A survey by Westmorland Gazette editor Mike Glover this spring of 20 accident reports in his paper listed 16 without identification details – all from Cumbria Police. The other four, which contained identification, came from neighbouring police areas North Lancashire and North Yorkshire.
Last autumn Cumbria Chief Constable Colin Phillips sent senior press officer Mike Head to tell editors that because of human rights legislation, he felt unable to supply details of road accident victims without their permission.
In a meeting with Phillips, Glover was told the chief constable would ensure that all his officers would have training to put the question to road accident victims on whether they wanted publicity in a positive light.
"It was obvious that at the start of this year that the identity of accident victims was drying up," said Glover. "I have written to him to point out his new policy is not working. We are told by officers on the ground that they don’t have the time or the inclination to do our job for us."
Former Tory MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale Tim Collins has taken up the issue on behalf of the paper with the force, and Glover’s bosses, Newsquest chief executive Jim Brown and editorial manager Margaret Strayton, have lobbied Home Secretary Jack Straw.
"I am not hopeful," said Glover. "The wave of feeling among chief constables to be unhelpful to the press is almost unstoppable. I have a concern that the relationship between the press and police is going to decline sharply. Jack Straw says all the right things when confronted with this problem but unfortunately his chief constables appear to be taking less and less notice of him."
Head told Press Gazette that Cumbria was one of the last forces to go over to the policy – "our hand was forced by the Human Rights Act. We had resisted as long as we could."
He explained: "A lot of papers are using their journalists to go out and get this information anyway. When they do that and come back to us, we will confirm it. It is true that in some areas there may be some officers who do not co-operate with the media. That’s human nature.
"But, by and large in this force, there is a willingness to deal with the media. I have rung up people myself and I know I have put the question as positively as I can. I can’t help it when people say ‘No’."
By Jean Morgan