Crime reporters speak out: 'Police who communicate by press release are not doing public and the service justice'

Crime reporters have spoken out about the sea-change in their relations with the police since the Leveson report was published.

Guardian crime correspondent Vikram Dodd is among those quoted in a book by former Guardian crime reporter Duncan Campbell which tells the history of crime reporting in the UK.

Dodd said: "Every time I pick up the phone to call someone, I am potentially putting them in a position of a disciplinary offence or a criminal offence.

"The cops are trawling through stuff to find who’s talking . . . It is a mistake for the police to believe that a) they are meeting their democratic duty to be accountable and b) doing the service and public justice, if all they do is try to communicate by press release and the odd press conference."

Since the Leveson report was published in November 2012 police officers have been required to officially record any contact with journalists.

A number of police officers have been convicted of selling information to journalists under Operation Elveden. And a number of other police officers have been arrested and sacked for giving information to journalists in cases where no money changed hands.

It is a far cry from the close relationships journalists once use to foster with officers.

Former Daily Mirror crime report Jeff Edwards told Campbell: "Cops talked to me because they trusted me. One of the most flattering things I’ve ever had said to me was, 'You’re as well known for what you don’t write as what you do write.'

"It was a question of, 'I’ll tell you anything you want to know, just don’t let it come back to my door.'"

Edwards said this close relationship could work well for both journalists and the police.

He used the example of former chief constable of Manchester Police, the late Mike Todd, who once asked Edwards for help after the force accidentally released a man involved in organised crime who was understood to carry a gun.

Todd reportedly told Edwards: "He thinks we’ve arranged to have him released so we can bump him off. Can you write a story about this – dangerous man released in a cock-up – we want him to know that it’s a cock-up and we are not intending to shoot
him. What I am trying to avoid is a bloody confrontation – I’m concerned some of my people could get shot.”

Edwards (pictured below) said: "That was agile thinking on Todd’s part. How many Chief Constables will have that kind of contact with crime reporters nowadays? They’re not allowed to.

"Will they give out their private numbers? No, they’ll think they’re going to be hacked."

Evening Standard crime reporter Justin Davenport said: "When I first started the job around twenty years ago it was accepted practice at Christmas to reward people with cases of wine or bottles of whisky.

"That would never happen now . . . The idea that detectives were always telling stories out of turn over a drink was a bit of a fallacy.

"It may have happened but more often than not you would take someone out and drink huge amounts of alcohol and never get a thing from them . . . There were often stories that you were told but asked not to run and you didn’t. That built trust between police and reporters and it helped relations."

Daily Mail journalist Stephen Wright was the paper's crime reporter for 15 years from 1996. He worked on the front-page exposure of Stephen Lawrence's killers and helped expose corrupt police commander Ali Dizaei (who was jailed in 2012).

He said: "My view is that the Metropolitan Police currently doesn’t respect journalists. I said to Leveson, I didn’t like the commissioner’s monthly briefing to crime reporters. I felt it was an attempt to control us. I thought it was a control mechanism
– keep your friends close, keep your enemies closer.

"It’s good to be respected by senior officers but to be taken seriously you mustn’t be afraid to give them a slap from time to time, when they deserve it."

Martin Brunt has been Sky News crime correspondent since 1994 and spoken about a dramatic change in the way he is received by police officers now compared with then.

"For me it was brilliant, coppers in those days were rather flattered by the attention of a TV reporter, something they hadn’t really encountered before.

"It’s changed now out of all proportion. Coppers won’t even meet me now to talk about stories."

Sun crime editor Mike Sullivan, who has been with the paper since 1990, also noted the very different atmosphere today.

Sullivan was one of 34 journalists arrested and/or charged under Operation Elveden on suspicion of paying public officials for stories. Sullivan was never charged, but 22 Sun journalists were (with only one convicted).

He said: "In the early nineties, the police weren’t these anonymous characters that they are forced to be now. You had some of the old school and you could go into certain bars around the Old Bailey and meet and drink with them at length.

"There were lawyers on the make, clerks and even the odd judge or two in the mix. Legal reports and documents flew around like confetti at the Wine Press in Fleet Street on Friday nights – nowadays a Tesco Metro. There were people who just wanted stories to get out or who just liked the craic."

Speaking about the impact of Operation Elveden on his job he said: "Almost the entire office was nicked and it became a very difficult area to operate as a crime reporter. It’s changed everything. Everything is controlled. I still get the odd story but it’s not like it used to be, although I’m sure every generation of crime reporter has probably said that."

"We'll All Be Murdered in Our Beds! The Shocking History of Crime Reporting in Britain" by Duncan Campbell is published by Elliott and Thompson, price £14.99.

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