Press Complaints Commission acknowledges ‘public interest’ in Exaro investigation
By David Hencke | 3 October 2012
“There was a public interest in revealing the complainant’s former work with the police” – PCC decision
Exaro’s investigation of a former police photographer who offered cash to public officials for information has won backing from the Press Complaints Commission.
The Press watchdog dismissed a complaint from the former police photographer, Matt Sprake, that Exaro had used subterfuge to obtain material as part of the investigation.
It also dismissed a complaint that the investigation intruded into the photographer’s private life, acknowledging the “public interest” in the resulting story. Sprake is a former forensics and surveillance officer for Scotland Yard who carried out anti-terrorism duties during his 10-year police career.
Exaro exposed how Sprake’s picture agency, NewsPics, offered thousands of pounds to police officers and other public officials for information on celebrities. This was despite the current police investigation into the alleged bribing of public officials by journalists, which is seeing increasing numbers of arrests.
The offer was made explicitly on the agency’s website, although Sprake told Exaro that he had never paid any public officials for inside information.
Exaro broke the story in partnership with The Independent. Within hours of the disclosures, the website containing the offer was removed.
Sprake was immediately summoned by Lord Justice Leveson to give evidence to his inquiry into newspaper practices. The photographer defended his picture agency, although he admitted under questioning by the judge that the offer was a mistake.
He also submitted to the inquiry a statement showing that most of the agency’s surveillance work over the past two years was for The People. It carried out similar work for the News of the World before it closed in 2011.
Sprake complained to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) specifically that the story in The Independent, based on Exaro’s investigation, breached the editors’ code of conduct. He claimed that the article contained inaccuracies and intruded into his private life, and that our reporter had used subterfuge to gain information about his past career in the police.
The PCC dismissed each element of Sprake’s complaint, although it is not expected to publish its decision. Instead, it is planning to publish a brief summary of the outcome next month.
In its decision, the PCC says: “The commission could not agree that it was misleading to state, at the time of publication, that NewsPics ‘still appears to be offering four-figure sums for “scoops” through its website.’ Furthermore, the article included his position at some length, making clear that he said that he had never made such a payment and had been wanting to remove the wording from his website.”
The decision continues: “He considered that the information relating to his former employment by Scotland Yard in anti-terrorism activities was sensitive and confidential.”
But the PCC concludes: “The complainant had volunteered information about his former work with the police, including that he had been ‘looking at terrorism work’, to the journalist, whom he had taken to be a potential client, and was a stranger to him; and that the information amounted to a statement of his former occupation.
“In addition, in light of the statement published on the website, which suggested police officers contacted the company with information, and the ongoing public scrutiny and debate over the links between the police and the Press, there was a public interest in revealing the complainant’s former work with the police.”
Sprake also complained that our reporter had tricked him in a telephone conversation into revealing his past career in the police. The PCC said that Sprake was confused about the purpose of the reporter’s telephone call to him, but concludes: “The commission could not therefore agree that the reporter had engaged in misrepresentation or subterfuge.”
Asked whether he had any comment on the PCC’s findings, Sprake said: “None at all.”