A new initiative aimed at easing the strained relations between the police and press over the release of information on crime and accident victims has been launched by the Association of Chief Police Officers.
In a letter to all chief constables, ACPO’s media advisory group chairman, Elizabeth Neville, urges her colleagues to "do what they can" to seek consent from victims to release personal details to the press.
The letter from Neville, the chief constable of Wiltshire, follows complaints, particularly from local newspaper editors, that routine information about crashes and crimes has dried up since ACPO introduced new guidelines on naming victims in December last year.
Neville tells her colleagues that the guidelines explain the legal position Ã that the police have no rights to give out personal details of anyone involved in crimes or accidents without their consent – and comply with the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts.
But she admits: "The problem with this guidance has been its implementation. The position most police forces have long adopted, not to release details of victims of crime, is not really tenable. The decision is not one for the police to take, but the victim."
However, she says, getting police to ask victims whether they want their details released has proved difficult.
"If it is possible to introduce systems persuading police staff to ask the question, the flow of information should increase, as many victims of crime and people involved in other incidents are happy to see their names in the media," she says.
Neville urges police chiefs to get their officers "to do what they can to foster good media relations and to make information as accessible as possible. In the long run, this approach is consistent with Government thinking and will help foster public confidence in the police."
She notes that "a rubbing point" with the media is the tendency of police staff to wrongly apply the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts when refusing to give information.
She makes clear the Data Protection Act does not apply to dead people. "Giving bad or wrong reasons for withholding information is damaging and not conducive to good media relations," she says.
Neville also stresses: "Some forces take the view that the media do not have a right to information and that the provision of news stories is discretionary.
"However, it is not for the police to decide what the public have a right to know, or to try and reduce fear of crime by not giving out information about crimes that have been committed."
Society of Editors executive director Bob Satchwell has welcomed the letter.
"She is not giving us everything we want but has listened and accepted there are problems. By and large the letter is helpful and positive and something editors can use if they have problems with the police," he said.
By Jon Slattery