ACPO media chief Colette Paul: Some police are afraid of talking to journalists

Media lead for the Association of Chief Police Officers Colette Paul talks to Press Gazette editor Dominic Ponsford about how journalists and police can rebuild trust between the two professions

Chief constable of Bedfordshire Police Colette Paul begins her stint as Association of Chief Police Officers media lead at a time when relations between journalists and police officers are at something of a low ebb.

Over the last decade Press Gazette has regularly reported on complaints from journalists around the country who say that the increase in police media departments has led to officers themselves being less open with journalists.

Since the publication of the Leveson Report at the end of 2012 those complaints have undoubtedly become louder.

And the arrest of at least 64 journalists over the last three years on suspicion of crimes committed in the course of their work has not helped matters.

Sir Brian Leveson said ACPO rank officers should record all contact with journalists and suggested a press officer should be present at meetings. He also cautioned about the dangers of officers consuming alcohol with journalists.

Trust between journalists and police was dealt another below with revelations over the last month that officers have used their powers under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers to obtain the phone records of journalists who were not under suspicion of breaking the law in order to identify their sources.

I tell Paul about my experience as a local newspaper reporter 15 years ago. Whenever I was out on my patch I would drop into the police station and go through the incident book with the member of staff on the front desk to note down any matters of interest. From hanging baskets stolen on the High Street to serious crimes, I would report it all – going direct to the relevant investigating officers for more information where necessary.

If I did the same today the officer on the front desk would probably be disciplined or sacked.

I'm told that nowadays on my old patch in East Sussex all media inquiries are directed to the main Sussex Police media press office.

A bulletin of local crimes is circulated to the media, and members of the public, sporadically but is often scant on details. The service from the press office is described as hit and miss.

I put it to Paul that I would say there was nothing wrong with the old system.

“I’m sure you would,” she replies.

“Some of that worked well, when the relationships were right – however there were some issues around it. There were some issues where there were some corrupt relationships…

“As we’ve found recently with the court cases there were some people providing information for money, which I think is corrupt practice. As a police officer you should have much higher standards than that.

“We should have really good relationships with the media. The media is a really good enabler for the job we do and that’s about holding us to account when we need to be held to account but also for actually appealing for witness, getting information across the public, getting public help with crime.

“That has to be built on a good relationship with the media, but I think it’s a two-way process. It has been tricky in the last year or so but I think it’s important that we work with you and you work with us as well.

“Because I also see some very sensationalist headlines, some things that are not accurate in the media, and that’s not helpful either.

“I spoke to a journalist last night at the [police] bravery awards who said when they are criticising the police they get quite a negative reaction from the public.”

I was a little taken aback to have my utterly above-board conversations with the civilian member of staff who manned the front desk at Battle Police Station equated with some of the corrupt practices that have gone on.

But to be fair, Paul has offered a degree of openness at her own force that shows no sign of a post-Leveson chill. Some 80 video cameras were invited in to Bedford Police station for "24 Hours in Police Custody", a fly on the wall documentary series currently being aired on Channel 4.

She says: “I’ve never had a problem having a really good relationship with journalists, never have and never will. The instructions we’ve given out post Leveson have not interfered with me having a really good relationship with the media.

“I’m prepared to stand up and be counted about anything I discuss anyway…I strongly encourage our staff and people nationally to have a good relationship.”

I put it to Paul that the rise of police press offices has led to a reduction in the number of crimes being made public.

In the days when I used to go through the incident log at Battle Police Station no incident was too minor to merit a mention in the paper.

In 2006 Press Gazette reported on how one weekend in Northumbria when nothing was reported on the police media voicebank, more than 5,000 incidents including a near-fatal attack on a 74-year-old man were later revealed through a Freedom of Information request.

Paul says: “Since the cuts a number of press officers have been at receiving end of those cuts. As deputy and now as chief constable I invest in media and communications because I think its really important.

“My comms department have got a great relationship with our journalists. We are open and transparent about the bad things that happen. I must say at times it is hard to get good news out.

“We are starting now to gear our communications methods to make it easier for journalists to pick up, not long diatribes, but short and snappy updates.”

When I raise the example of Northumbria, she says – in general terms: “A lot of that is volume, time, resources, I don’t think it is that we are trying to keep things away from the press. I don’t think it’s about hiding them. It genuinely is just resources that you can apply to it.”

It is still possible for journalists to cut out the press office and speak directly to police officers?

“Senior investigating officers still have relationships with journalists. The only thing we specify is that they are honest and up-front relationships and that they are transparent.

“Leveson hasn’t changed how I deal with the media and I would say the same for a number of officers. Some people are afraid, there’s no doubt about that. There’ve been a number of people prosecuted, both journalists and police officers, and that has brought some fear.

“We shouldn’t be fearful because they should be appropriate relationships so we’ve got nothing to be afraid of.”

So how can a police officer be sure they won’t be disciplined, or sacked, for speaking to a journalist?

“The person that knows most about a subject matter, regardless of the rank or who they are, has got the right to speak about it. If it’s a local issue it might be a PCSO that has got the right to speak about it.

“All I would say is that you have got to be prepared to stand up and be counted for any conversations that you have.

“The off-the-record bit where you are not willing to stand up and be counted about what you’ve said is the difficulty.

“Have conversations with journalists, that’s not an issue. It’s about being transparent and you’ve got a policing purpose for doing it?"

Is there any understanding in the police that sometimes legitimate whistleblowers should be allowed to secretly leak information to journalists?

The Press Gazette Save Our Sources campaign has highlighted concerns that police use of surveillance powers to track down those who speak to journalists will deter sources from coming forward in the future.

“We try to have these channels that are not linked to a force. In my areas we’ve got a three force PSD [Professional Standards Department] where they can report anything – a hotline.

“The College of Policing is looking at whether people can report something into them.

"I would encourage people to go down that route.

“There’s going to be legislation to protect whistleblowers in the future. If someone’s got a genuine public interest we’ve got to respect that. We should be open and transparent enough anyway about what we do and how we do it.”

On the use of RIPA, I point out that journalists, like the police, feel a huge duty to protect their sources and that there is widespread shock this has been undermined in cases where the journalists and their sources were not found to have broken the law.

While Paul points out that she can’t comment on individual cases, she says: “The legislation is there, it can be used…It isn’t terrorism legislation it’s crime legislation. It’s got to be serious crime.

“There’s no illegal use of that legislation, what I would say is I wouldn’t be averse to the law being looked at in relation to that. Like you, we protect sources and we protect informants so I do understand why journalists would want to do that.

“We are acting within a legal framework and RIPA does give you that power to do that. If there‘s an overwhelming amount of concern around this then we would have to look at changing the legislation around it.”

Does she think the police take consideration of the Article 10 freedom of expression issues around journalists and their sources when approving RIPA surveillance requests?

“You look at the balance between all of it and you’ve got to show, one that it’s a very serious issue that you’re looking at and serious crime, you’ve got to show the proportionality of what you are doing, the necessity of what you are doing and also you’ve got to look at collateral intrusion.”

How widespread does she think police use of RIPA against journalists is?

“If you are asking my professional judgment on it I don’t think it’s used a lot in that respect. We’ll have to see the figures [from the Interception Commissioner] when they come back.

“That’s my experience as a chief and when I was deputy and assistant chief in signing off authorities.”

Has she ever authorised RIPA surveillance against a journalist?

“I haven’t”.

I point out that journalists share the same broad aims as the police in terms of serving the public and wanting to solve and prevent crime and ask Paul what she thinks can be done to improve the relationship between the two professions.

“It’s got to be from both sides. We've got to rebuild some of that trust and confidence on both sides. From a police perspective sometimes I see headlines and stuff in the press that isn’t accurate either. So you get some loss of confidence and trust from the police side of the business.

“I also acknowledge that we’ve had very good relationships in the past and I’m very keen that we get back to good relationships. But it’s got to be in an ethical context.

“In many ways it was done ethically in the past by a lot of people, it’s only some cases that have gone wrong. I think we need to get back to that…

“We need to rebuild the relationship with you but it also needs to be from the other perspective as well and that is, when you are reporting really negatively try to keep it balanced. I would ask the press to be balanced.

“At the same time we need to be getting all the good things out because it’s in all our interests that the public continue to support the police.  When you look at the public’s confidence with the police it is still incredibly high. It’s not changed over 50 or 60 years.”

According to IPSOS Mori, in 2013 some 65 per cent of Britons surveyed said they trust the police to tell the truth versus a score of 21 per cent for journalists.

Last year, Press Gazette reported how almost no police officers turned up to the annual Christmas drinks hosted by the Crime Reporters Association – presumably because they felt the hand of Leveson on them. Does Paul think they were right to stay away?

 “I think it’s more about journalists buying them drinks. There’s no guidance to say you can’t socialise.

“I think it’s disappointing if people didn’t come because it is important that we build those relationships and have good relationships.”

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