Kent Police under fire over relations with local media

Ryall critical of Kent Police

Kentish Times editor Melody Ryall has launched a scathing attack on Kent Police’s relations with the county’s media in the wake of the force’s disastrous libel action against the BBC’s Donal MacIntyre.

"For years," she said in a leader, "the media, in Kent in particular, has been patronised and treated shoddily by an over-advised police force which is hellbent on monitoring and censoring every scrap of information. For too long, reporters have struggled unfairly to get information on crimes in their area, only to be drip-fed details and treated as if it was a crime itself to ask questions.

"Colleagues in the press and broadcast media I know complain relentlessly about the treatment they receive from the force’s media operation and instead of good relations an undercurrent of hostility lurks between telephone calls."

Ryall was commenting on the huge costs and £15,000 damages that MacIntyre received from Kent Police to settle his libel action.

MacIntyre’s victory had thrown up a huge question about interaction between the police and the media in the county, she wrote, explaining: "The relationship between the press and the force worked superbly in the days the journalist called into his or her local police station and spoke directly to the desk sergeant or duty inspector. These days we are expected to be told what to writeÉor else.

"For some reason, a culture has grown up within the land of press officers that they must protect the police from journalists. But when we need to get to the bones of an investigation we are herded into the sterility of the soundbite – often a response not created by the actual police officer but the information police lurking behind them."

Mark Pugash, media services manager at Kent Police, said it was Ryall’s right as editor to print her views. "But it is equally our right to say there are significant parts of it that are wrong," he continued.

"Melody Ryall is harkening back to a golden age where journalists could come in and rummage through the occurrence books and decide what they were going to do. The law simply doesn’t allow that any more. There are very clear data protection laws that prevent people’s personal details from being given out. Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be."

He said his force encouraged reporters to come into police stations but the "sad reality" was that newspapers did not have the resources to provide them.

Kent was one of the few forces which devolved responsibility for speaking to the media to the lowest possible level, whether a police constable or a civilian, he emphasised.

He suspected that behind Ryall’s comments was a past where journalists had found police officers "easy to turn over" but now they had to deal with professionals.

"Some journalists may object to this, but in 99 cases out of 100, it’s a mutually satisfactory arrangement," he stated.

By Jean Morgan

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