Considering the Leveson Inquiry, I have been interested in the relationship between the police and the press. In particular, I was interested in the report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary Without Fear or Favour: a review of police relationships. As a first cut at the issue, it offers a starting point although it has huge weaknesses that mean a useful review is still needed for any reform to work.
Three major flaws emerge from it. There are other smaller ones, but they are for a detailed critique and not a blog. The flaws undermine its stated aim towards reform and having an influence on the view of police and press as the Leveson inquiry is exploring as one of its modules.
First, it demonstrates a failure of imagination. Second, it appears opportunistic rather than planned. Third, it does not tell us anything new about the concerns with police corruption, which in itself is problematic.
When I say that the report is a failure of imagination, I mean that in several ways. First, the report is not ambitious in its recommendations or its remit. Were it to have a wider imagination of the issues, to consider them at their core, and not react to events, it may have provided some lasting change. As it stands, it has only looked at the issues, considered a minor step change, and offered a slightly improved reform package. For example, the following seems to pass without much thought or recommendations for changing it.
Governance and oversight is generally weak, and limited proactive checks and balances take place.
Many forces and authorities appear complacent, with an “it would not happen here” mentality in evidence, especially in non-metropolitan forces. (p.10)
Another area that lacks imagination is the scope. The report looks at relationship with the media, without looking at the methods for obtaining that information. For example, although the report covers the issue of inappropriate access to information, the report it makes no mention of the hundreds of officers disciplined for inappropriate access to personal information under the DPA. In some of these cases, the information did not go to the press but went directly to criminals
Second, the report is a failure of imagination because it is about corruption within policing and fails to interview a single corrupt officer. If the report had imagination, it would have talked to those who are corrupt. The report would have found out why the officers were corrupt. For example, did they see themselves as corrupt? Did their work corrupt them? For example, officers working on drugs investigations are often rotated into other divisions to cut the temptations. If they were not corrupted by the work, did they come to the force with that pre-disposition? The report could have asked how they were able to circumvent or avoid the anti-corruption teams within the police service.
For example, the report points out that the hospitality registers that do exist are not used to keep track of such temptations.
It was extremely disappointing that we did not find more forces or authorities actively „policing‟ their hospitality registers. In the majority of cases, forces used these registers purely as a recording mechanism with little or any follow up to maximise their value. No force used their registers to flag up any „question marks‟ that may arise regarding the relationship between the donor and the recipient of the gift or hospitality. (p.12)
What about the systems allowed the corruption to take root? For example, was it that superiors tacitly accepted corruption as long as performance targets were met? In many ways, the report’s lack of imagination is that it will only deal with the symptoms and never the source of the problem.
The concern with symptom also reveals a second problem with report. The report is opportunistic in that it is dealing the symptoms of an issue, the phone hacking crisis, and it seems to consider these as the cause of the issue. Phone hacking did not create the corruption nor did it create the opportunities for corruption, it only revealed the corruption. The problem for the Metropolitan police is that the structure creates the problem. The issue is systemic. What is required is a systemic approach. For example, how are officers hired? How are they promoted? How are they monitored? What governance systems are in place? The structure of the forces needs to be considered. In the Metropolitan Police, the structure can encourage each service operates separately with different practices emerging.
Were the report planned, and not reactive, it might have had a chance to sketch the basis for reforming the Metropolitan police force. For a start, one would have to consider removing its anti-terrorist work, which is closer to national security than pure policing. As a result, practices that are suited for security services soon bleed into police work and national security becomes the powerful ethos that will excuse and allow all sorts of activity. In the same way that journalists can be corrupted by the belief that anything and everything they write is in the public interest so too do the police become corrupted by the belief that national security justifies their work.
All sorts of deprivations can be excused and allowed in the name of national security. As a result, the policing element, which is about a relationship with the community and enforcing the law, is soon overwhelmed by the amorality needed to protect and promote a state’s survival. For good reason, the security services are focused on external threats and rarely have a purely domestic role. In that regard, the Met and UK policing creates a specific vulnerability for corruption. For example, the attention not given to the phonehacking was justified because more time was required for anti-terrorism work. As long as the Met has the anti-terrorism responsibility, it will enable and allow corrupting behaviour to be tolerated for the higher law of “national survival”.
If the Metropolitan police had that responsibility removed, it would help to clarify its central aims and missions. However, this is only one part of a larger reform package that will be needed. A second major change will be the need change the divisional structure inside the force which makes it seem to be several forces and not acting as one force bound by the same rules. There are other changes that could have been planned and explored with this opportunity, but they have been squandered with an opportunistic report and not one based upon a plan with the intent to achieve and deliver reform. Instead, what will be delivered is more of the same but with a stronger exhortation to reduce corruption.
The exhortation to reduce corruption brings us to the third major flaw. The report does not tell us anything new about the corruption within the force. In itself, this is deeply disappointing. Senior officers seem unaware of it scale or its potential. For example, Lord Blair stated that any corruption within the force is limited to a few low level officers. The scale of the phone hacking crisis and the consistent reports on police corruption, in many cases involving senior officers, puts his statement in to sharp contrast.
The Metropolitan Police force can reform itself to deliver excellent policing without fear or favour. However, for it to meet that goal, it needs a plan for a reform. Reform only begins when one recognises the problem, the sources of the problem, and has the will to fix the problem. The HMIC report appears to offer remedial action that does not address the core issues of why and how corruption occurs. The report addresses the symptoms and not the causes. Until the causes are removed, the problem will remain. We can have better policing and it will come something that goes beyond the HMIC report.
- Leveson Inquiry: Journalist used Met boss’s computer (independent.co.uk)
- National News: Police chiefs ‘tried to shut probe’ (coventrytelegraph.net)
- You: Leveson inquiry: police buckled under Tory pressure, hearing told (guardian.co.uk)
- U.K. must act on police corruption, report says (vancouversun.com)
- PM: Lawrence case corruption claims must be examined (independent.co.uk)