Brick wall between police and the press

RELATIONS between police and journalists have rarely gone smoothly. Since both professions were in their infancy, they have had to work alongside each other when pressures are at their greatest.

While journalists have always pushed for as much information as possible, as quickly as possible, police for their part have always been reluctant to release details that may damage an investigation.

In recent years, forces have increased their ‘media services’budgets, with the supposed intention of meeting the increasing demands from journalists – while freeing up detectives from having to take unwanted calls.

But although there are those who see the increased power of the press officer as a bridge between the two sides, some see it as a brick wall.

Through a series of Freedom of Information requests, London-based journalist Heather Brooke recently revealed that forces in England and Wales now spend £40 million a year on PR departments – up 20 per cent in two years.

Brooke says: ‘The police are spending increasingly large amounts of their budget on PR even as their overall budgets are suffering.

‘Many forces now see it as their business not just to cut crime but to manage the public’s perception of crime. This is wrong. They have no business being in the PR racket.

PR is the business of information control.

‘Rather than provide a free flow of information, it exists to control the flow by suppression or deception, often for politically motivated goals.”

Demand

The claims are disputed by the Association of Chief Police Officers’ spokesman on media affairs, Andy Trotter, who is also Deputy Chief Constable of British Transport Police. He said: ‘Firstly, I don’t call it PR. A lot of it will be reacting to the increased volume of requests coming in from the media.

‘The media have changed. There is much more demand from the media now. It’s not just the one journalist ringing up –it’s hundreds.

‘There’s no way you could cope with the demand, and you need to make sure there is consistency in our response because journalists will be the first to complain if you give one journalist a favoured response.”

But Dorset-based freelance Paul Lashmar says: ‘According to journalists distributed across the country, there are serious problems obtaining reliable information from some police forces.

‘No one expects the police to detail every crime that takes place in the force area, but some forces are exerting greater control on releasing information especially on violent crime. Other forces are orchestrating news management or spin, while direct access to police officers becomes more difficult.”

Part of the problem is blamed on over-sensitivity to the Data Protection Act and the Human Rights Act.

Bob Satchwell, director of the Society of Editors, says: ‘Of course there are data protection issues. Of course there are human rights issues. Of course there are issues of contempt.

‘But journalists and editors are all well aware of the constraints. It should be possible to improve the flow of information notwithstanding those constraints.”

Suppressed

Another reason commonly quoted for not releasing details of crimes to the media is that forces do not want to increase the ‘fear of crime”.

But according to Brooke this could be dangerous: ‘It is not the business of police to manage their reputation or that of their area. This can lead to crime figures being suppressed or spun to give residents a false picture. In short, it puts people in danger and it hinders detection.”

Satchwell says: ‘What people are afraid of is what they don’t know, rather than what they do know. The more information you release to the media and the public, the more help you will get back.

‘If you don’t get facts and information, you get speculation and tittle tattle. Nobody dies as a result of being told information that they are entitled to.”

Clive Chamberlain, chairman of Dorset Police Federation, has been a PC for 28 years. He says: ‘Police forces across the country are employing vast numbers of people who are writing PR and putting it out.

‘There has been a growth in spin. I don’t mean lies – just putting out positive stories. It’s all about another initiative – but it isn’t news.

Negativity

‘I see it as a necessary evil. We need to be able to put stories out to counteract a lot of negativity that is around in the media. But a lot of journalists are thoroughly lazy.

‘If you write a good press release and put it out to the local media, you often see the same article appear completely unchanged in the newspaper with a journalist’s name on it.”

One method suggested for improving the release of information to the public is crime-mapping, where incidents are posted on the internet so people can find out what is happening in their area.

Satchwell says: ‘I wanted to do something similar in the Eighties but a combination of poor technology and Luddite attitudes prevented it. Sadly, these attitudes remain in some places.

‘You’d think that, with all the equipment they have now, it should not be beyond the wit of man to find the electronic solution to that.”

Comparing the UK with the US, where crime-mapping is used extensively, Lashmar says: ‘For the reporter, this means we are in the ludicrous situation that sitting by their computer in, say Macclesfield, a reporter can learn more about what has happened in Minneapolis than in their own town.”

ACPO and the Home Office are currently looking at the suggestion of crime-mapping.

Meanwhile, Lashmar, Brooke and myself are preparing a report – to be presented to the Society of Editors – that will call for steps to be taken to improve the release of information.

Lashmar says: ‘We’d be keen to hear about other journalists’ experiences with forces around the country and, in particular, any changes they would like to see.”

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