Friday, 18 April 2008

These people are sometimes allowed guns.

Back in the meatspace I'm now a journalism student, and I learnt something very interesting at hack school today:

You do not fuck with the police.

No, really.

See, if you're a journalist, you can say whatever you like as long as you can prove that it's true. And there's the catch. If the person you've got, say, a corruption story on can cast any doubt at all over the absolute truth of your claim, you're going to have to pay them a lot of money in the civil claims court. Especially if they're rich, determined and have good representation. The Metropolitan police have the best lawyers in the country, the Police Federation, and a whole lot of litigation money -so unless you have a lot of sweet, sticky DNA-flavoured evidence in your hands, you and your paper are going to be bankrupt fairly soon.

And not that the police are ever brutal, bullying, thug-like centurions with over-inflated impressions of their own personal power, but if they ever did behave in such a despicable way, it would be incredibly difficult to prove. If someone gets beaten up in the cells, you'd better have a signed and dated testimony, not to mention copies of all their medical records, or no editor will risk going to press. If someone gets arrested without provocation - you'd better have dated, traceable photos, or you're going down.

Normally the trick to get around this is simply not to name the people you're accusing. You'd say 'officers at Hackney central station' or 'A WPC from Guildford'. However, there's a sneaky catch in libel law whereby to prove that something is libellous, it doesn't have to refer to you - it only has to look as though it might. This comes from a judgement way back in 1826:

'It is not necessary that all the world should understant the libel; it is sufficient if those who know the claimant can make out that he is the person meant.'

So unless you were very careful you'd find yourself with a publicly-funded lawsuit from every single officer from Hackney central, every single WPC in Guildford. And that's a lot of lawsuits. During the 33 months to March 1996 the Police Federation fought 95 libel actions and won all of them, recovering almost two million in damages. You do not fuck with the police. You roll over, please, and you call them 'uncle'.

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