In the Plebgate affair, we saw several interconnected events that reminded us why Leveson was needed and what has changed as a result. Operation Alice upset the press. Police officers lied. Police undermined a democratically elected minister. Police appeared to conspire to thwart the democratic process and in doing so dishonoured their oath to the Queen. These did not incense the press. Instead, Operation Alice incensed the press because it revealed that they are subject to the rule of law. The police used the law (RIPA) to access a reporter’s telephone records to confirm whether an officer had contacted the reporter.
Is RIPA the bogeyman the press want us to fear?
The press have insisted that RIPA is overreaching, tyrannical, totalitarian, and the worst threat to press freedom since the Leveson Inquiry. Their response suggests they have not learned any lessons from the Leveson Inquiry. They want to determine the public interest. They do not want RIPA because that makes them subject to the law. The press seem to ignore the police acted legally and in the public interest when they conducted Operation Alice.
The new relationship between press and police
Operation Alice shows the press and the police have a new relationship. The Leveson Inquiry and the Parliamentary Inquiries embarrassed the police. These events showed that senior officers acted unethically when working with the News of the World. They placed organisational interests and personal interests above the public interest. In response, the police have made changes. Police officers have to manage their relationship withe media through revised guidance. Found here. College of Policing Guidance is found here**
Does the press subvert democracy by creating praetorian guards?
In Operation Alice, the police pursued the law even when it involved a journalist. They wanted to solve a crime that involved their officers. The Plebgate affair embarrassed them and revealed a shocking abuse of power by frontline officers. Plebgate suggested, and Operation Alice does not dispel this possibility, that police officers could stitch up a minister. In the report, we see police who will act unethically, illegally and cover it up. If such behaviour were not investigated and punished, it would destroy democracy. It would reduce politics to blackmail. Democracy would be a sham. Praetorian guards would decide who ruled. They could “stitch up” anyone they disliked and the press would help them. The police could subvert the democratic and Royal mandates.
Which is more accountable to the public? Press or Police?
The police, by executing Operation Alice, appeared to have learned from the Leveson Inquiry. They want to restore trust in their service. They want to show they follow the public interest even if it involves investigating and punishing their own officers. They will pursue the law because that is in their organisational interest. The press, by contrast, do not appear to want to restore trust in their service. They only serve the public interest as long as the public interest serves their purpose. Once it does not, as Operation revealed, they are furious and unapologetically opposed to any and all public interests that hold them to account in any way. Is such behaviour in the public interest?
**This section has been updated after a reader noticed a mistake in the text.