There’s been a lot written recently about the supposedly murky world of police-press relations. But amid the sensational tales of bribes and bungs – completely alien, I should say, to most journalists – what’s gone unremarked is just how difficult it is to get the most basic information from the cops.
Frequently, reporters trying to find out why, for example, a flock of police cars are parked up in the middle of the high street are met with, if not downright deception, then certainly obstruction and obfuscation. Inquiries go unanswered, promised return phone calls never materialise. Why?
Around ten years ago, the government made a series of changes to the way the police work, one of which was to make reducing the fear of crime part of their job description. This led to some arguably worthwhile initiatives – neighbourhood policing, for example, has done much to silence those who bemoan a lack of bobbies on the beat.
But somehow police forces up and down the land got it into their heads that the way to drive down the fear of crime was to make it as difficult as possible for the media to find out about it. Guess what? It doesn’t work.
A few years back, I was working a weekend shift on a daily newspaper in the West Midlands. Driving out to a district office on Saturday morning, I found the main underpass into the middle of town had been cordoned off by the police, who were standing guard at each end and stopping anyone from getting through.
This being a largely rural force that didn’t stretch to press officers on the weekend, a phone call was duly made to the duty sergeant, who would only tell me they were investigating ‘an incident’. Despite repeated pleas for more information, that was all he would tell me and that was what he had to report in the paper.
If he’d been trying to play down what had happened, it spectacularly backfired. Over the next 48 hours, Facebook, Twitter and – no doubt – the local pubs and clubs were filled with speculation about the so-called ‘incident’. Some particularly lurid posts claimed to have it on good authority that there had been a rape and murder. One even named the supposed victim.
Come Monday, the force were in a position to categorically assure me it was nothing of the sort, but it’s doubtful many people who’d heard the gossip over the past few days saw the filler tucked away on an inside page of the paper explaining this.
A few months earlier, during a round of early calls on a Monday morning, a different duty sergeant assured me there had been no crimes of interest to the press overnight. Minutes later, a contact called to report there had in fact been a murder. A quick call back to the officer confirmed this. It was reported on the front page later that day.
When asked why he’d neglected to mention such a serious crime, the sergeant told me: ‘You said “overnight”. This happened yesterday evening.’
Those are just a couple of examples from one police force. Others are slightly better, but similar occurences are depressingly common.
And it’s not just us journalists who thinks the system is ridiculously counterproductive. As far back as 2003, the Police Federation pointed out there was no reliable research that linked media reports to an increase in the fear of crime. No one listened, and the policy was rammed through regardless.
It seems to me this lack of fundamental information has been something of an elephant in the room at the Leveson inquiry, which in its second phase is tried to lift the lid on the relationship between the press and the police. A few regional press hands tried to kick it up the agenda, but most involved appeared more interested in a spot of Murdoch-bashing.
I think it’s high time something was done. After all, would there really be any need to pay for information if general inquiries from the media were answered in an open and honest way?