompetence, and there were some big scandals in the 1870s after Dickens’s death. From its origins the question of ‘perks’ was a live issue, although 4 out of 5 of the men dismissed were sacked for drink related offences (Emsley 1991, 221) Recurrent efforts were made to control the use of perks at various points in the 19th century. Indeed, ferocious attacks by the press on police venality and incompetence were a feature of the late Victorian scene – particularly marked during the outbreak of murders in the East End in the 1880s attributed to ‘Jack the Ripper’ (Cobb 1956, Chapter 16).
Conan Doyle’s limited Inspector Lestrade, ‘one little sallow rat-faced, dark-eyed fellow’, sprang from the fertile ground of a stack of press cuttings. (Doyle 1887). Payments to policemen only in fact became comprehensively illegal with the passing of the Prevention of Corruption Act in 1901, and it was made an offence for a police officer to receive payment and for someone to make one, in the context of recent increases in police pay and allowances. (Robertson 2011) According to Chibnall, a major reason for the reluctant establishment of the Scotland Yard press office in 1919 was ‘fears about unauthorized leaks produced by reporters bribing officers’ (Chibnall 1979).
By that time a cosy and, to some extent, self-regulating culture had arisen between a corps of Fleet Street crime correspondents and the police in which each side needed each other – the police used the press for publicity, to get a result, to fight for better resources and advance their careers. Journalists relied on police tip-offs to get the latest information, access to victims and lurid details to dress up stories. Copious amounts of alcohol in a number of well-established London watering holes oiled the relationship. But references to money payments in journalist’s memoirs are sparse. Hints remain. Consider the guarded references of Frederick Higginbottom – a noted Pall Mall Gazette journalist – in his memoirs:
‘Go back to notorious murder mysteries of the eighties of last century … Every one was written up by expert reporters in touch with the police, and each of them provided sensations for months. The police used the Press then, as they do now, and they gave away information freely if it helped them to trace a missing suspect.’ (Higginbottom 1934, 15 my emphasis)
Now a host of accounts have begun appearing in the press testifying to the ubiquity of this culture. For example, Duncan Campbell observes:
‘It has always been known, by both police and the press, that some officers will trade information for money. Victims of crime or tragedy are often amazed at the speed with which the media arrive in the wake of the emergency services. Now they know why.’ (Campbell 2009, my emphasis)
A ‘veteran journalist’ in the Camden New Journal claims:
I CANNOT see why such unforgiving looks were given to Rebecca Brooks, chief executive of News International, for telling a Commons committee that journalists paid police officers for stories – or words to that effect.
Journalists of another generation would know that it was common practice to pay policemen for stories.
When I worked on a west London weekly, too far back in time to date in this column, I would drop in to the local cop shop and if a story given by an officer was sold on to a national or London evening, the proceeds would be shared.
Today, this would be considered a corrupt practice, I suppose, but it shades into insignificance compared with what is fundamentally wrong with many journalists.’ (Camden New Journal 2011, my emphasis)
As the Telegraph observes:
‘Payments by journalists to police officers have a long history. One long-retired crime correspondent recalls having a list of officers to whom he would regularly send a £5 note “wrapped in a plain WH Smith envelope”.
“I’d never use office stationery and I’d use a different typewriter each week so it couldn’t be traced,” he said.
“I never felt I was bribing them but of course I was. But then these weren’t just tips they were giving me,” he said with professional relish. “These were stories that could go straight into the paper. What I liked best was when they told me the story before they’d even told Scotland Yard.”’ (Born 2003)
However, Chester Stern, a former crime correspondent at the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday with 20 years experience, told the Telegraph in the same story that the paying of police officers is much less pervasive than many think:
‘”Yes it goes on but it is very much the exception rather than the rule,” he said. Stern said that during 20 years on the crime beat he was happy to wine and dine police contacts but drew the line at giving them cash. “Ninety per cent of the information you need can be got through legitimate means.”’ (Born 2003)
The researcher of Victorian journalistic morals finds real difficulties in uncovering a covert culture whose basis was cash – the beauty of cash being of course its untraceability. Modern prosecutors with many more tools at their command, still face great difficulties, as was shown in the trial of Neville Thurlbeck in 2000.
Mr Thurlbeck was cleared of allegations that he paid a Detective Constable Farmer to supply information on people whose details were kept on confidential police computer records. The prosecution alleged that Farmer made scores of police computer checks on people’s criminal records for him and cited 36 stories in the News of the World allegedly containing information supplied by him, including:
‘a Labour MP with a conviction for committing an obscene act; an alleged threat to the Queen from stalkers; a story about a man said to be involved with the mass murderer Rosemary West; and a priest with convictions for sex offences. He said the recorded outgoings of Det. Con. Farmer and his wife dropped between the start of 1997 and mid-1998, suggesting he had an alternative source of cash.’ (Farmer 2000)
But does this expensive pursuit of information brokers and allegedly corrupt police officers serve the wider public interest? Most of it is likely to be very hard to prove and former Metropolitan police chief Brian Paddick argues that there is ‘absolutely no point’ in attempting to investigate whether journalists were paying police officers: ‘if these claims are true’ he says, ‘then it is most likely officers were paid in cash and there is no way of proving it’ (Channel 4 News 2011). Although one might observe that this seems to discount a careful auditing of gold bath taps against the ostensible income of the officer.
A final point to ponder: could efforts to stamp out payments between hacks and cops lead to the death of popular journalism? Optimistic estimates are that as many as 140 Mirror Group journalists may face criminal charges. As Guido Fawkes dramatically claims:
‘The idea that this crisis is only about News International is fanciful…In short every major newsroom in the land has used illegal techniques to obtain information. We are on the verge of criminalising hundreds of journalists.’ (Fawkes 2011)
So here’s an interesting ethical conundrum. Freedom of the press may require us to argue for a tolerable level of corruption to enable crime to be reported, especially the crimes of the powerful, in the wider public interest. It doesn’t lend itself to transparency, or ethical puritanism, and it doesn’t exactly meet any Kantian test – mild corruption of the police by journalists might indeed lead to highway extortion for imaginary driving offences, as happens in Russia and the ex-Soviet republics. But it may be a price worth paying.
References and bibliography
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[i] For Field, see http://www.ric.edu/faculty/rpotter/chasfield.html accessed 25 October 2011