Group wins fight over crime news blackout

Crime File: New format

Mid-Somerset Newspapers has won a fight to keep publishing a weekly Crime File after police withdrew access to information.

The file, started four years ago by assistant editor Michael Chamberlain, was a list of crimes committed in the areas covered by the series.

There had been an enormous response from readers objecting to the decision of Avon and Somerset Police to stop the flow of information, said editor Philip Welch.

In a meeting last Friday, the police agreed that Crime File would get the necessary details, plus information on arrests and ongoing inquiries. The column returned in its expanded format this Thursday.

Three weeks ago, Inspector Andy Jackson, head of the force’s crime reduction unit, had told the news-papers he could see no point in putting out lists of crimes "with no positive result".

He said the police only wanted to give details of crimes with possible leads. They had no objection to appeals for witnesses, but lists of crimes made people afraid and had a "negative" effect, he said.

The newspapers, which include the Wells Journal and the Mid-Somerset County Gazette, reported astonishment at the police policy from readers, including Neighbourhood Watch scheme organisers and people who had been victims of crime.

In a leader last week, Welch told readers that reporters used to visit Wells police station every week to meet crime reduction officers to gather information until the Portis-head HQ told the officers not to tell the papers about crimes "unless there was a ‘positive’ aspect from a police point of view".

He took issue with a statement to the paper by Chief Constable Stephen Pilkington, that the titles gave more space to crimes committed than to offenders arrested and prosecuted. Welch said the papers devoted far more space to arrests and prosecutions than to crimes in Crime File. He also outlined other Crime File initiatives on crime prevention advice.

The Chief Constable pointed out, however, that it had never been the force’s intention not to give details of crimes – what it hoped to do was alert people to patterns of offences, provide crime protection advice and appeal to witnesses.

Explaining there would be less crime coverage in the weeklies as a result, Welch added: "Unfortunately this will not mean there is less crime, only that the police are revealing fewer crimes." The police action attracted publicity in The Times and on BBC TV’s Points West.

Welch and Chamberlain met Jackson, two other crime reduction officers and two press officers last Friday to raise their concerns.

"We’re delighted this valuable reader service will return this week in a more comprehensive form than before," said Welch.

By Jean Morgan

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