Leveson Inquiry: Ex-police chief makes riots warning

Lord Stevens: "People are absolutely terrified of picking up the phone or speaking to the press in any way, shape or form"

Riots could erupt if police cut ties with journalists after the phone-hacking scandal, a former Metropolitan Police chief told the Leveson Inquiry.

Lord Stevens said not using the media to explain police actions after an incident like a police shooting could lead to "massive public disorder".

He said Scotland Yard officers had become "absolutely terrified" of speaking to the press.

Lord Stevens was the Met Commissioner between 2000 and 2005.

He told the inquiry into press standards it was vital for forces to communicate with the public as soon as possible after an incident that had the potential to increase community tensions.

"If you do not deal with that very, very quickly indeed, in terms of saying why you have been involved in a shooting or why you've done the actions you've done, then the whole thing will just escalate in a way that leads to massive public disorder," he said.

"The message must be out there as quickly as you can of why the police did what they did, and the media have to be the major part of doing that."

'Absolutely terrified'

Responding to the suggestion the Met had become reluctant to engage with the media, Robert Jay QC, counsel to the inquiry, asked: "Are you suggesting that there has been an over-reaction, that the pendulum has swung too far in one direction in relation to recent events?"

Lord Stevens replied: "What I have heard, people are absolutely terrified of picking up a phone or speaking to the press in any way, shape or form. I don't think that's healthy.

Sir Paul Condon: "I would be worried about anything which suggested that any contact between police and the media was inherently wrong"

"The press have a job to do. They deliver on occasions some outstanding work - especially investigative journalism, and sometimes there has to be a relationship between the police and the media for the right reasons."

Lord Stevens did not refer specifically to the killing of Mark Duggan in Tottenham, north London, last August, which sparked rioting across England.

The Independent Police Complaints Commission and Scotland Yard have apologised for mishandling the way they dealt with his family.

The former commissioner gave the example of the shooting of painter and decorator Harry Stanley in Hackney, east London, in September 1999 by officers who mistook a table leg he was holding in a bag for a gun.

He said: "It's very important to get down there as quickly as you can, and sometimes take a fair bit of abuse, as I certainly did in Hackney when I went down there."

Over-reaction warning

Asked about the force's inquiry into phone hacking after he had left, he said he found it "difficult to criticise" but added he hoped as commissioner he would have been "quite ruthless" in pursuing the allegations.

Scotland Yard has been widely criticised for failing to reopen the phone hacking investigation in 2009 after the Guardian published a story alleging the illegal practice was far more prevalent than previously believed.

Lord Stevens terminated a contract to write columns at the News of the World at £7,000 per article in October 2007 over concerns about the phone-hacking convictions.

"I would never have written the articles if I had known what I now know," he said.

Earlier, former Met chief Lord Condon said a "massive bureaucratic over-reaction" of police having to record all contact with the media should be avoided.

Lord Condon, Met commissioner between 1993 and 2000, told the inquiry there had to be clear rules of engagement for the police's dealings with journalists.

During his time there was a "small but significant" number of officers whose behaviour was "totally unacceptable".

He told the inquiry that accepting hospitality could be the start of a "grooming process" which leads to "inappropriate and unethical behaviour".

Lynne Owens, chief constable of Surrey Police, formerly of the Met, told the inquiry she did not want to risk meeting press in a social setting, which journalists found "slightly strange".

Responding to Robert Jay QC's comment that this was an "extremely austere approach," she said it was "entirely appropriate".

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