How did UK media's relations with police get so bad?
A move towards greater openness and accountability could be part of the process of reform and trying to restore trust in the Metropolitan Police.
By any standards the review by Baroness Casey of Blackstock into “the standards of behaviour and internal and internal culture of the Metropolitan Police” Service is excoriating.
The Met’s culture is “rotten”, it has “lost public faith” and there is institutional misogyny, racism, and homophobia.
At 360 pages, it is almost certainly the most comprehensive, and damning report into a British police force there has ever been and there was no shortage of important matters to consider.
Yet unless it is well hidden in the entrails, there seems to be one topic that is largely missing, which could also be part of the solution — the rapidly deteriorating relations between the media and many police forces across the country.
Indeed it is almost a misnomer to ever talk about “relations” between even specialist journalists and the police. There often are none with many police forces appearing to believe they have no need to co-operate with journalists any more. After all they have the social media.
The aim seem to be to give out as little information as they can get away with.
There is a small section in the final chapter of the Casey report — chapter 10 section 3: The Met’s approach to communications and community engagement.
It is however mainly about community engagement and how although the quantity of engagement is commendable “the falling levels of public trust in the Met tell a different story, and suggest that the plethora of activity around community engagement is not building trust and confidence.”
Relations are ‘getting worse’
Too much of the Met’s communication amounts to little more than “a tick-box” enterprise. The communication is usually one-way. There has been a lack of candour and too often the initial response of the Met has been plain wrong while many have criticised the Met’s Media and Communications Directorate for sticking to the official line in a bureaucratic and legalistic way.
The Met also doesn’t do context very well. Which means they were unable to handle the Clapham Common Vigil following the murder of Sarah Everard by a serving Met officer, a killing that sparked the Casey Review.
“The policing of the Vigil was undertaken without due regard to the context in which it was taking place”, says Baroness Casey, with the police insisting their approach was in line with regulations rather than pandering to public opinion.
“Listening and responding to concerns is not pandering to public opinion but understanding what it feels like to be on the other side and whether, considering the context, their approach should be different,” Casey argues.
The Met Commissioner Sir Mark Rowley will have many issues on his plate in the coming month as he promises a step-by step approach to reform. One of those steps should be a reform of relations between police and the media. They are not enemies of the police but could be part of the process of reform by initiating honest two-way communications between the police and the media instead of closed doors at worst and one-way PR guff at best.
I once chaired the then Mark Rowley, head of counter-terrorism policing at a Society of Editors conference and he seemed to be not only a reasonable and capable copper but one who wanted better relations between journalists and police.
Since then things have got much worse.
Once he manages to come up for air Sir Mark could do worse than talk to Rebecca Camber, the Daily Mail’s crime and security editor, who also heads the Crime Reporters’ Association (CRA). Up and down the country she regularly hears stories from the 45 CRA members of greater difficulties getting information from police forces.
Camber explained at last week’s Society of Editors Media Freedom Conference how the unfortunate circumstances surrounding the search for the missing woman Nicola Bulley had turned from tragedy to farce as the local police provided a minimum of information.
“The vacuum left by the police was filled by conspiracy theories and social media,” said Camber, who argued the case should have created a watershed moment for relations between the media and the police but failed to do so.
The truth is it (relations between the media and the police) are getting worse,” the Mail journalist argued.
Meanwhile, the Sunday Times Whitehall editor Gabriel Pogrund has been investigating the curious case of King Charles receiving bags full of Saudi cash and allegations of cash for honours. He has been unable to find out who is being investigated or what stage police inquiries have reach.
There has even been recent advice, it was suggested, coming out of the College of Policing that in future police “could” give out the names of those who had been charged rather than that names “should” be given out.
Police ‘crisis’ stopping progress
While there can be a reasonable discussion about whether or not the names of those who are being investigated, but have not been charged, should be made public (shades of Sir Cliff Richard) it has never been argued before that it could be optional for the police whether or not to name those charged.
In the wake of the Leveson inquiry, when too cosy a relationship was alleged between police and journalists, a certain frostiness has combined with creeping privacy laws made by judges to increasingly interrupt legitimate flows of information.
Thanks to a late amendment, journalists have only just escaped being lumped with criminals and terrorists in legislation requiring police to formally log meetings with dangerous people.
Despite the considerable length of Baroness Casey’s admirable work we should make a start on an eleventh chapter — how can more honest and open communications between the media and the Met, and policing in general, be achieved.
This will not happen anytime soon because, as the Evening Standard’s crime correspondent Anthony France told the SoE Media Freedom conference, the Met is currently “in crisis”. And that was before the publication of the Casey Review.
France expects two to three Met officers a week to be appearing before the courts for much of this year.
Eventually this will pass and when the major changes in personnel, culture and performance have been achieved — if this is possible — it will be time to try to put media/police communications on a new footing.
A move towards greater openness and accountability could be part of the process of reform and trying to restore trust in the Metropolitan Police. Baroness Casey of Blackstock might even be willing to help.
Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.