Belfast Telegraph

Thursday 27 November 2014

Reporter gets a police visit... for simply doing his job

It's a funny old world, as we all know, but sometimes you really do have to pinch yourself. Take, for example, the case of Gareth Davies, a reporter on the Croydon Advertiser. He was following a story about a convicted fraudster, Neelam Desai, who was suspected of swindling a large number of people through alleged holiday and dating scams.

As part of his research ahead of publication Mr Davies contacted Ms Desai at her house and via Twitter and email to put the allegations to her. To get her side of the story, in other words.

What happened next has left the world of journalism in a bit of a state of shock.

Mr Davies was approached by three Metropolitan Police officers, who served him with a harassment notice for the apparent crime of approaching Ms Desai for a comment.

The letter informed him that "harassment is a criminal offence" and that his actions had left Ms Desai feeling "intimidated and persecuted" (not as intimidated and persecuted as Ms Desai's victims I'll bet, one of whom was reportedly conned out of £35,000).

Apart from the sheer nonsense of this harassment letter, the whole darn knuckle-headed, nanny state interfering-ness of it, it is also a serious development, because it could endanger responsible journalism.

Firstly, it undermines the Editors' Code of Practice, of which Clause 1 states that journalists "must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information". A key part of taking care is to put allegations to the subject where at all possible (which means most occasions).

Secondly, it will complicate, or even tend to undermine, the defence of qualified privilege, as underpinned by the 1999 Albert Reynolds v Sunday Times case.

The pillars of Reynolds were clearly set out and two of them, distilled down, were: a) whether comment was sought from the plaintiff, and b) whether the gist of the plaintiff's story was told.

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This defence has since been replaced in England and Wales by the defence of publication on matters of public interest under the Defamation Act 2013. Controversially, Stormont is refusing to extend the Defamation Act to Northern Ireland, so I will defer to my learned friends as to just how far the Reynolds-type principles/qualified privilege currently apply here.

But I can forsee circumstances in which not being able to put an allegation to a subject, because of a harassment order or the risk of one, could be used against the journalist, particularly if the subject said he or she did not realise the seriousness of the accusations being investigated.

Reaction to the Met's move was swift and almost universally negative.

It was personified by Bob Satchwell, executive director of the Society of Editors, who said it was "a ridiculous misuse of a law originally introduced to deal with stalkers". A Metropolitan Police spokesman said the letter to Mr Davies was issued by a local safer neighbourhood team in response to a number of reports from the woman, who felt she was being harassed by the reporter.

"The officers did this to ensure that the reporter was fully aware that allegations of harassment were being made against him," the spokesman added.

The Croydon Advertiser is taking legal advice on the police move, but, in the meantime, file this one under the You Couldn't Make It Up department ... and hope no one takes the PSNI down the same route.

Soduku ....

It's humble pie time – again – over the Soduku puzzles.

On April 9, we managed to obscure part of the three puzzles with an advert.

Sincere apologies to all affected, in particular to an exasperated Stephen Davidson, who pointed out this was the THIRD Soduku cock-up in a year.

It's scant consolation, but I've been assured the page is now being "triple-checked".

@BelTelReadersEd

BTreaderseditor@gmail.com

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