Freelance hopes for victory in battle for police press office to keep press informed

It’s a Sunday morning and a woman is walking along a lane in the town of Washington, near Sunderland.

A man suddenly grabs her and holds her in a bear-hug, as he struggles to undo his trousers. The woman escapes and tells police what has happened.

For many years, police have released details of such crimes to the media.

Through doing so, they hope a description of the culprit will help to catch him. If not, it at least warns other women to be on their guard.

And so, Northumbria Police released details of this crime – two weeks later.

They did the same thing with another disturbing crime which happened the night before. A man in a skeleton mask and armed with a knife terrified staff in a bookies in Gateshead.

Again, another crime you’d think the police would want to solve quickly. Again, the sort of incident you would hope they would tell the media about.

And so they did – two weeks later.

The common factor is that both crimes happened on a weekend, when Northumbria Police does not staff its press office.

I am reliably told by police contacts that, on weekends, most Superintendents and Chief Inspectors are off and the lower-ranking detectives simply do not see it as their job to talk to the media.

But, when the force spends nearly £700,000 a year on its press office and employs 11 staff, it is appalling that such gaps occur.

Struggle

I first started to realise how bad the problem was when I worked weekends at Tyne Tees TV in the late Nineties. Northumbria’s voicebank was rarely updated and it was often a struggle to fill bulletins with hard news.

Yet, the following week, details would slowly emerge of horrendous crimes that had happened on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays.

Rapes, sex attacks on children, armed robberies, people beaten close to death – all crimes that the force appeared not to want to solve with the help of the media.

When I trained on The Sheffield Star, if a crime happened, it was in the paper within 24 hours.These were the days before ‘voicebanks”, when the journalists I worked with spoke to detectives every morning.

Such training prepared me for my next job – crime reporter on The Sunderland Echo in the late Eighties and early Nineties.

Again, each morning – weekends included – I would phone around

all the stations. I prided myself on missing very little. But, sadly, the increasing reliance on voicebanks has put distance between detectives and journalists. Police officers, so often lumbered with paperwork and scared of the Data Protection Act, and human rights legislation, are often afraid of journalists.

The mentality seems to be: ‘If in doubt, give out nowt.”

I am told senior officers are obsessed with Home Office mantras about reducing the ‘fear of crime”. The logic seems to be that, if the public are not told about crimes, they will not have anything to worry about.

Glimmer of hope

When details of an horrific crime are released, it is followed by reams of quotes about how ‘rare’such offences are.

It is bad enough that police officers see it as their job to censor news. But it is appalling that so many journalists sit back and let it happen.

Since the late Nineties, I have campaigned for Northumbria Police to be more open with the media. At first, the response was: ‘It’s up to us when we release crimes.”

The arrival of a new Chief Constable three years ago provided a glimmer of hope. I had several meetings with Mike Craik, who arrived from the Met with a more enlightened attitude. He admitted the force had a culture of secrecy and vowed to change it. But, sadly, his message has been slow to filter down.

While the Monday to Friday service has improved (it would have been difficult to get any worse), there is still a major problem with weekends. As a freelance, I work most Saturdays. Yet, if you listen to the voicebank, you would think that one of Britain’s busiest forces had no crime between Friday afternoon and Monday morning.

On one weekend in 2006 the voicebank was not updated at all for nearly 72 hours.

After submitting a Freedom of Information request, I discovered there had been no fewer than 5,083 incidents – including 45 classed as ‘serious”.

These included the death of a teenage girl who fell from a tower block,a 74-year-old man beaten senseless by thugs armed with a plank, and a missing hospital patient found washed up on a beach.

None of these stories was deemed important enough to release to the media.

I voiced my anger through a story in Press Gazette, followed by more letters to the Chief Constable.

The force carried out a review of its media operations. A ‘media consultant’was brought in at a cost of £5,633.89 (the figure provided through another FoI request). Through the same request, I discovered the force spent £642,662 a year on the press office. That figure has doubtless risen in the past year.

The consultant asked a range of media outlets their opinions of the service offered by the force. I am told the report made grim reading. I could have given the same answers for the price of a cup of tea and a couple of digestive biscuits.

The head of the press office, Sue Nicholson, retired from her £60,000-a-year post last year. She was replaced by Maureen Berne who, again, talked about improving the service. And so it was frustrating to find that, after the Christmas and New Year holiday, the force released a trickle of crimes that had happened weeks earlier.

The attack on the woman in Washington and the armed robbery in Gateshead were just two examples from a long list.

And, of course, these were just the ones they bothered to tell us about at all. I felt another Freedom of Information request coming on.

I soon discovered that, from Friday, 21 December, to Wednesday, 2 January, Northumbria Police dealt with 17,261 incidents.

Warning

These included 13 very serious attacks, encompassing murder or attempted murder, and other particularly violent assaults. There were also 20 sexual offences, of which seven were rapes. Finally, there were 37 robberies and 44 arson attacks.

Yet, out of those 17,261 incidents, Northumbria Police decided the public should only be told of 27 – many of the details released a long time afterwards.

Not only is this sticking two fingers up at the media – and thus the public – it is also letting the police themselves down. What is the point of appealing for witnesses or warning the public weeks later?

One of the examples I came across a few years ago involved a boy being sexually assaulted by a man in a park. Several weeks later, another child fell victim.

Neither crime was released to the media and we only found out because a school sent letters out warning parents. I believe it is only a matter of time before the force is sued as a result of not warning the public.

The force now tells me it plans to open its press office on weekends, although it will require extra resources. Let us hope that, after all these years, this department can finally justify the near £700,000 it costs to run.

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