Police chiefs have issued secret orders telling officers to tell bosses if they know any journalists – as they would have dealings with convicted felons or extremists.
The measure is already in place in some forces and follows guidelines from the College of Policing, which sets the standards for law enforcement. This is part of anti-corruption efforts and was only discovered by accident.
The Police Inspectorate is pressuring the Metropolitan Police, the country’s largest force, to introduce the measure. The Society of Editors, representing newspapers, and crime reporters from the Crime Reporters’ Association oppose the crackdown.
A leading free speech group said it was more typical of ‘authoritarian regimes around the world than advanced democracies’.
There are fears the order could deter officers who wish to report or who do not trust their bosses to act on complaints of wrongdoing.
Ruth Smeeth, chief executive of Index on Censorship, said: “Index is increasingly concerned about the apparently growing perception within the UK police that journalists are viewed as disreputable or potentially disreputable individuals with whom agents can associate.
“Media freedom is a foundation of our democracy and the tendency to see journalists as a threat rather than an asset is something we are more used to seeing with our work in authoritarian regimes around the world rather than in advanced democracies.
Within the police, some senior officials were surprised by the measure and privately oppose it. The measure is believed to be under review and police have already put in place rules for those who hand over information in exchange for bribes.
A College of Policing spokesperson said: “Journalists have an important role to play in holding police to account and supporting the service with reporting, including calls for information.
“The public expects police to have policies in place to protect sensitive information held by police, which may include details about members of the public and police operations. This includes the obligation to declare any potential conflict of interest in order to be open and transparent, as well as to mitigate any risks that may arise.
“Advice given to police forces should not interfere with healthy police-media relations. We are working with the National Council of Chiefs of Police and others to review the guidelines and will listen very carefully to any issues raised by the media.
A spokesman for Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary and Fire and Rescue Services said: ‘We recognize the essential role journalists play in our democracy, including holding police forces to account. We make recommendations to police forces taking into account, where appropriate, relevant authorized professional practices.
The Society of Editors said: “The inclusion of journalists in a list of ‘notifiable associations’ in anti-corruption guidelines gives the mistaken impression that journalists seek to bribe or deceive and equates the profession with wrongdoing and dishonesty that journalists seek to uncover A successful working relationship between the police service and journalists is essential to the legitimacy of policing in the UK.