Sunday, July 19, 2015

British cops ruled to have behaved wrongly over harassment of whistleblowing journalist

Police and prosecutors were wrong to treat a Mail on Sunday journalist as a suspect after he exposed a drug-taking doctor, the head of the Crown Prosecution Service has ruled in a major victory for press freedom.

CPS chief executive Peter Lewis said West Yorkshire Police should not have questioned the reporter under caution on suspicion of voyeurism and supplying drugs, following his investigation into shamed Dr Colin Ferrie.

Mr Lewis also admitted local staff had blundered by failing to refer the case to senior colleagues as rules required. And he pledged to remind every Chief Crown Prosecutor of how they should deal with media cases where there may be a public interest in not pressing charges.

However, last night West Yorkshire Police struck a defiant tone by claiming they were right to interview the reporter and insisting he was still under investigation.

Mr Lewis said in a letter to MoS lawyers: ‘The Director of Public Prosecutions and I are both very clear that investigative journalism in the public interest plays a vital role in a democratic society.’

Last night, the reporter, who wishes to remain anonymous, said: ‘I am glad that this letter has helped to clarify the law for the protection of investigative journalists.

‘I am sorry that the matter ended up in the hands of the police when the story was about health and safety at work and making sure Dr Ferrie’s patients were ok. I hope West Yorkshire Police will drop their investigation now.’

As this newspaper revealed last week, our award-winning journalist had carried out an investigation into Dr Ferrie, a consultant paediatric neurologist at Leeds General Infirmary, after being told he regularly took illegal drugs before going on duty.

Hidden cameras set up in a house visited by the doctor captured him snorting almost three grams of Class A cocaine with an acquaintance, along with multiple doses of the sedative GHB. Shortly after his mid-afternoon binge, Dr Ferrie went ‘on call’ to give advice about the treatment of seriously ill children.

Dr Ferrie, 52, was suspended after the story was published in January, while West Yorkshire Police arrested him and his acquaintance. He has now resigned from his job.

The MoS publishes shocking pictures and footage of NHS consultant Dr Colin Ferrie snorting cocaine while on call as a paediatric neurologist. He is suspended by the General Medical Council later that month, pending an investigation.

But earlier this month our reporter was told he was to be interviewed under caution as a suspect rather than treated as a helpful witness. During a 90-minute interview at a Leeds police station, he was accused of supplying drugs and voyeurism, even though the secret cameras did not show Dr Ferrie having sex.

The journalist, who denied the allegations, was asked: ‘The camera was installed in the bedroom . . . was that done in any way for the purpose of your own sexual gratification?’

Following the interview, the MoS’s lawyers wrote to Director of Public Prosecutions Alison Saunders to blast the ‘heavy-handed and un-co-operative’ approach to the ‘preposterous’ allegations, which would have a ‘chilling impact’ on journalism. Now it can be revealed that the CPS has admitted serious mistakes in the handling of the case.

Mr Lewis wrote back to our lawyers on Friday: ‘Cases such as these involving journalists should be referred to the CPS Special Crime Central Casework Division.

‘Had this case been referred in accordance with the guidelines, I am confident that the police would have been advised not to interview [your reporter] as a potential suspect.’

He added: ‘Clear advice has been given to West Yorkshire Police with regards to the CPS guidelines referred to above, and the public interest protection afforded to journalists in law. As a result of the issues highlighted by this case, a reminder will be circulated to all Chief Crown Prosecutors.’

Gavin Millar QC, a barrister at Matrix Chambers, said: ‘The CPS has acknowledged that the police should not have dealt with the reporter as a suspect, interviewing him under caution. This is correct and welcome.

‘But the police should have known they cannot treat investigative journalists in this way, just for doing their work. Chief constables need to ensure all police officers know this.’

Bob Satchwell of the Society of Editors added: ‘I’m very pleased the CPS has shown common sense. Sadly, we seem to be getting too many occasions when the police seem to forget the role of the media in an open and democratic society. They should certainly not be trying to get hold of their sources, hinder their investigations or question their motives.’

But last night West Yorkshire Police insisted the CPS had told them ‘the investigation would not be complete without [the reporter] being spoken to’.

A spokesman added: ‘Any interviews with people suspected of an offence will adhere to the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 which affords suspects the protection of the criminal caution and does not allow special arrangements to deviate from this, regardless of the individual’s role or standing.’

Original report here

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