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Weekly wins High Court fight after sacked PC’s false anonymity claim

A weekly newspaper has won a High Court fight to name a sacked police officer who falsely claimed he was protected by an anonymity order.

The Basingstoke Gazette has named Terry Cooke after his 10-month bid to stay secret was dismissed at the Royal Courts of Justice.

Mr Cooke, a former Hampshire Constabulary officer, and his lawyers threatened the Gazette with legal action after it sought to report his name when he was sacked from the force following a secret tribunal in April 2021.

But, after Gazette publisher Newsquest began a bid to challenge the restrictions, it emerged tribunal chair William Hansen had not placed an anonymity order on the case, as Mr Cooke had claimed.

How the Gazette covered the case this week

How the Gazette covered the case this week

Jonathan Scherbel-Ball, representing the Gazette, told the court Mr Cooke’s “repeated false representations through his solicitors that an anonymity direction had been made” had led to proceedings being launched on an entirely false basis.

He said: “Contrary to Mr Cooke’s repeated false statements, no anonymity direction had been made by [Mr Hansen].

“Mr Cooke’s conduct in relation to these proceedings constitutes an important and continuing theme; an attempt to stifle proper and legitimate reporting of his serious misconduct and the disciplinary process.”

Mr Cooke was dismissed from the force without notice after he was found to have abused his position of public trust to pursue relationships with women and victims of domestic violence he met through the course of his job, the Gazette has now reported.

Representing Mr Cooke, Darryl Hutcheon claimed his client’s insistence about an anonymity order was a “genuine mistake”.

But Jonathan Price, who represented Mr Hansen in court, said: “Mr Cooke could have been under no misapprehension. Mr Hansen’s covering email clearly summarised the orders which he had made.”

Mr Hutcheon later said that regardless of Mr Hansen’s decision, his client’s position was that it would be unfair to name him under his human rights, arguing his client was an “ordinary police constable with no particular public reputation or profile” and the story could be told “perfectly well without naming him”.

But defending the Gazette’s right to name the sacked officer, Mr Scherbel-Ball said: “It is not only of significant public interest but goes to the heart of the rationale for the open justice principle.

“Permitting [the Gazette] to report fully on both sets of proceedings including Mr Cooke’s name in its role as public watchdog is consistent with the tribunal’s conclusion that his conduct was so serious that nothing short of immediate dismissal would be sufficient to maintain public confidence in the police service.”

Former Gazette editor Katie French also provided a written witness statement to the court, in which she argued the allegations against Mr Cooke were so serious that a lack of transparency could undermine public trust in the police.

She wrote: “The proven allegations and findings of the disciplinary panel in respect of Mr Cooke are clearly of the utmost seriousness and a lack of transparency and public scrutiny of cases such as this will lead to a mistrust of and lack of confidence in the police service.”

High Court judge Justice Naomi Ellenbogen rejected Mr Cooke’s bid for anonymity, which he had applied for as part of the proceedings in January.

Delivering her judgment on Monday, she said: “Open justice is a fundamental principle of the common law. Its justification is the ‘value of public scrutiny as the guarantor of the quality of justice’ and ‘its significance has, if anything, increased in an age which attached growing importance to the public accountability of public officers and institutions and to the availability of information about the performance of their functions.”

“Anonymised reporting of issues of legitimate public concern are less likely to interest the public and therefore, to provoke discussion.

“In this case, Mr Cooke’s identity is not wholly marginal or peripheral to the public interest in reporting proceedings… the officer has been publicly commended for other aspects of his work and has been a serving officer in his community for approximately 20 years, there is sufficient public interest in identifying him.

“In relation to the acts of serious misconduct committed in the context of his professional activities, I find that Mr Cooke has no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

The judge found Mr Cooke had behaved “improperly” and ordered him to pay legal costs, including those of Newsquest, on an indemnity basis in view of his “unreasonable” behaviour.

Newsquest head of legal Simon Westrop and Jaffa Law’s Tony Jaffa were also involved in pressing the Gazette’s case.

Speaking after the hearing, Simon said: “Police officers should be held to account in their own name when they commit wrongdoing. Statutory regulations require misconduct hearings to be held in public.

“Any attempt to suppress information about the identity of an officer is an insult to the victims of misconduct. In this case, the Basingstoke Gazette and its publisher Newsquest Media Group could not stand idly by, in spite of the risk and cost attendant on all legal action. It was an important thing to do on behalf of our readers.”

Katie described the case as a “victory for open justice”.

Speaking to HTFP, she said: I hope it will now serve as a warning to Hampshire Constabulary and police forces around the country to proceed with caution when allowing tribunals to be heard in secret, against Home Office guidelines.

“Mrs Justice Ellenbogen’s comments are clear – ex-policeman Mr Terry Cooke had no reasonable expectation of privacy. This hearing never should have happened in secret.

“The public will rightly wonder how many more of these tribunals are being held behind closed doors on weak grounds, affording officers who have abused their position anonymity and shielding them from proper scrutiny.

“Taking this case to the High Court was no easy feat. I am grateful to Newsquest’s head of legal, Simon Westrop, Tony Jaffa and his team and our advocate Johnathan Scherbel-Ball for supporting the Gazette and sticking with this case over the last ten months.”

A spokesperson for Penningtons Manches Cooper, the firm which represented Mr Cooke, said: “We recognise and support the important role that the press plays as the public’s watchdog for matters such as police misconduct proceedings, and the public interest in the responsible reporting of the same.

“However, it is not an unfettered right and there are sometimes compelling individual factors which mean that right should be restricted.”