Editors in the North West this week took their fight to get information from the police to their readers and to their chief constables. It is believed to be the first time they have united on an issue at the same time.
In two articles published in some 40 newspapers during Local Newspaper Week, including the Manchester Evening News, the Liverpool Echo and the Bolton Evening News, they explained why they were no longer able to put full details of road accidents and crimes in their pages.
"Secrecy stinks," the chairman of the Society of Editors north-west branch, Mark Rossiter, editor-in-chief of the Bolton Evening News Group, wrote in one of the articles.
"The sad thing is that the strongest stench emanates from the corridors of those entrusted to uphold the law. Interpretation of the Human Rights Act is legitimising the secretive tendencies of certain senior police officers.
"This is a plague which, left unchecked, will sweep through our communities."
Information was being withheld by the police worried about being in breach of the Data Protection and Human Rights Acts, the articles said. Forces were misinterpreting guidelines, agreed between editors and the media advisory committee of the Association of Chief Police Officers, and clamping down on information.
Rossiter’s article appeared with another, by the society’s executive director Bob Satchwell, who is asking for an urgent review meeting of the guidelines with the chairwoman of ACPO’s media advisory committee, Elizabeth Neville.
Fifteen editors at the branch’s quarterly meeting last week decided on the collective approach after they heard that several of the region’s forces are likely to shut down information.
Some forces are already imposing restrictions which deny newspapers vital names and addresses for their reports unless the accident or crime victim gives consent.
"We do know police officers are going to victims of crime and saying ‘You don’t want the information in the local press, do you?’" said Rossiter.
Rossiter is trying to call a meeting of North West editors with chief constables. "We need them in front of us to explain their actions and their interpretation of the law," he said.
Satchwell told Press Gazette: "The forces seem to be ignoring the preamble to the ACPO guidelines, which says they are not meant to reduce the flow of information."
An ACPO spokesman said: "The set of guidelines made public at the end of last year were considerably revised to take into account the new human rights legislation and data protection. Their implementation is a matter for chief constables.
"If newspapers have a particular set of circumstances in their area then they would have to raise that with local chief constables. It is certainly not our intention that there should be any restriction on the flow of information but clearly the new legislation has made a difference to procedures.
"The effects of the human rights legislation is being tested in a number of ways and is still settling down and
I would caution people jumping to conclusions on the effects on the flow of information."
Westmorland survey, page 6
By Jean Morgan