Filkin report comment: Journalists working closely with police did enormous public good

Elizabeth Filkin’s advice to police officers not to … ‘flirt or drink alcohol with journalists’ belongs in the Richard Littejohn ‘You couldn’t make it up’ department.

We need to see her report in the context of a disturbing decline in the information that journalists have received from the police over the past 20 years.

Police press officers are a new-ish creation. Olde  journalists like me used to deal with individual officers as a matter of routine – there wasn’t an alternative. I spent most Tuesday mornings having tea and a greasy fry-up in the Holloway police station canteen with everybody from the Chief Super to traffic wardens.

We sometimes even drank alcohol together! Shock! But only if they paid for it, of course. Some of them flirted with me … and that was just the blokes.

It was a relationship that was mutually beneficial, though occasionally turbulent, and did enormous public good. Together, we solved many crimes, and worked in partnership on some stories.

Then, in the mid-90s, many forces – Hampshire in particular – started refusing to give the media details of traffic accident victims … a measure fought by the Portsmouth News.

Then came the press officers, who gradually exercised greater control over police news. So now, in some regions, journalists are only told about crimes when police need media help. The position in Northumbria, reported last year is by no means uncommon.

Then came the Data Protection Act, which enabled the police to withhold just about anything they like from the media – often incorrectly and illegally.

After that, we had Family Liaison officers, who keep the media well away from victims, whether the victims like it or not.

And now Filkin is suggesting we ‘regulate’ what little information we have left.

The result will be something like a state-controlled police news feed.

Cleland Thom is a consultant and trainer in media law.

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