British police and journalists agree that their cozy ties likely allowed illegal phone hacking by the country's press to go on too long, an independent investigator said Wednesday.
Elizabeth Filkin, a former Parliamentary standards chief, said a culture of confidential briefings, poor guidance from senior staff too ready to accept reporters' hospitality and a bias toward some tabloids had "caused serious harm."
Police officers should be wary of journalists who offer alcoholic drinks, make flirty advances or tempt potential sources into "late-night carousing," Filkin warned in a report, after police commissioned her to examine the issue.
"Alcohol is a fraught issue ... drinking loosens tongues, so common sense is needed," her guidelines state, warning that "some journalists do not practice abstinence."
Witnesses from both sides had told her inquiry that close links between reporters and police top brass likely lay behind the failure of early police investigations to uncover the true extent of tabloid phone hacking.
An initial police investigation led to the jailing of a reporter from the now-defunct News of The World tabloid and a private investigator in 2007, but failed to unearth the widespread interception of cell phone voice mail messages of celebrities, sporting stars, legislators and even crime victims.
Since then, London police have identified 5,795 potential phone hacking victims and launched three new inquiries into alleged criminality by the press.
Filkin's inquiry said relationships between the police, particularly senior officers, and the press had "compromised the capacity of both the police and the media to scrutinize the activities of the other."
However Filkin, who was appointed by London's Metropolitan Police to review their relationship with the press, said it would be down to a new police inquiry, not her, to say how badly that had hampered inquiries into phone hacking.
"I don't know whether it inhibited that inquiry," Filkin told reporters. "What I heard from a large number of people, both journalists and people who work at the Met, was that they feared it had."
"That was the greatest concern for me from what I heard," she said, presenting her proposed new guidelines to officers on how to handle the press.
Since the extent of tabloid phone hacking was exposed last summer, more than a dozen News of the World journalists, including former editor Andy Coulson, have been arrested.
The scandal also forced the resignations of London's top police officer, the Metropolitan Police commissioner Paul Stephenson, and assistant commissioner John Yates.
Stephenson quit in July over his links to Neil Wallis, a former News of the World executive turned PR consultant. Yates resigned amid criticism of his handling of initial investigation.
"There will be no more secret conversations, there will be no more improper contacts," said Stephenson's successor as London's top police officer, Bernard Hogan-Howe.
Hogan-Howe pledged to take up Filkin's recommendations in full, including a proposal that officers should in the future record every contact they have with reporters for potential inspection.
He insisted that the new measures would not deter would-be whistle blowers, who won't be reprimanded for legitimate attempts to publicly expose corruption.
Filkin did not discuss in detail allegations that Britain's press paid London police for information, but said claims from senior officers that only a few people were involved conflicted with accounts she had received from journalists.
Eight people, including a serving police officer and a reporter working for The Sun tabloid, have been arrested as part of an inquiry into the alleged bribes, though no one has been charged.