There have been widespread complaints from journalists of a chill in relations with the police since the 2012 Leveson report recommended greater regulation of contact with journalists.
Most recently Times editor John Witherow told Press Gazette last month: "The police really need to play a better role in communicating with the press, I think.
"As it is, our readers and all newspapers’ readers are quite ignorant about a lot of things that are going on because the police are now so secretive.
"And you find, actually, we get more access to GCHQ and MI6 than we do to the police. How’s about that? I’d have never said that a few years ago."
Two senior figures in the PR team of London's Met Police – director of media and communications Martin Fewell and head of media Ed Stearns – discussed this and other issues in a wide-ranging interview with Press Gazette.
Do they think Witherow's criticism is fair?
"No, I don’t think it’s fair, quite simply," says Fewell, who joined the Met in 2012 from being deputy editor of Channel 4 News.
"We are putting out information at a much faster, greater rate than we have before: 350 social feeds, putting out hundreds of stories digitally monthly, putting out a range of content that we’ve never put out before.”
He adds: “What it is, though – and I think maybe this is where the concern arises – it is a different kind of relationship. I wouldn’t pretend otherwise.
"It’s largely on the record, open, transparent. It is new terms of engagement between police and the media.
“It’s not the same as it used to be. And we could talk forever about why that’s happened, I think it’s pretty well documented. The fact is this is a professional organisation…
"The communication we have with the media needs to be not just transparent, it also needs to be auditable because it may get used in some kind of proceedings at some point. So we have to be really clear what we’re talking to people about.
“It’s different, and that’s a bit uncomfortable for journalists if they were used to more private, off-the-record conversations with organisations than they do get now – but that still happens."
He adds: “There’s no question that all the fuss over the last few years has affected police officers’ trust in journalists. So the whole phone-hacking process, followed by the revelation that journalists were paying police officers to access our confidential systems – that has impacted on police officers’ view of journalists.
“So whilst we want a trusting relationship, in any relationship that trust has to be earned and built."
He adds: “What I would say is… we’ve had a fantastic engagement with journalists around counter-terrorism over the past year, it’s been really brilliant. And I think we’ve had a level of engagement where the police have been explaining the complexity of some of the issues that we deal with to a depth and range that I don’t think we’ve ever done before in counter-terrorism. Because the challenge is so different and so huge.
“It can be done, but it’s a two-way relationship. And we’ve seen a great response from journalists around that. And that’s part of the process of building. But, as I say, it takes two to tango.”
Cuts to local media services
Earlier this year, Press Gazette revealed that the Met Police’s communications budget for 2014/15 was more than £10m. But Fewell and Stearns (below), a former Daily Mail night news editor, have told how recent cuts, when in place, will see its number of “news roles” reduced from 55 to 40.
In April, it emerged that Met Police press offices for North, South, East and West London would no longer be dealing with “reactive” news, instead focusing on “good news”. And in the New Year all press office roles will be brought into the central London team.
“I think our situation is analogous to where newspapers and broadcasters are,” says Fewell.
“We’ve still got, first and foremost, our traditional audience through mainstream media – newspapers and broadcast channels, still reaching the biggest number of viewers, listeners, readers through those channels.
“And yet here we’ve got new customers, if you like, for news in digital media. Be they actually the same news organisations’ websites, which largely speaking are different people to the crime reporters. Or indeed, in some cases local papers, which have effectively become websites now in a lot of cases. Or the still relatively small group citizen journalists, bloggers… who will also come in as well.
“So you have this much more diffuse group of people we’ve got to provide stuff for. We’ve still got to look after our mainstream news media – because as I say it’s really important they’re well informed about what we’re doing – but we’ve got this new, and fairly rapidly growing, bunch of people who want news for digital media, who somehow or other we’ve got to also find a way to service, and do it all with a shrinking group of people.
“It’s almost identical, I think, to the challenges certainly I faced at ITN and I think a lot of print media faces, which is keeping going and do all this new stuff as well.”
One of the priorities, they say, for the Met’s Department of Media and Communication (DMC) is keeping the 24/7 press bureau service. (In the last financial year, this line received more than 58,000 calls, although some will have come from officers rather than the media. Stearns says the average call is answered in 35 seconds and that 94 per cent are answered.)
But one area that will be affected by the DMC cuts are services available to local media.
Fewell says: “Clearly, it’s what we would regard as more straightforward stories than the stories that the bureau up here will have to deal with, which might be counter-terrorism or sensitive police investigations or high-risk stuff, if you like. And we offer a lot of support to our borough commanders doing that [talking to the local media].”
Stearns adds: “Importantly there, we’re not saying that means we’re disengaging from the local media, it means that we’re going to support the boroughs and officers to step up directly.”
Does that means more interaction between officers and the media?
Fewell says: “Well, I hope so. The boss said – the commissioner said – a couple of years ago, and this is at the core of our approach to media, that he wanted a healthy and trusted relationship with journalists.
"He said: ‘Media can help us detect crimes and make sure the public are engaged when it comes to fighting crime and holding the police to account.’
"And he set out a message that he wants officers to have an open and professional relationship with reporters… The point about that is, operational policing depends upon engaging the public in a number of different ways."
On sergeants speaking to journalists, he says: “I think a lot of them already, frankly, speak to their local media directly – they don’t particularly always need a lot of help from us. But clearly we’re not going to be able to provide as much help in the future to them, or to the local media, in quite the same way that we have historically.
“I think what we’re doing to respond to that is we have actually increased in that same process the amount of people we’ve got focusing on digital media and digital content. Because we know that the appetite from local media in particular is for great digital content, great video, great images, great stories. And the Met is blessed with having a lot of content like that.”
Stearns says the Met have been distributing more videos recently, highlighting CCTV footage released last month about a woman being punched on a bus. The story and still images featured on the front page of the Evening Standard and the video on the website.
Social media and news website
The DMC also uses both external media and it own social media channels for missing person appeals. Overall, they say, the Met has 350 social media accounts, the “bulk” being run by neighbourhood sergeants, who are “trained” but without DMC oversight, and on “hyperlocal issues”.
Has the role of the DMC changed in recent years to being more about communicating with the public as well as the press?
Stearns: “In one way. In that we now have channels that take us directly to [them] – so our Twitter and our Facebook channels and the officers’ ones take us directly to the public.
"But… we’ve still got our 24-hour, seven-day a week press bureau, which is open to the media to call us.”
Is there a priority system in the DMC where some media organisations are seen as more important than others?
Fewell: “If a newspaper journalist or a broadcast journalist rings in they’ll have a conversation with one of our press people, and they’ll ask any number of questions and try and get a line out of us, if we’ve got something more to say, in quite an exhaustive fashion.
“Digital media don’t generally have the same amount of time anyway to ring in and ask questions. And their emphasis is on speed, and a different type of content…
"If we treated everybody the same way we wouldn’t really be doing the best possible job we could.”
Do you have problems dealing with inexperienced reporters or bloggers?
Stearns: “What we do find is we’re having to educate to an extent, because we’ve taken all reactive news into the press bureau…
“And we do get quite a lot of calls from people saying, and it’s quite often local papers: ‘There’s a siren just gone past the office, can you tell us what it’s all about?’
“And we’re having to kick back a little bit because of the demands we’ve got. We want to be able to help as much as we can in the round but you’ve got to be realistic about the questions that come in.”
As well as the Met’s Twitter feeds, which Stearns describes as “very newsy”, the force also launched a new-look news website earlier this year on the MyNewsDesk platform. This was criticised by Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies in a blog for Press Gazette.
According to Stearns, the website recorded 476,945 views in November. Its most popular story, on a rape appeal in South London, attracted 34,000 views.
Should local newspapers be concerned about their readers coming to your website instead of theirs?
Stearns: “I think there’s a lot that local newspapers are concerned about. I think that local readers still want to go to their local website – we haven’t localised our website, we have got local Twitter feeds, but we haven’t localised our news website.
“So there’s some stuff that we would put out to offer that would just go to the local press that we wouldn’t necessarily publish, because it might not necessarily be of interest to a big enough group of people… We’re not trying to muscle in there on becoming hyperlocal.”
Fewell: “It would be completely the wrong strategy. What we’re doing via the MyNewsDesk service that we use is what others would call a B2B service, business to business. It’s providing the content in the best possible way for news organisations – because the bottom line is news organisations have the audience. We don’t.
“Whether it’s local or national, they’ve got the audience. So we’re trying to deliver them the right content for their different audiences and get them to use as much of it as possible. It would be absolutely mad for us to think that we could get the public to come to our website. It would just be the wrong thing to do.”
In September last year, Press Gazette was the first news organisation to report that the Met Police secretly accessed the phone records of The Sun newspaper under RIPA to find its Plebgate sources.
Since then, this website has run around 150 other stories on the subject of RIPA and the police. Press Gazette's coverage and Save Our Sources campaign in part prompted an inquiry by the Interception of Communications Commissioner's Office (IOCCO), published in February.
And in March this year, following a recommendation from IOCCO, the law was changed to prevent forces from using RIPA in this way without judicial approval.
Fewell is keen to discuss media coverage of RIPA.
"You can either keep this on the record or not – it depends what you want," he says.
"Part of that trust issue is: if police see media reporting that they feel isn’t entirely fair or gets the facts wrong then frankly that doesn’t help build trust.
“Some of the media reporting, for example, around the use of RIPA wasn’t very helpful in that respect. The frequent description of RIPA as anti-terrorism legislation, which it’s not, and when the Interception Commission produced their report on the use of RIPA they were really clear to say it was unhelpful that it was described as anti-terror legislation.
"Because as you well know it’s the same legislation that is used by all public bodies, whether it’s dealing with environmental issues or your local authority, for example, can access RIPA. And of course there have been issues about that in the past. But it’s not purely there for anti-terrorist purposes.
“Frankly, I thought some of the reporting of the Interception Commissioner’s report was also unhelpful. So a lot of it failed to mention that 80 per cent of the occasions on which the police have used RIPA are the same investigation, an investigation that was precipitated by a news organisation handing [over] details on its confidential sources to the police. It wasn’t the police rummaging around, trawling for information if you like, using RIPA.
“No, it was a news organisation saying: ‘Bang, here’s millions of emails.’ So I think that’s given journalists who have not had an opportunity to read the report in detail, to some extent, a misguided view of how police have used their powers.
“Because that report is really, really clear. It says police have not misused RIPA. I’ll give you the quote if you actually want it? ‘Police forces have not circumvented other legislation by using their powers under RIPA. Police forces have not randomly trawled communications data relating to journalists in order to identify their sources.’”
Aside from the 80 per cent of applications mentioned in the report relating to Operation Elveden, do you know how many other journalists the Met targeted?
Fewell: “I don’t know. I wouldn’t use that phrase, ‘targeting journalists’… that’s part of the language which makes police officers sit up and think: ‘Hang on, what happens in investigations is if there is… if something happens which is being investigated for criminal purposes then the police officers will go to the source of the alleged criminality.’
"Now, that may lead to a connection to a journalist. But it’s not a question of per se targeting journalists.”
The Met has declined to tell Press Gazette how many of the 82 journalists whose records were targeted under RIPA – the overall figure released by IOCCO – relate to Elveden. It has also declined to reveal how many non-Elveden requests it made in the three-year period the report covered. A Freedom of Information request to the force asking this has also been rejected, although Press Gazette is awaiting the result of an internal review.