Newspaper and television editors in the North East are furious that Northumbria Police banned them from using CCTV footage and stills of two murder suspects until after they had been shown on last week’s BBC1 Crimewatch programme.
Police called journalists to a press conference to say there were pictures of Newcastle ex-con Peter Beaumont-Gowling’s suspected killers, only to insist they could not use them until after the next night’s Crimewatch.
Now editors Peter Barron of the Northern Echo, Ged Henderson of The Journal, Newcastle, and Graham Marples of Tyne Tees North East Tonight are writing to Chief Constable Crispian Strachan to express their anger and concern.
Barron told Press Gazette: "It’s using local newspapers at two levels. It’s all right to use us for bread and butter appeals which, across the country, have a major impact on crimes solved. But it’s really a kick in the teeth for local papers when they are made to stand aside to let Crimewatch have all the juicy material first."
In an Echo leader, he wrote: "While it may be in the interest of Crimewatch’s viewing figures to have exclusive footage of the suspected killers, it is not in the public’s interest. Why was this footage not released to papers and TV stations in the region where the shooting took place as soon as it was discovered? The delay may even make the difference between the killers being caught and them escaping arrest."
Henderson said: "It is difficult to see the justification for placing such an embargo on information which is not only in the public interest but may also be in the interest of public safety."
Marples plans to ask ITV heads of news to look into similar cases. It is not the first time Press Gazette has reported rows between Crimewatch and the rest of the media. Marples believes it is time for a formal policy or an agreement with the police.
He said: "They imposed two sets of embargoes which made the story effectively useless, as we could not do anything on it until after Crimewatch went out. No news organisation worth its salt would agree to that. It’s the first time I’ve considered breaking a police embargo."
Meanwhile, Crimewatch and Northumbria Police are at odds on whether the programme demands exclusivity. Police head of press Sue Nicholson denied the footage was exclusive to Crimewatch. "The local media were given the footage and stills at the same time as Crimewatch – that is not giving the programme an exclusive," she insisted, but acknowledged: "This is a practice common across the country. Crimewatch requires something that has not been broadcast or used anywhere else before it will actually give you time on the programme."
Asked how long the police had the evidence before it went out on Crimewatch, she replied: "It’s a matter for the senior investigating officer to decide when and if release is appropriate — not the media."
A spokeswoman for Crimewatch said that, as policy, it did not demand exclusive material from the police. "We do not demand anything exclusive. We do have some exclusive information sometimes. If we do, it is the police decision – we don’t ask for it."
By Jean Morgan and Julie Tomlin