The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR EDWARD JAMES STEARNS (sworn).

  • Your full name, please?

  • I'm Edward James Stearns.

  • Your witness statement is dated 30 March. It's signed by you under a standard statement of truth. Is this your formal evidence to the Inquiry?

  • In terms of your career, you are now the chief press officer at the renamed Directorate of Media and Communication?

  • Which used to be the Directorate of Public Affairs.

  • In fact, my job title has now changed as well to head of media.

  • I'm now head of media, which incorporates social media as well.

  • You joined the MPS in 2008. Before then you had a career in journalism. In particular, you worked at the Daily Mail between 1999 and 2006, and then you left to join a PR company and then you moved on to the MPS.

    The reason why you're here, perhaps in your own words. You're not here under compulsion, unlike some witnesses who have been served with formal statutory notices; you're here voluntarily. Can you explain why?

  • Absolutely. I felt it's important to give really a full picture of the work of the directorate that I work for, and the environment and the context that the professional press officers that work under me work in, and the challenges they face and to perhaps give that fuller picture of the entirety of our work.

  • I think your concern is, as well, that the Inquiry has received a partial picture, indeed an inaccurate picture, and sometimes evidence has been taken out of context.

  • I think the out of context, certainly, yes.

  • We'll see that as we work through your evidence, but what things in particular spring to mind?

  • I think I reference a couple of things in my statement. I think the idea that we're closing down as well is an issue, as a press office, and we are still providing information and acting in a way as open as we can within certain constraints that we have.

  • Thank you. The breadth of work of the DPA, on the internal numbering, page 3 -- I'm afraid I don't have the unique reference numbers for your statement because it arrived quite recently, but it isn't just confined to being a press office; you have much broader marketing, advertising, social media and internal communication functions?

  • Do you have the expertise to be able to advise the Commissioner on what it might be appropriate to put into the public domain? I mean, I've heard yesterday and today the suggestion that actually it was all the idea of -- well, I'm not sure now whether it was Ms Panton or Mr Wallis, that this video should be put out into the public domain, and the picture that appears to be presented is that this came rather like a bolt out of the blue to the police, who hadn't really thought of doing this, and this idea justified an exclusive demonstration of the video through the News of the World. I'd like to know whether that's part of the job of the body that you represent today, whatever it's called, and whether that's something you do or have the expertise to do or what?

  • That was before my time in the directorate, but I'd absolutely hope that I would have had -- if I was aware of that footage, that I would have thought about the possibility of putting it out into the public domain because it was something that might be of use to show the damage that that bomb may have caused, and it's certainly something that I would like to consider in my role if that had come across my desk. I'm not sure if the directorate knew with that footage, or at what stage they did, but certainly that would be something that I would at least consider and perhaps challenge officers on the possibility of getting that out there into the public domain.

  • Does your department have the relationship with the most senior officers -- I'm not suggesting you go to restaurants with them to lunch or dine with them -- that would allow the free flow of information so as to permit you to perform that function?

  • You explain in paragraph 10 of your statement that each press desk will often have different reporters who are particularly interested in their specialist area of work. So if we were just to take one particular case, namely counter-terrorism, you have expertise, do you, within the directorate to deal specifically with the sort of matter we've just been discussing; is that right?

  • I have a desk that supports the counter-terrorism command, yes.

  • I think Sarah Cheesley is the head of that desk?

  • And she's in contact with the relevant officers within specialist operations to provide the sort of information we're talking about?

  • How does it work, Mr Stearns? Does your office go out to specialist operations to ask questions about particular cases or does specialist operations come to you with information which you can then disseminate or is it a bit of both?

  • It's a bit of both, yes.

  • How do you think specialist operations is in a position to judge the sort of information which could usefully enter the public domain or not?

  • As professional press officers, through their experience and their judgment.

  • Okay. You also say in paragraph 10 that you're in a position proactively to target sections of the press, either in terms of geographical area or type of newspaper. For example, the Financial Times would be more interested in complex fraud than other newspapers, and on the other hand, certain stories have more of a tabloid appeal.

  • That's a judgment which you're, through your experience, able to come to quite readily; is that fair?

  • Paragraph 13, please. You refer to the MPS servicing nine national newspapers, eight Sundays, five national TV channels, et cetera. So the whole range of media is within your scope, as it were, and you have over 1,000 names of journalists and organisations on your database. So when you proactively provide them with information, is that through email and similar media?

  • We email and also post it on a website that the press can look at.

  • Is this website particular to the press? In other words, is it like an intranet system, or --

  • No, it's one that it's on -- that can be found, but it is directed for the press to use. We don't promote it to the public.

  • Okay. Your relationship with the media now, paragraph 15. You refer to an inbuilt tension between police and the media as they go about their respective businesses, and that's a healthy one. Does the balance between the police and the media shift over time, depending on the course of national events? How does it work? Or is it something which is always the same?

  • I think the media will want to know everything, and there are reasons why the police, operationally or for personal -- in terms of victims, well, I can't give them everything. So there is a tension and I think it's something that has probably been around for many years.

  • Have you noted any degree of frustration amongst journalists along these lines: that they would prefer to be dealing with individual police officers rather than with your directorate?

  • I think that's a matter for individual journalists and I suspect a question for them.

  • No, it isn't, with respect. When people come through to your directorate, are they constantly saying, "We'd like to speak to the officer"?

  • That can often be said, yes.

  • And do you see a value in encouraging police officers to liaise directly with journalists or not?

  • There is a value in that, yes.

  • Well, we're going to have to come on to how that's recorded or if it's recorded.

  • Yes. That's the next issue, really. The Solcara system, which others have called Spotlight. It's perhaps the newer label, but it's something that the Metropolitan Police have had for some years. The way we understand it to work is that all contact between the DPA and the media is recorded on this system; is that correct?

  • Yes. The vast majority of contact is recorded on Solcara, yes.

  • When you refer to "the vast majority", this is the vast majority of DPA contact with the media; is that right?

  • DPA contact, yes. The contact that we're aware of as the DPA will get recorded on the Solcara system.

  • The more difficult issue is what happens when police officers speak to journalists directly, either because you've put the journalists in contact with the police officer or because the journalist already knows the police officer. That, of course, happens. You're aware it happens. How often is that being recorded on the system?

  • To a large extent, we will record when the DPA has been involved in setting up a facility with an officer and is there -- will record that that has happened and taken place.

  • Is the policy now that if an officer has direct contact with a journalist, by whatever route, that officer is supposed to get in touch with you so that the matter can be recorded?

  • There's some interim guidance that is -- guidelines that are coming in that I think the Deputy and the Commissioner have spoken about, and I would expect officers to be alerting us if they are talking to journalists.

  • How often does it come to your attention that officers have been speaking to journalists and yet you didn't know about it?

  • It's not a regular occurrence.

  • When that occurs, is that a source of frustration to you or what is your reaction?

  • Sorry, so it's not always a source of frustration?

  • It depends what the outcome of that conversation is.

  • So there are occasions when you're frustrated because -- well, for what reason?

  • It may result in a story that is developing in another way that perhaps they haven't got the -- a full picture of that they have spoken about, which may be not part of their domain and that may cause problems for another officer, potentially, in a case that they're on.

  • Yes. This is the advantage, is it, of having a focal point: that you can manage what goes out, so it's complete and not partial; is that, broadly speaking, correct?

  • That is certainly a help, yes.

  • But on the other hand, you want to encourage officers speaking directly to journalists, but presumably from a position of knowledge and not partial knowledge?

  • So the trick is making sure you speak to the right policeman, and that the policeman speaks within his expertise and not outside his expertise?

  • You tell us in paragraph 17 that the DPA does routinely and proactively release what many consider to be bad news, and then you give examples of that. Does any thought go to the timing of the release of such information or do you just put it out as with and when the news arises?

  • We have to clear lines and prepare them and make sure the information we're putting out is correct, but we'll look to get it out as soon as we can in those constraints.

  • I mean, do you feel in these situations, when it's bad news about the police, that you're seeking to put the best possible interpretation on it, or do you just put it out as is?

  • There may be opportunity to put context around certain issues, but often it is -- it speaks for itself, as an item of news, really.

  • Is there, as it were, a presiding mind behind it or is it really a decision for the DPA as to how this news is presented or how does it work?

  • We work with officers when we're preparing our statements, so it will be a combined effort.

  • Thank you. In paragraph 18 you make it clear that the apparent reticence in some police officers as to the divulgence of information may be entirely justified. Can you, in your own words, please, explain that to us?

  • If an officer is working on a case and they have certain lines of inquiry, clearly they need to be very careful about -- the information on that case doesn't compromise the inquiry that they're on.

  • You say that the one function of the DPA -- I'm now on paragraph 19 -- is regularly to negotiate between cautious officers and an insatiable media -- that's a nice way of putting it -- about where the balance should be struck, giving as much information as possible in order to keep the public informed but doing so in a way that minimises impact on the criminal justice process or operational effectiveness. So you, in many ways, are the mediator, are you?

  • Yes. That can be the case, yeah.

  • At paragraph 20, you deal with the issue or the suggestion that the MPS has now withdrawn from disclosing information to the media. A lot of journalists have given that evidence to this Inquiry, that that's what has happened since the summer of last year, but you make it clear that this isn't the policy or the result of actions by the DPA. Have I correctly understood your evidence?

  • But is it something which has happened nonetheless, at least to your understanding?

  • I think I say in the next paragraph actually that I think that there has been a withdrawal perhaps from personal police contacts, and I think they're seeing what's happened and gone on around them and taken stock of that, and hopefully this process can lead to a framework where they have more confidence in taking that forward.

  • So the informal communications between police officers and journalists have dwindled in recent months. Is that something, speaking frankly, which is, in one sense, gratifying to you, because you now have greater control about the information which is entering the public domain, or is it something which you're concerned about?

  • I think there's potentially a bit of both. I wouldn't say "gratifying", but if there are officers who are still talking about areas that are not their responsibility and they don't know enough about and causing problems potentially for other investigations, I don't see that as a good thing. So if that's stopped, then that is good. If it means that there isn't an openness and transparency that some journalists would like to see, then hopefully we can come to somewhere where we can find a line through that, so that we are performing that as well.

  • Presumably, if one is looking at the period 2008 to, say, July 2011, there must have been many occasions when you, looking through the morning's press cuttings, have seen stories and you've asked yourself: "Where the hell have they got that from?", putting it bluntly. That must have arisen a lot, didn't it?

  • And still does. Your surmise must be: well, it must be an officer speaking, either authorised or semi-authorised, to a journalist? What is your thinking?

  • No, not always. The information to the journalist comes from many, many different areas, and, no, I wouldn't agree that I would always assume that it's officers, certainly not.

  • No, it's certainly not going to always be officers because we've heard of the range of sources out there, as it were, but often or indeed sometimes -- let's say sometimes -- the source will be a policeman or policewoman?

  • We're an organisation of 53,000 people and there will be occasions -- I'm sure there still will be occasions where that can happen.

  • Do you have a view about the provision of hospitality by journalists to police officers?

  • I believe that we've got a clear position where we are with that, and my view is that that's a good one, in where we're going with the guidance that the Deputy's been working on, and I think that gives us a very clear set boundary, which is a fair place to be.

  • Okay. Can we just see where you are in relation to this? Have journalists ever provided hospitality to you?

  • Is there over lunch or dinner? What sort of thing are we talking about?

  • Lunch. Never dinner. Occasionally a drink without lunch.

  • Are we talking about something which is relatively infrequent or did it happen quite often?

  • I would say on average, when I first started in 2008, perhaps for the first couple of years, around once a month, if that.

  • Do you have a view about the principle of that, whether it's a good thing or a bad thing?

  • I don't think that it means, if you are meeting a journalist, that you are going to divulge a lot of information that you shouldn't be doing. I think it's -- it was a way -- and there are several ways -- of networking and building contact with people that you are going to be dealing with in your working life.

  • Of course, this is two-way. The journalist is seeking some things from you, but you of course are seeking something from the journalist as well, namely to improve a working relationship, self-evidently, and also -- well, the by-product of that is that that may be of assistance if an important story comes out which you wish to have some control over. Have I correctly understood it?

  • At paragraph 23, you say:

    "One accusation the Inquiry has heard about is press officers lying."

    I'm not sure, to be fair, that that accusation has been made in the Inquiry. It's more along the lines that the press office puts out a certain amount of information and no more, but not that the press office actively misleads. Do you follow me?

  • And you've explained the position there. I'm going to move on to the next topic, which is taking media on operations. Can I ask you this general question: you've identified the public policy reasons why journalists might, in principle, go along on such operation, but how are legitimate privacy concerns addressed in general terms?

  • We have a form that the journalists sign. We brief them. We have press officers who go on the operations with them, who -- and they are briefed by them as well, and most journalists, to be fair, are well aware of their responsibilities.

  • Maybe one can test it in this way: that when you've read the stories as part of press cuttings which have come to you after such an operation, have you ever felt that the newspaper has gone too far in terms of possibly intruding onto the private rights of individuals or are you always content with what you read?

  • Is that a convenient moment?

  • Yes, certainly. We'll have just a few minutes.

  • (A short break)

  • Mr Stearns, paragraph 25, please, of your statement, when you refer to the media turning up on operations. The Inquiry has received quite a lot of general evidence along those lines and you make it clear it's not always owing to a tip-off within the police, and you give examples of that.

  • Are there situations where you believe that there has been a tip-off within the police?

  • I have no direct evidence of that.

  • It's really by process of elimination. Sometimes you are able to identify an alternative source, but on other indications there might not be one; would that be fair?

  • Okay. The section which deals with DPA staff and media employment. Most of this, I think, speaks for itself, Mr Stearns, and is very clear, but can I ask you this on paragraph 30, please, of your statement. You say, about eight lines down that:

    "Print journalism is, to a large extent, a youthful profession and a fairly brutal environment as one ages."

    Is that a statement which comes from your own knowledge or not?

  • I worked in newspapers and certainly it's a very hard-working environment. I work hard now, but it's a very demanding environment and -- with anti-social hours, often not particularly family-friendly, and I think once people have come out of journalism, they would see it, perhaps for personal reasons, quite hard to go back into it.

  • In what sense, though, was it a brutal environment?

  • It depends what -- I mean, there's different journalism, obviously. My own experience is print journalism. It's -- you're very -- you may be told to go from one end of the country to the next at the drop of a hat, with little consideration, perhaps, for what your personal circumstance might be. So it can be very brutal, perhaps, on your private life as well.

  • Okay. I'm sure in your present job the ethical lines aren't blurred at all; it's just a question of how much information you can put out consistent with competing public interests. But were the ethical lines ever blurred in your earlier jobs, in your view?

  • Can I ask you, please, next about leaks of information. You're fairly clear that leaks from within the MPA rarely happen. Is that a correct interpretation --

  • Within the DPA, pardon me.

  • But do you have a view as to the preponderance of leaks from within the MPS more generally?

  • We're a large organisation, so I think it would be naive to think that information isn't leaked from an organisation that is London's biggest employer. So I'm sure that it did and it will happen in the future, I'm sure.

  • Can I ask you a more general question. Particularly now, looking at the period before July of last year, did situations ever arise where journalists were giving your directorate advice as to how a story might play out in the public domain?

  • Sorry, could you clarify that for me? What, you mean that they were advising us, if they wrote the story, what the outcome of that would be? Or --

  • Well, you might have the story, but you would want to test the water with journalists as to how it would play out in the public domain if told in a certain way. Did you ever go to journalists to do that?

  • I'm not quite sure I understand. We have conversations with journalists, but I'm not quite sure I understand the nuance of that -- of what you're suggesting, sorry, Mr Jay.

  • Maybe it was overly subtle. Sometimes you would have a story -- when I say a story, it is information which you would want to enter the public domain -- but you would be concerned as to how the media might deal with the story or how the public might react to the story, so you might want to take advice both internally, because you have expertise internally, but also externally from journalists as to how a particular story might play out.

  • I can't recall an occasion where I would do that. I'm content with the professionals that work with me and the knowledge of the police officers as well that might be involved in that particular case.

  • Have you heard that police officers did used to speak to their journalist contacts to ask about their views on the presentation of material? I mean, the evidence that I've heard over the course of the last few weeks, has that caused you surprise?

  • It depends what they were talking to them about. If it was a particular operational story or bad news story, I'd be surprised if you would go to a journalist to talk that through and how that might be presented, but if they have a personal contact and relationship with a journalist, there may be occasions when they do talk about how they may be perceived in the press, but --

  • Not "may be"; apparently there were. My question is different: are you surprised that they felt it necessary to do that or appropriate to do it, when they had the team that was available to the DPA to help them in this area?

  • Media monitoring next, Mr Stearns, paragraph 34. This is dealing with some evidence we heard about an alleged system whereby reporters are graded according to whether they're favourable to the MPS or not, and you categorically say there's no such system.

  • Do you have any sort of perception, though, as to which journalists tend to write more favourable, on the one hand, or hostile on the other hand stories about the MPS?

  • I think all journalists are capable and should be capable of doing both. Journalists that I've come into contact with that deal with our press office will write both favourable and unfavourable stories and judge it on its newsworthiness.

  • You must have a perception, though, speaking to some journalists: "Well, he or she is someone who tends to write favourable stories about us, therefore I can deal with that person in a certain sort of way; on the other hand, he or she is someone who tends to be trickier." Doesn't this go through your mind on occasions or not?

  • Different journalists have different agendas and different newspapers have different areas of interest, so certainly we're aware of that as a press office, but I don't think that changes my behaviour towards them to any great extent.

  • Okay. You also make it clear in paragraph 36 that there's no formal assessment, recording or grading of media coverage.

  • Just merely the fact of such coverage is noted and it's monitored for a whole host of reasons, which you explain.

    Off the record, next. I can deal with this point quite shortly. Is this a term which, in your experience, means different things to different people?

  • Is it your view, therefore, that it's a term whose meaning should therefore be clarified, if not codefied?

  • Can you help us, please, with the issue of social media. There's a new strategy which you append to your statement, and indeed there's a new communications strategy generally, but in your own words, what are the advantages and then the disadvantages of social media, in particular Twitter and all these other forms of communication?

  • It's an opportunity to reach new audiences. There's opportunity within social media to have a conversation, and our borough Twitter sites -- certainly that is one of the top reasons why we're doing that. It's an opportunity for us to get out context around issues to the public, and ultimately it's another way of reaching the public.

  • In terms of disadvantages, you've given one case study, as it were, which is the Baby P case, and you explain what happened there. Again, that is all clearly set out. There was a risk of prejudicing the second trial, which was fortunately averted.

    Crime Reporters Association next, Mr Stearns. Do you feel that this is a sort of privileged clique or not?

  • No, I consider them more experts in their field, and they do have members that come and go and join the CRA. So in terms of a clique, no. I suppose they're privileged in that they are crime reporters and that's why they join the Association.

  • You explain -- this is where I got the date from -- in about 2005, the CRA lunches were instituted, and you explain how they worked, namely on a rotating basis. I think the Inquiry has received evidence that those lunches have now ceased; is that right?

  • I believe they have, but actually within the Inquiry, that's where I heard that that had been a formal decision. But it's -- certainly they haven't taken part for, I think, a year or so, but they were organised by my specialist operations press desk and I think it's probably about a year or so that they haven't happened.

  • Then, Mr Stearns, finally you deal with two particular matters of concern in relation to Mr O'Neill's evidence. This is on the internal numbering page 25 of your statement.

  • Can I just understand the concern as regards the first case, which was the conviction for assault. What Mr O'Neill said -- this is paragraph 63 -- is that the press release didn't say that the officer had pulled a 14-year-old boy from a car and head-butted him. Can I just understand what you're saying about that? Are you saying that that matter was covered in the IPCC press release?

  • Were you aware that they were putting out a press release, so for that reason the MPS press release didn't cover it? Is that what you're saying?

  • Yes, and we also -- when the IPCC are involved in a case that we're putting some lines out on, we'll say, "Refer to the IPCC as well."

  • All right. In this particular case, did your press release refer to the fact that the IPCC had put out their own press release?

  • From memory, it did, yes.

  • I understand the point. Then the second point was -- you deal with this in paragraph 66 of your statement, involving a particular case. Again, I think that case is probably self-explanatory and I don't think we need deal with that specifically.

    Can I deal with one perhaps general point in paragraph 68 of your statement. You say:

    "Since the summer, we have introduced a requirement for any briefings with the media that DPA staff attend or are involved in to be recorded."

    I think you touched on this earlier, but does that requirement also cover police officers more generally?

  • I believe the management board, they are recording their contact with police -- with the press, and the guidance that is coming out that the Deputy is working on, the interim policy, is also going to -- is covering that. I believe it's been shown to the Inquiry.

  • Just let me understand. That means recorded so that every word is spoken is recorded or recorded in the sense that it is noted that the meeting took place, the general subject matter was X?

  • Yes, noted that the meeting too many place and general subject matter. Certainly not a full note of the meeting.

  • So we should really say "noted", rather than "recorded"? I mean, "recorded" suggesting you have a tape recorder, but you haven't. Is that right?

  • On some occasions we will have a tape recorder when we are facilitating a press interview, but certainly we are not keeping that for the purposes of that record. It is a note that the meeting has taken place.

  • Is the general thinking this: that everything should filter back to the DPA, the DPA has this Solcara system, so all contact between the MPS and journalists should be noted in one shape or form? If it's DPA contact, then it's easy to do because you have control the system.

  • But if it's an officer's contact, you should be informed of that and then you can note the fact that it's occurred. Is that the thinking?

  • I think it's -- on occasions, it would be a local note. If it's a borough officer talking to his local paper on a weekly sort of catch-up, I don't see that we need the bureaucracy of bringing that to the press office and I wouldn't like to see that. I wouldn't like to see it becoming overly bureaucratic, certainly.

  • I agree with that, as long as somebody knows who is talking about what to whom. Is that right?

  • Somebody somewhere. It may be in the borough.

  • The person who has the local contact with the local newspaper is this particular neighbourhood sergeant.

  • Thank you very much, Mr Stearns.

  • Good morning, sir. The next witness is Chief Superintendent Barnett.