*Maria, who recently wrote for Hacked Off, is a survivor of sexual assault. After she was interviewed about the incident by police officers, details of the assault appeared in national newspapers.
Recently, the Metropolitan Police Service finally admitted that police officers had handed details of the assault to the press. Maria’s lawyer in her case against the Met was Tamsin Allen.
Speaking about Maria’s case to Emma Ireland of Hacked Off, Tamsin Allen reveals:
Police officers may have been paid by newspapers to hand over details of Maria’s case: “It was fairly routine [that reporters would pay police for stories]”
While Allen has noticed an improvement in police behaviour since Leveson Part One, “the press still has a long way to go“
Independent regulation for the press is more important than ever: “there should be regulation … that is what journalism in this country needs, even though it has always been resisted.“
Leveson Part Two should proceed because “sunlight is the best disinfectant“
Tamsin Allen is a renowned media lawyer at Bindmans LLP, who represented Maria in her case against the Met.
She currently represents a group of women who are being sued by a musician after they made allegations of sexual assault against him.
What happened to Maria was a “huge breach of privacy”
Tamsin took on the case for Maria during a time when there was a “general awareness that police were involved in selling stories to the press or leaking stories to the press, usually for money.”
After the phone-hacking scandal, there was no shortage of cases for lawyers to take on, but Maria’s case was special as she was a victim of sexual assault and, “victims of sexual assault, by law, are protected and have been for about 30 years”. This meant that what happened to her was a huge breach of privacy.
Allen says, “it was fairly routine that crime correspondents would have arrangements with police officers and would pay them for stories so the individual police were able to get money for it and a connection for a newspaper which could be useful for them, and of course it was useful for the press as they got information [for publication] they otherwise wouldn’t be entitled to have”.
When the claim had been brought, the Metropolitan Police quickly “settled the case and did not fight it”.
This was, Allen believes, “because the police know this behaviour is damaging.” It was a case that shocked anyone that had heard about it and still does ten years later. The police knew they needed to settle this case to protect their reputation.
Little has changed
Ten years ago these corrupt practices were fairly common in the police. But how have things changed? Tamsin believes that “Leveson [part one] was very important in respect of the victims in the module which related to police behaviour… Exposing that and being criticised has made a difference”. Allen notes that she has, since Maria’s case, “not seen the police exposing the details of a victim”.
But although the police may have improved their practices in some regards, “the press still has a long way to go”.
In this case, it was the police that had, “the moral weight” of handing the information over, but the press were wrong to access it and wrong to publish it.
Maria’s trust was betrayed
There is no doubt that police & press corruption damages the criminal justice system according to Allen. “We only co-operate if we trust that the police will faithfully investigate crime and not betray victims and witnesses who entrust their secrets to them”, Allen said.
With the police passing on Maria’s information like they did, there was an evident break of trust between the public and the police. Allen said, “it is already particularly difficult for women involved in sexual assault cases because these cases are not well handled. Very few of them are reported and an even more minute proportion are successfully prosecuted to a conviction.”
The volume of complaints about police handling of assaults committed against women, including recently in relation to the Sarah Everard case, speaks to the severity of the breakdown in trust between the public and the police.
The need for Leveson Part Two and independent press regulation is as urgent as it ever has been
Although Leveson helped in some regard to the police understanding the need to keep private information safe, there is still a huge gap for improvement in the press. Leveson Part Two was supposed to help fill that gap. Allen believes, “there should be regulation… That is what journalism in this country needs even though it has always been resisted.”
With our time drawing to a close, I put it to Allen that without Leveson Part Two, parts of the press will remain unaccountable. “Sunlight is the disinfectant that is necessary”, she points out. “It is the cliché used by the press for exposing people’s lives and yet everyone seems unwilling to apply that to the press itself, which is a massive hypocrisy.”
Words by Emma Ireland – Hacked Off intern