SLAPPs: Chief Constable Winward Retaliates
by TIM HICKS
The Ministry of Justice (MoJ) is investigating the increasing use of a form of litigation known collectively as SLAPPs – Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation – against journalists.
The term SLAPP is used to describe abusive legal actions taken with the intention or effect of stifling debate on matters of public interest.
The Ministry of Justice has invited those who have been subject to SLAPPs, or who have an interest to share their experiences and the impact on them. More information on the Ministry of Justice investigation here.
In a related development, the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) has issued ethical recommendations which categorise SLAPPs as ‘pursuing litigation for improper purposes’.
The article in the May issue of the NUJ Magazine “NUJ Branch” describes how SLAPPs are a threat to free speech in the UK. It asked for any NUJ member who had been subject to one to submit evidence on it to the Ministry of Justice.
NYE journalists have been subjected to SLAPPs by Scarborough Borough Council and twice by North Yorkshire Police (NYP). All three processes were abusive and without any substance. But because the litigants were backed up by unlimited public funds – essentially making them super-rich individuals in legal terms – we were unable to fully defend the actions in court. Had we done so, we would probably have won, but been bankrupted in the process.
In accordance with the NUJ request, I submitted evidence on the NYP and SBC SLAPPs and on the 19th of May I notified SBC and Chief Constable Winward of this by sending them a draft of an article NYE Submits Evidence to Ministry of Justice.
This seems to have had an impact, because four days later I received a letter purporting to be written on behalf of Chief Constable Winward. It was apparently from Ms Xanthe Tait who is a very senior lawyer, who was previously the Chief Crown Prosecutor for North Yorkshire. She now leads Evolve Legal Services, which provides legal support for NYP.
Swift Retaliation: HICKS Proscribed
The letter notified me that NYP would not respond to any of my correspondence.
This essentially proscribes me as a journalist, so far as NYP is concerned. A classic example of Lawfare to supress legitimate journalistic scrutiny and reporting.
The letter is completely unsatisfactory for what is supposed to be professional organisation acting on behalf of a public body:
- The letter is unsigned.
- The email delivering the letter did not have the name of the sender or his or her collar number in the text. Although it was sent from an NYP e mail account belonging to “Burrows Ness”, there is no indication if this is even an official letter or not. A request for confirmation that it is an official letter was ignored.
- It is grammatically incorrect “The reasoning behind the contact arrangement being imposed has being considered as part of the review”.
- It does not sate the reason for extending the proscription.
- It does not sate how long the proscription will be for.
- There is no appeal process.
- It does not reveal who took this decision. This was presumably Chief Constable Winward, who has a conflict of interest. (See below).
- The letter does mention the right to submit representations, but when I wrote to Chief Constable Winward asking for clarification, my letter was ignored, thereby denying me the opportunity of submitting representations. The implication of this being that it was just something written to appear to comply with best practice, when in fact there was no intention of considering any representations I make impartially or fairly. In which case, Ms Tait should not have held out that there was, in an official letter.
- According to the letter the review was conducted after twelve months. This is a falsehood. The review was conducted after nearly fifteen months. The normal period for a review is six months.
Given the above issues with the letter, I was shocked that a lawyer would put his or her name to it, on behalf of a public body. Had Ms Tait worked for a firm of accountants, she would have been severely reprimanded for issuing it.
Lawfare: The Public Interest Implications
Chief Constable Winward’s policy of proscribing journalists has significant implications for policing, accountability and freedom of the press.
Ms Tait’s letter came out of the blue, with no warning or preamble. Given the timing, I can only conclude that Chief Constable Winward has extended the proscription indefinitely in response to me submitting evidence to the Ministry of Justice, which was critical of her and her force. It cannot be right for the police to take action against a journalist, for submitting evidence to the Ministry of Justice.
The North Yorks Enquirer is now one of the largest local media outlets in North Yorkshire. We regularly disseminate information on behalf of North Yorkshire Police and pass on any information that comes in to us. I have received a letter of commendation from North Yorkshire Police CID for assistance I provided to the Claudia Lawrence investigation. The Chief Constable’s decision to proscribe the NYE because it has criticised her, inhibits the ability of NYP to maintain public safety by obtaining access to the public through the full range of modern media.
Chief Constable Gareth Morgan who was formerly the National Police Chiefs Council Lead for Media Relations expressed concerns over this type of approach:
“The media also play a vital role in holding the police service to account and in connecting us with the public – this includes highlighting when things may have gone wrong or where policing is under legitimate scrutiny. The relationship should also therefore be challenging and we need to recognise the role the media discharge on behalf of the public in ensuring that we are accountable. The responsibility to be open, transparent and accountable is part of the Code of Ethics and sits with everybody in policing.
I am aware of no other Chief Constable who pursues a similar policy. It is particularly concerning that this is part of an ongoing course of conduct.
For some time the NYE has been raising the following issues about the potential misuse of public funds:
- Why were expense payments made to Deputy Chief Constable (DCC) Tim Madgwick for pursuing his private hobby activity of being a Board Member of the Special Olympics Great Britain (SOGB)?
- Why did DCC Madgwick have a day trip to Dublin paid for by expenses, for which no explanation is given and which appears to be unconnected with his police duties?
- Why were expense payments made to Ms Joanna Carter the former Chief Executive of the OPCC of £1,937.38 without disclosing what they are for?
- Why were expense payments made to Chief Constable Winward for the full cost of attending FBI National Academy Alumni Association (FBINAA) conferences in multiple European cities which were not disclosed openly on the NYP website with an itinerary and training programme, appear to be of dubious training value and include time for (variously), sightseeing, shopping, networking and banquets?
- Why Chief Constable Winward was paid expenses for staying in the Four Star Bristol Marriott Royal Hotel from Friday 22nd September 2017 to attend an FBINAA conference that started on Monday the 25th of September (cost £354.48), when she should have booked one night for the 25thof September? (The current cost of a single room is £97.00).
- What the expenditure on a PFCC Uniform Badge on the 6thof August 2021 was for, given that being Commissioner is not a uniformed or warranted appointment?
- Why Chief Officer’s expenses from 2013 onwards were paid without adequate disclosure of what purpose the expenditure was for on the force website, whilst other forces in the UK give full disclosure?
- Why all Commissioner Mulligan’s expenses from 2016 onward were paid without adequate disclosure of what purpose the expenditure was for and do not comply with the Elected Local Policing Bodies (Specified Information Order) 2011 as amended?
- What was the reason Chief Constable David Jones of North Yorkshire Police visited Northern Ireland in September 2014 and why was it charged to NYP through his expenses?
- What was the reason Chief Constable David Jones of North Yorkshire Police visited Northern Ireland on the 9thand 10th of May 2017 and why was it charged to NYP through his expenses?
- Why were Police funds paid to a Conservative politician to finance a SLAPP legal action against NYE journalists (Operation HYSON) when this was not authorised by a Decision Notice?
- Why PFCC Mulligan, Chief Constable Jones and Chief Executive Carter authorised hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on a SLAPP legal action against NYE journalists (Operation HYSON) for criticising North Yorkshire Police over its failure to arrest Jimmy Savile and Peter Jaconelli?
- Why PFCC Mulligan, Chief Constable Jones and Chief Executive Carter authorised hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on a SLAPP legal action against NYE journalists (Operation HYSON), when both Ms Carter and Chief Constable Jones had conflicts of interest in this decision which they did not declare?
- Why PFCC Mulligan, Chief Constable Jones and Chief Executive Carter authorised hundreds of thousands of pounds to be spent on a SLAPP legal action against NYE journalists (Operation HYSON) on behalf of individuals unconnected with the police, who had locked an old age pensioner and World War 2 veteran out of her home while she was ill abroad. Then tried to sell it from under her and keep the funds for themselves? (In my view an offence of fraud by abuse of position).
Obviously it is much easier for the Chief Constable to proscribe the NYE, than respond openly to resolve the above issues. She obviously resents journalistic scrutiny, but if public funds have not been abused, why can’t she just respond openly to the above questions? Her failure to respond openly serves only to cause the enquiries of which she complains.
Returning to the Ministry of Justice investigation, The comments of the NUJ’s General Secretary Michelle Stanistreet are highly relevant to Chief Constable Winward:
“The NUJ warmly welcomes the commitment by the government to tackle the scourge that is the deployment of SLAPPs and other forms of lawfare cynically designed to stymie journalistic investigations and reporting…..”
[My highlighting in bold]
Let’s hope the proposed reforms will help prevent public bodies from engaging in this type of conduct in future.
Right of Reply
Chief Constable Winward and Ms Tait were provided with an initial draft of this article and given the opportunity to comment.
If you are mentioned in this article and do not agree with the views expressed in it, or if you wish to correct any factual inaccuracy, please let me know using the firstname.lastname@example.org email address and your views and a correction will be published if appropriate.