Dividing line: it is possible that ‘both sides are misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other’, said Guy Smith. Photograph: Jack Sullivan/Alamy
A string of prosecutions and the chilling effect of the post-Leveson era have plunged relations between British police forces and crime reporters into a deep freeze, according to new research.
A survey and interviews with crime reporters and media relations staff, or “police communicators”, conducted as part of a personal dissertation project by BBC London home affairs correspondent Guy Smith, has revealed that both believe the relationship to be strained. But the research flags up a gulf in understanding between the two groups, indicating that police media staff little appreciate the level of despair displayed by journalists.
The findings will trigger deep concern within the police hierarchy. Though obliged after a series of scandals to reflect public and governmental concern about police/media relations, senior officers know the involvement of the press is vital for solving crime at both national and local level.
“We get very frustrated because they give us very little,” declared one crime reporter. “The current media policy, set out in the College of Policing guidelines, has crippled the relationship which senior officers claim is an essential component of ‘policing by consent’. They say they are open, honest and transparent when they are more remote than they have ever been.”
Frustration is palpable. “For an organisation so often accused of cover-up, a media policy that does not work and obstructs the flow of information and encourages corporate rhetoric will simply store up problems for the future,” said the respondent. “The policy does not deliver. They know it; they see the evidence of its failure in print and broadcast media every day but they still persist with it. Madness.”
Another said: “Since Leveson, it has been almost impossible to do the job. I am unable to speak to officers I have known for two decades.”
One disgruntled reporter complained that it “is harder and more professionally dangerous to do the job properly”. Another said the relationship is at the “lowest point in my career”.
Journalists canvassed by Smith this summer cited “constant obstruction of information” and “constant questioning of motives for stories”. One concluded: “Police forces and their public relations teams must change these attitudes.”
Another said of the relationship: “If not broken, it is certainly fractured. If we are in the same place in two years’ time after the last of the court cases [relating to alleged illegal activities by journalists], then it might be beyond repair.”
For their part, many police media officers acknowledged strain, though in interviews they made a distinction between relations with local crime reporters and disgruntlement from the nationals. “We have not had the same level of moaning [from local newspaper journalists],” said one. “The locals will raise issues and we will try to deal with them. It has positive, tangible results.”
But one appeared to recognise the woes of crime journalists. “Police officers are nervous and apprehensive about making contact with journalists and the rules are different so they are not confident in operating within the rules.”
Another said change was inevitable. “Some of their relationships (crime journalists and police officers) were inappropriate.” Nevertheless,”it has been very difficult to then rebuild trust and confidence on both sides”.
One spoke of “a swing towards mutual paranoia which is not good for anyone”. There is fault on both sides, said one media officer. “Some journalists don’t or won’t understand the job of police communicators.”
One police communications officer said they have a thankless task. “Media obsession with minor issues involving famous people places unreasonable demand on police service comms,” they said.
Addressing whether the relationship is now broken, Smith, having surveyed both groups and interviewed protagonists on both sides, the contrasts were stark. “Both police communicators and crime journalists are in sharp disagreement with how they perceive each other’s methods. The results suggest both have low professional opinions of each other in terms of manipulating information.”
Trust, or its lack, seemed a recurring theme, he added. “Overall the crime journalists were more dissatisfied than the police communicators, most probably due to current police investigations into [alleged] corruption. This had destabilised the relationship and caused significant damage.”
Smith noted that crime journalists assumed that the police media relations officers would mirror their concerns about the extent to which relations are strained. The fact that they did not highlighted a further complication.
“Crime journalists wrongly perceived that police communicators would think co-operation was bad and perhaps optimistically think police communicators would change for the better,” Smith said. “So one possible reason leading to the relationship breaking down is that both sides are misunderstanding and misinterpreting each other.”
The study, an academic dissertation by Smith, involved two online surveys of 36 questions answered by 101 journalists and police media relations officers. Journalists were contacted via the Crime Reporters Association and the Society of Editors. Media officers were canvassed via the Association of Police Communicators and the Association of Chief Police Officers. Smith conducted six face-to-face interviews with an equal number of journalists and media officers.
Journalists and senior officers will discuss relations between the police, the media and the public later this week when Acpo stages its Leading Change in Policing conference in Northamptonshire.