I tweeted about an interesting article in the Guardian last week, http://bit.ly/5WmBSH . The thrust of the argument is that police forces are pumping out PR based press releases, which papers print unedited due to lack of resources. Police are therefore writing their own headlines, and not telling the public about crime. Using my newly acquired media monitoring skills, I noticed that this link had created a huge amount of interest, so I thought it might be useful to give people a personal insight into the relationship between the police and the media.
Firstly, it is right to state that society in general would be a worse place without journalists, both local and national. The role they perform in holding public authorities to account is crucial to a democracy, and as we have seen with the recent MP’s expenses debate, they can foster change on a grand scale. I would not want to live in a world where the media is supressed or controlled. Although nobody likes to be caught out or embarrassed by the media, it beats the alternative where public bodies do what they want without fear of exposure.
Although I now run the press office for West Midlands Police, I have spent most of my career as a Detective. I have investigated murders, rapes, serious violence, taken guns off the street and dismantled drug rings. I am therefore well placed to offer a rounded view on the police relationship to the media.
I have first hand experience of working with the media at the coal face with varied results. For example, I used a newspaper appeal to trace a crucial witness to a murder, and I have also found the media to be really accommodating when there are important messages that we need to get out to the public. I have also found myself on numerous occasions having fairly heated disagreements with journalists when they want to publish stories that would have a detrimental impact on live investigations.
I have always struggled with the concept of a journalist insisting they want to publish a story, when the police are telling them that doing so would make it more difficult to either arrest or convict the offender. My instincts as a police officer are all about getting the bad guy locked up, whereas journalistic instincts tend to be to get the story out before another media outlet. This is often the cause of friction between police and media.
In the time that I have been in the press office (approaching 18 months) there has been a marked change in the media world. There are many fewer journalists, and less local papers. Although the media are still an important part of our communications plans, we now place greater emphasis than before on local communications, delivered by way of officers contacts in the community, newsletters, local meetings and with web based communications. This is not because we are trying to provide less information to the public, just a recognition of the changing landscape.
One of the assertions in the Guardian article is that police do not tell people about crime. I would argue that there is more information available than ever before. If you click on this link http://bit.ly/54BEsF and type in your postcode, all of the information about crime in your neighbourhood is available at the touch of a button. Even in the halcyon days to which the reporter refers, there was never this amount of information available, so it is a little unfair to suggest we are hiding crimes. What I think the article means is that we are not giving it to journalists in the way they would like to receive it.
In my current role, I have daily conversations with a wide range of journalists. They are generally easy to get along with, and we have good relationships with most local papers. There are clearly competing demands and occasional fall outs over stories, but on the whole the relationship is positive. Often queries from journalists will make us look again at an issue and ask whether we have actually done the right thing. Where we haven’t I encourage officers to say so, and put it right. This seems to me to be a quite healthy relationship, and one that I encourage.
It is not our role to fill the newspapers with stories. We will issue a press release if there is a policing purpose behind it, for example, we want public help to identify an offender, or want to warn the public about a specific crime type which they can guard against. We will also issue press releases where there is good news to report, so that the public get a balanced view, and are not left afraid to go out at night.
The relationship between police and the media will continue to evolve. I remain optimistic that the traditions of policing and journalism can continue to co-exist for the good of everybody, and I will continue to look forward my local paper every week.