The first instinct of any journalist with a cracking exclusive on their hands is to let the world know about it. But chairman of the Crime Reporters’ Association, Jeff Edwards, says the most crucial lesson he has learned during his 40-year career in the crime field has been that the stories you don’t report are as important as the ones you do.
Edwards, who is chief crime correspondent on the Daily Mirror, believes that of all the 26 editors he has worked for across national newspapers alone, not one has understood the discretion needed by journalists who are working in the company of the police.
‘I don’t think one of my editors knew how much skill and deftness goes into being an effective crime reporter in terms of the delicate way things need to be done,’he says. ‘I realised that integrity and discretion in your dealings with, not ‘contacts’, but your friends and associates, are key. The things I haven’t told my bosses are as important as the big stories I have got.
‘It goes against your journalistic nature, but you play a long game. It’s a village; the Metropolitan Police has 30,000 employees, but if you are untrustworthy, duplicitous and a thoroughly bad egg you will be surprised how quickly that will get around. If you are good news and you can be ‘spoken to’ it will get around, not quite as fast, but it will get around.”
Edwards began his career straight from school on the now-defunct Leytonstone Express and Independent in East London and later moved to the Herts and Essex Observer. It was on the Newham Recorder that he first carved out his niche as a crime correspondent. Here he was given the responsibility of visiting two police stations each week and soon discovered ‘how lucrative a source of official and unofficial information and good intelligence’the police were.
Since then he has had his fair share of scoops as a result of what he calls his ‘high wire act’with the police. One of his first big breaks came on the now defunct London daily the Evening Echo when he exposed an MP arrested for spying on courting couples, but released without charge due to his status.
After six years working on the Evening News, Edwards began shifting on the News of the World. After a stint on Robert Maxwell’s short-lived London Daily News in 1987, he moved to the 1.8 million-circulation Daily Star. He describes the Star as being at that time a ‘newspaper with serious intent’but left after David Sullivan installed the ‘reviled’Michael Gabbert as editor, who ‘immediately filled the paper with pre-pubescent, topless girls”.
The People editor Wendy Henry invited Edwards to join the paper, where he broke the story that an air vice marshal in charge of planning for the Gulf war had his laptop – containing secret information – stolen.
After a spell on LWT’s Crime Monthly show, Edwards moved back to the People, and then to the Daily Mirror, where he has since covered the crime beat.
One of his most memorable exclusives there was when the flying squad foiled Britain’s biggest attempted robbery at the Swissport Cargo Warehouse at Heathrow Airport in 2004. The undercover police knew a gang was planning to hijack a security van to steal £200 million cash and bullion, but a number of planned ambushes ended in ‘stand-downs’as the gang held back.
Eventually they wrong-footed the police and got away with £2 million. Having agreed to keep quiet and ‘play the game’about what had happened, the squad promised Edwards he would get ‘the next big one”. Some eight months later, he was invited to the depot where the police finally captured the gang red-handed as they tried to make off with £80 million.
Nine years ago, Edwards was voted chairman of the Crime Reporters’ Association by its 35 members working in national newspapers and television news following the retirement of Chester Stern.
The association he calls ‘The Committee’is officially accredited by New Scotland Yard and organises meetings between crime reporters and those at the centre of policing. When there is a major news event, it is a facility for journalists to meet with police chiefs, sometimes on a non-attributable and even non-reportable basis.
‘We have a good knowledge of all things pertaining to law enforcement,’explains Edwards. ‘Questions with the head of terrorism could include how the Terrorism Act is going to be applied, how can you justify arresting this person and so on.
‘It’s about elimination; you can be corrected about things that people believe to be true but are wrong. It’s an important facility for enabling people like me to be accurate, well informed and balanced in our reporting.’
Edwards believes that being a crime reporter is one of the most difficult areas of journalism due, in part, to the importance of the stories, the sensitivities involved and judgement calls that need to be made.
‘Almost always you are dealing with things that really matter,’he says. ‘The shooting to death of an 11-year-old boy in Liverpool, a series of unsolved murders or women being trafficked for prostitution from Eastern Europe.
‘It all has consequences and ends up with people going to prison, people dying and horrific things happening. As a crime reporter we have to make judgement calls, mainly for newsdesk executives who know very little about what we do.’
Madeleine McCann coverage
Edwards describes the coverage of Madeleine McCann as a ‘festival of misreporting’on account of the conclusions many journalists have drawn about the case.
‘It is a prime example. Nothing is known; it is a one-fact story – a little girl is missing. Right across the media there has been a festival of misreporting based largely on naÃ¯ve guesswork, vacuum filling and dangerous assumption. We don’t generally emerge with much credit.
‘I get pissed off with columnists who say the parents can’t have had anything to do with it. All the murder squad people I know say ‘don’t talk to me about certain things being impossible’. There’s been a certain amount of unconscious racism here about the Portuguese police. Actually, it’s not a third world country.
‘They may not have our level of competence but they are not stupid and they are limited by their own constitution. Whatever is said about that inquiry, everything they’ve done has been driven by something such as significant inconsistencies between the McCanns and their friends.’
Despite saturation coverage of the McCann case, Edwards believes that crime stories have become less prominent in recent times in the national press. As well as the cult of celebrity, Edwards says this is because newspapers are losing the attention war with television.
He says he landed the first big story on Islamic terrorism in the UK in 2000, nine months before the attacks on the twin towers, but reveals that his former editor at the Daily Mirror, Piers Morgan, was reluctant to run the story.
A friend of Edwards working as a French secret service agent informed him that a man, who had appeared in a Daily Mail splash for living off the state, was actually a member of Osama Bin Laden’s international brigade in Afghanistan during the Russian occupation.
He was wanted for terrorism offences in Islamabad, for a bombing attack in 1993 on the Indian High Commission and wanted in his native Algeria as a member of the Armed Islamic Group. Edwards’ secret agent then came out with the ‘killer punch’giving him details of his name, his flight numbers and details from his false passport.
‘I knew this bloke was mustard, so I went to the Algerian embassy two or three times and had this peculiar ghost dance with them. They kept asking me to come back and run past them what I was saying. By the fourth time they admitted they knew all about the guy.
‘I went to [then editor] Piers Morgan and said ‘this is really serious shit’ and he asked me why it was serious shit. It was really difficult to impress on him and the other execs. It’s because of the insidious, all-powerful cult of celebrity that this was off the agenda. The news editor, Eugene Duffy, who is now our managing director, a man I could talk to, leant very heavily on Piers and eventually we splashed on it. Nine months later we were all watching the trade centre coming down and Morgan told me that day my story had been a good call. He said: ‘Now I know what you’re on about.’ I’m glad I stood my ground.’
Boom of press officers
A crime reporter for 40 years, Edwards has seen many changes in his field. As in most areas of journalism, there has been a boom in the number of press offices acting as intermediaries.
Though many in the media complain about this development, Edwards believes that for crime reporters, who know the ins and outs of law enforcement, it has had little effect.
‘It’s all about how you present yourself. Although the police have become ultra-professional, as they see it, in the way they deal with the media – installing a very slick, well-briefed press machine – in the end you can still have a dialogue with an officer directly. Police press officers deal with all sorts of media; general reporters, the specialist media, crime reporters.
‘But the only people they have real confidence in are the people who know the background thoroughly; we do it day in and day out; we know what the police have to deal with, we know the history, we know their raison d’Ãªtre.’
Edwards says that when working on a story, he will always call the police officer dealing with the case out of courtesy and ask to meet up to discuss the case. He says that although 50 per cent of the time you will be shrugged off, the other half of the time, police officers will take up the offer and he’ll end up with much more information. Only a small percentage of what he is told will eventually make a story. ‘For every story I’ve reported there have been another nine things I’ve known about that I’ve not been able to report. But this is selfish discretion rather than for altruistic reasons; it’s because it will benefit me in the long run.’