Category Archives: BBC

Social media crimes at least 50% of front line policing? I don’t think so

UPDATE: The BBC have now amended the headline, but, as FullFact point out, there are still concerns about the accuracy of the story.

What looks like a silly and hyperbolic BBC headline about crimes on social media is getting a lot of coverage. On social media. Here I question whether it’s accurate. On social media

Trailing the always excellent Joshua Rozenberg programme Law in Action the BBC has run a story with a headline saying

Social media crimes ‘at least half’ of front-line policing

And Law in Action’s own page on the broadcast in question also says

Chief Constable Alex Marshall, head of the College of Policing…estimates that as much as half of a front-line officer’s daily workload is spent dealing with calls related to online disputes

I know the BBC has to publicise itself, and maybe the programme itself will support the assertions made, but the quotes attributed to Mr Marshall don’t do so. He says

[Reports of crime involving social media are] a real problem for people working on the front line of policing, and they deal with this every day…So in a typical day where perhaps they deal with a dozen calls, they might expect that at least half of them, whether around antisocial behaviour or abuse or threats of assault may well relate to social media, Facebook, Twitter or other forms

SO what he’s actually saying is that of the dozen or so calls that a front line officer receives a day, about half “may well” relate to social media. Now, I may be naive, but surely a front line police officer’s workload is about an awful lot more than receiving calls. Even if a call is often the precursor to further actions, Mr Marshall doesn’t suggest that the calls about social media inevitably lead to such further action. In fact, I would be amazed if they did, and, indeed, other remarks attributed to Mr Marshall and an unnamed officer suggest that many of these calls relate to obviously non-criminal matters, and the clear implication is that they will lead to no further action whatsoever.

Crimes involving or committed on social media are a serious societal and policing issue, and I am sure Law in Action itself will consider this in its usual measured and serious way, but for the BBC to suggest that the issue takes up more than half of front line policing resource seems to me to be hyperbolic and irresponsible.

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Is the BBC spying on whistleblowers?

A couple of the normal BBC-baiting newspapers report that that organisation has been “accused of spying on whistleblowers”, after a Freedom of Information request revealed that the BBC’s Investigation Service monitored emails of 30 workers last year. The Telegraph says this

raised fears that BBC management is engaged in a crack down on people it suspects of whistle-blowing about their concerns over the running of the corporation

There seems to be absolutely no evidence for this. To me it looks more like an employer intercepting communications on business systems in order to prevent or investigate potential unlawful behaviour. The law provides for this, and the paper reports that the BBC even said

The BBC Investigations Service does not target whistleblowers. The four cases of leaked information involved other matters such as the release of commercially sensitive information or the release of internal information – none of the four cases of leaked information could be considered as whistleblowing in any sense. The BBC has a clear policy protecting the right to whistleblow

The circumstances under which email communication can be intercepted by an employer are clearly prescribed by law. The much-maligned and -misunderstood Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 (RIPA) corrected the previous domestic position that workplace surveillance could not amount to an infringement of an employee’s Article 8 rights (a position criticised by the European Court of Human Rights in Halford v UK). The provisions of section 1 of RIPA create a criminal offence of unlawful interception of a communication (transmitted either by public or private telecommunications system) where the interception occurs without lawful authority. However, secondary legislation, made under RIPA, prescribes what “lawful authority” can mean within an employment context. The Telecommunications (Lawful Business Practice) (Interception of Communications) Regulations 2000 (the “LBP Regulations”) provide inter alia that interception of emails will be lawful if it is done for the purposes of preventing or detecting crime, or for the purpose of investigating or detecting the unauthorised use of that or any other telecommunication system. This can be done without consent or notification as long as the business informs users of its systems in advance (normally by way of a policy) that emails may be intercepted for relevant purposes (I wrote on this in detail in None of our business? Private emails, FOI and lawful interception (PDP FOI Journal, Nov/Dec 2011
Volume 8, Issue 2, subscription only)).

So, provided the BBC have a policy informing staff that their emails could be intercepted (and I would be amazed if they don’t) they will have done nothing wrong, and nothing that a responsible employer, and public service provider, should be blamed for doing. Do the Telegraph and the Mail think the BBC should not investigate alleged unlawful – perhaps criminal – behaviour on the part of its staff?

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The Public Interest in the Hillsborough Disaster

How could the Cabinet Office have originally decided the public interest favoured non-disclosure of information held about the Hillsborough Disaster?

On 15 December 2009 Alan Johnson, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, announced that an Independent Panel would be appointed to enable disclosure of information relating to the 1989 Hillsborough disaster, and the events which followed it. The Panel would lead to

maximum possible public disclosure of governmental and other agency documentation on the events that occurred and their aftermath

As we all know, the Panel has now published an extraordinary amount of information, with a devastating covering report. It was not the Panel’s role to apportion blame for the tragedy but the disclosure has finally led to unequivocal public and political acceptance that, in the words of the Prime Minister, and despite previous despicable insinuations or outright pronouncements to the contrary

Today’s report is black and white. The Liverpool fans “were not the cause of the disaster”.

The efforts of bereaved families and those close to them in effecting this outcome can never be overstated. But a small part was attempted to be played using the Freedom of Information Act 2000. On 23 April 2009 a BBC journalist made an FOI request to the Cabinet Office for

Copies of all briefings and other information provided to Margaret Thatcher in April 1989 relating to the Hillsborough disaster [and] Copies of minutes and any other records of meetings attended by Margaret Thatcher during April 1989 at which the Hillsborough disaster was discussed.

The request was turned down. The Cabinet Office, rather than the 20 working days permitted by law, took nine months (they’re traditionally not very good at this FOI compliance thing, you must understand) to state that the information was exempt from disclosure under sections 31(1)(a), 31(1)(b), 31(1)(g) – which deal with prejudice to law enforcement – and sections 35(1)(a), 35(1)(b) and 35(1)(d) – which deal with information relating to the formulation or development of government policy, Ministerial communications and the operation of any Ministerial private office. All of these exemptions, if engaged, required consideration whether the public interest in disclosure outweighed the public interest in maintaining the exemption. In all instances, the decision was against disclosure: the public interest did not – according to those at the Cabinet Office determining this request – favour disclosure.

On appeal the Information Commissioner disagreed. He said

 the Commissioner considers it clear that the public interest in disclosure of information relating to the Hillsborough disaster – constituting improved public knowledge and understanding of the causes of and reaction to this event (and in relation to this specific information how the Government of the day reacted) – means that the balance of the public interest favours disclosure

He did not accept the Cabinet Office’s argument that the fact that the Independent Panel had now been set up was relevant to a decision as to whether the application of the exemptions was correct

 [the Panel] did not exist at the time of the request, or within 20 working days following the receipt of the request by the public authority. This Notice concerns whether the information should have been disclosed within 20 working days from the receipt of the request, and any factor that did not apply at the time of the request is not relevant

Notwithstanding this, the BBC ultimately agreed to withdraw its request, given the imminence of the outcome of the Panel’s work. And now we know the truth.

The Prime Minister went on to say in his statement

 At the time of the Taylor Report [Margaret Thatcher] was briefed by her private secretary that the defensive and – I quote – ‘close to deceitful’ behaviour of senior South Yorkshire officers was ‘depressingly familiar’. And it is clear that the then government thought it right that the Chief Constable of South Yorkshire should resign. But… governments then and since have simply not done enough to challenge publicly the unjust and untrue narrative that sought to blame the fans.

Information Commissioner decisions requiring disclosure of Cabinet minutes, and similar information, have four times been subject to a ministerial veto to maintain secrecy. Was the initial refusal of the BBC’s FOI request for this Hillborough disaster information simply reflective of a government approach which automatically seeks to exempt any Cabinet minutes from disclosure? I rather hope so, because the alternative is that officials, and ministers, thought that the public interest did not favour disclosure of information relating to what some are calling the biggest cover-up in British history.

UPDATE

I’ve been reflecting on this. I think it’s only fair to point out that, arguably, because the Cabinet Office took so long (nine months, remember) to get round to responding to the request, by the time they did so, the Independent Panel was set up. So, by that argument, the person looking at the request never actually determined that the public interest did or did not favour disclosure, until it was clear that it was going to be published in the future. The Information Commissioner did not accept that point

This Notice concerns whether the information should have been disclosed within 20 working days from the receipt of the request, and any factor that did not apply at the time of the request is not relevant. This situation applies regardless of the lengthy delay

and was correct in law not to, but in fairness to the Cabinet Office officials, they might have handled the request differently (by the time they got round to it) if the Independent Panel, with its remit to disclose, had not been set up.

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Filed under BBC, Cabinet Office, Freedom of Information, Information Commissioner, police, Uncategorized