WikiLeaks Circus Rolls On To Belmarsh

As I’ve noted before, we sure know how to treat our guests and Julian Assange had a very special one today – a trip to Woolwich Crown Court.

His heart must have soared after getting up at 3am to travel to the Belmarsh Prison complex in all its industrial glory.

And it was certainly worth it. The hearing lasted for, ooh, 10 minutes. One of the other reporters got it down as just over 12. Well, time does seem to pass more slowly here.

Undeterred, the world’s media took up every one of the 100 tickets on offer for seats in the court or a temporary building, connected via video link, outside.

Veterans of Woolwich terror cases will know being sent to the court is like being offered a cruise on the Titanic. It’s always going to end in tears and a cold bath.

True to form, those of us in the annexe were treated to court announcements over a Tannoy at full blast while the volume on the video link was set at “whispering asthmatic mouse”.

And that is not to mention the security arrangements and impressive queues which left a couple of dozen people still queuing outside while the hearing took place.

Did I say that one of the BBC reporters stood up when the judge came in – even though he was in the annexe where no-one can see?

His suitably respectful actions were met with a gale of laughter. It was a shame for him that he was sitting at the front.

Still, the silver lining is we are all back here again on February 7 for the full two-day hearing.

There will be few surprises as Assange’s QC, the inimitable Geoffrey Robertson, released his skeleton argument after the hearing.

It is on his website here.


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The News Is In The Numbers

Revelations that a police officer infiltrated a network of green activists finally gave me the opportunity today to publish a story I have been sitting on for a while now.

It turns out that Met boss Sir Paul Stephenson wants to change the law because of me. Something I have taken as an enormous compliment.

Regular readers of this blog will know I have made something out of a little-known piece of legislation known as the Accounts and Audit Regulations 2003. Section 16 to be precise.

It’s opened the door to a lot of (what I think are) exciting documents about how the Met spends its money, all £3.6bn of it.

Now, no-one really cares that Britain’s biggest force made £31,000 by selling off its old dogs, spent £90,000 clearing horse poo out of its stables or bought £158,000 worth of stamps (so to speak) in 2009-10.

But it’s quite interesting to know Royal and VIP bodyguards cost £113 million (the first time this figure has been made public) or that £1.9 million was handed over in brown envelopes to informants (ditto).

As regards Pc Mark Kennedy, it means I can reveal the Met spent almost £7 million on covert operation costs, but I have no idea whether his claim that an undercover officers costs £250,000 a year is accurate.

So that is probably why senior officers including Sir Paul think it is a good idea if the new Government amends the law.

In a letter to Home Secretary Theresa May, he said members of the public could be “confused” by the information and there are “more effective ways” of enhancing public understanding.

A year or so ago I went to a workshop hosted by Ian Readhead and other members of the Acpo information unit in Hampshire. They were very interested in the auditing information route and I certainly saw some kind of move to close the loophole coming.

And certainly the accounting officials who deal with my annual requests don’t exactly fall over themselves to make it a straight forward process.

In the same letter Sir Paul says he would like to see a fee introduced for FOI requests. This might help the force get off its yellow card from the Information Commissioner.

I’ll save commenting on that one for another day.

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Filed under FOI, Journalism, Statistics

Don’t Ask Us Guv

The judge took time out from jailing a former MP today to bollock police for daring to speak out on what would be an appropriate sentence.

Apparently a senior cop was quoted anonymously in a newspaper speculating on what David Chaytor should face for fiddling his expenses.

Judging by the discussion between his QC Jim Sturman and Mr Justice Saunders, this was serious stuff and sparked a blizzard of paperwork behind the scenes.

It was resolved with the judge sternly rebuking the police (who obviously weren’t there), saying: “It’s not appropriate for policemen to be commenting on individual sentence and I would ask them if they would good enough not to do so in this case.”

It would be a shame if this sets a precedent as asking senior detectives what they think of sentences, particularly eyebrow-raising decisions, is a staple of court reporting.

And of course, you might argue that police officers have a fairly good idea of what constitutes a reasonable result for justice.

PS: Chaytor managed to avoid most photographers at the court by arriving at 7.55am for his 10.30am hearing.

PPS: Mr Sturman has a lucrative line representing Premier League footballers – such as Joey Barton, John Terry and Joe Cole – at disciplinary hearings.

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Database Detectives

Update: Masses of coverage across national and regional press (including BBC, Mail, Express splash) made handling all those FOIs worthwhile. I’ve been asked to post them all, which may take a while…

One of the challenges in modern policing is managing the vast tide of information created during the 24-hour business of keeping people safe.

I’ve spent the last four months trying to assess the scale of data held by forces on callers.

That’s not suspects, criminals or victims. But simply people who call the police, whether via 999 or other means, to pass on information.

And the answer is a lot. It must be, because most forces said it would simply take too long to assess it all.

Obviously it’s fair enough to expect police to take your name, number and perhaps even your address. They may need to get back you.

But in some cases they will take a date of birth and ask your ethnicity too. Plus of course the details of whatever you are reporting.

It seems that many forces are also holding on to this information, which could of course be used against you should you be linked to a crime, indefinitely.

Many complained that they had so many databases – 22 in at least one case – that they would not know where to start calculating the total figure.

West Midlands Police, Britain’s second largest force, gave the most detailed answer and it make interesting reading. The key figure is the number of people who have reported a crime in the past 12 years – 1.1 million.

Would it be unreasonable to extrapolate this data for the whole country? That would create a massive figure, potentially above 10 million.

There are some caveats. These are records, not individuals. The same person may be recorded more than once, not just over a period of time in one force area but on several databases.

But it could still mean more than one in six people who have never been linked to a crime still have their details on a police database.

West Midlands table

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LONDON, December 31: Another Fascinating Blog (AFB)

Covering crime has many bonuses. The thrill of breaking news, extraordinary stories of drama and privileged access to the great and the good.

One often forgotten benefit is that the patch is not particularly PR friendly.

Yes, there is a steady stream of insurance company surveys. The favourite hauls for burglars and the most crime-ridden postcodes as well as regular indices of business theft.

But I have never been forced to keep my desk phone in a drawer to escape endless pitches from earnest account executives.

I don’t mind taking the occasional sounding though and even when the story is not one for me, I try to give some positive feedback.

The following tips are illustrated with opening paragraphs from some of the thousands of PR emails sent into the Press Association in recent months. And no, not all of them were to me.

1) Keep it simple:

“In my life I conducted many audits of listed entities. I observed that most of them comply with almost all accounting standards irrespective of their complexity. But you will be amazed to know that almost all of them violate IAS 21.”

2) Spare the American-style opening slug:

“Maidenhead, UK – Oct. 26, 2010 – SDL, (LSE:SDL) the leading provider of Global Information Management solutions, today announced the launch of SDL BeGlobal™. SDL BeGlobal delivers a central cloud platform to easily manage and deliver real-time automated translation for multilingual interactions across all forms of corporate communications.”

3) The bar for surveys is high, certainly higher than this:

“One in nine British adults still sleep with the light on because they are scared of the dark, research from leading energy company E.ON has revealed, suggesting that together these 1.9 million homes could spend £138,000 on Halloween alone by keeping a light on.”

4) Spread acronyms thinly:

“Emerson Network Power, a business of Emerson (NYSE:EMR) and the global leader in enabling Business-Critical Continuity™, today announced that its Chloride Trinergy™ UPS has been added to the Carbon Trust’s Energy Technology Product List (ETPL).”

5) Mind the adjectives:

“Please find attached details of an exciting new project taking shape at Seaford College, near Petworth, Sussex.”

6) Ditch the slang:

“Frankie Sandford officially has the peachiest bum in celebland.”

7) And last but not least, try not combine several of the above in one line:

“Paris, France. Furry Toys Tours SAS ( is a new Paris-based company and the first agency to take furry toys from across the globe on a unique journey through the beautiful city of Paris!”

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The Festive Lull

One of the country’s bigger forces told me they had six press inquiries yesterday. On busy days they sometimes have a similar number of callers waiting.

Luckily one of the calls was from a big foreign TV news network. About a taxi that had caught fire…

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Didn’t See That Coming

It is almost as if London bookie robber Jotkar Hussein knew he was going to be arrested that day as he got dressed.

It’s not the best mugshot in the world and  a shame the photographer did not see the potential comedy value and ask him to sit up straight.

But the full T-shirt, popular around the world, reads: “If you see da police – Warner Brother“.

One for the Smoking Gun’s rogues’ gallery.

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