Comment: 'Don't let Leveson fallout kill off crime reporting'

Last year, a report I wrote on police media relations was raised in the House of Commons.

It was only an early day motion but it was enough to ruffle feathers with Northumbria Police.

After years of research and campaigning, I revealed Northumbria released less than one per cent of crimes to the media – despite a massive rise in spending on PR.

Even before Leveson, I had raised my fears over the gradual reduction in crimes being released by the police.

Forces are under political pressure to boost public confidence and one way to do this is to pump out positive stories, while burying the bad.

Nick Davies recently warned police force press offices may soon become ‘monopoly suppliers of information’as the fall-out from Leveson leaves police officers scared to speak to journalists without permission.

This news management could result in the media – and thus the public – being told even less of what they really need and want to know.

However, after years of banging my head off a brick wall, I have finally had a minor victory here in Northumbria.

After my research was raised in the Commons and covered by the BBC and The Guardian, I had a meeting with senior officers.

I’d had many similar meetings over the years and listened to various excuses and promises, only to see a slight improvement – before a return to the same old state of affairs.

This time was different. I sensed that the highlighting of the figures had forced them to confront what was happening.

It’d obviously be arrogant to claim too much glory but, since last year’s meeting, the quantity and speed of information coming out of Northumbria has improved significantly.

No, it’s not perfect and I doubt it ever will be. But it is better – and it appears to be long-lasting.

We are now getting many crimes released within hours, rather than days or even weeks (if we got them at all). The long weekends where the voicebank wasn’t even updated and nothing ever seemed to happen appear to be a thing of the past.

While the force must be praised for this, it demolishes their old argument that the crimes I’d highlighted had been held back for ‘operational reasons”.

I knew this was nonsense and I have been proven right. Forces can release information when they want to.

But Northumbria is just one piece of a larger picture.

Researching my dissertation on this issue, journalists across the country told me it’s a national problem.

I am currently having difficulties dealing with North Yorkshire Police. In early December I telephoned to ask for an interview with a senior detective regarding an unsolved murder.

It took one month to get a response, which was: ‘No.”

I wrote a letter to the officer and, one month later, I got a two-sentence letter back, telling me I had asked verbally and in writing (something I already knew) but he was declining my offer. No attempt to answer my questions regarding why they had refused – or why they had taken so long to refuse.

I’ve since written to the chief constable telling him that, in my opinion, such a response – or lack of response – is appalling.

But, I believe, such behaviour is partly down to the fact that so many journalists now tamely sit back and take whatever scraps their force throws to them – never questioning or challenging what they are or are not given.

If we act like mugs, we deserve to be treated accordingly.

While I have had the support of some editors, there are others whose response has been pathetic.

Privately, some have admitted they are under pressure from their bosses to ‘work in partnership’with the police.

A cynic might say that, as staffing is cut, many papers simply wouldn’t be produced if it wasn’t for the positive spin they are fed from press offices.

And who wants to bite the hand that feeds ?

A handful of newspapers across the country have monitored what crimes the police are releasing.

They have then used the Freedom of Information Act to find out what they have not been told.

Invariably, they have found that only one per cent of crimes are given to journalists – and then often late.

Other journalists across the country must challenge this appalling state of affairs.

If not, crime reporting will be slowly strangled and the fall-out from Leveson could be the final nail in the coffin.

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