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June 21, 2024

‘Pick up the phone’ is one of 26 fixes offered to police by Crime Reporters Association

The report asks forces to stage more unreportable briefings - and start picking up their phones again.

By Bron Maher

Three journalism organisations have proposed a list of 26 recommendations they say will help fix the “broken” relationship between police and the media.

The recommendations – which have been drawn up by the Crime Reporters Association, the Society of Editors and the Media Lawyers’ Association – have been submitted to the National Police Chiefs Council and the College of Policing.

The proposed fixes include requests that forces take journalists into their confidence to avoid needless speculation, as in the case of Nicola Bulley’s disappearance, and that police press officers answer their phones. The report also urges greater transparency by police forces about crimes committed in their areas (currently only a tiny minority of incidents are revealed publicly).

Police forces asked to provide phone numbers, pick up the phone and take more reporters into their trust

The recommendations were made in a report titled “The Police and the Media: Repairing the Relationship” written by Crime Reporters Association chair Rebecca Camber.

In September Camber gave a speech at the Police Superintendents’ Association’s annual conference during which she argued police could have avoided a “circus of conspiracy theories” around the disappearance of Nicola Bulley had they trusted reporters enough to brief them off the record.

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A College of Policing report into Lancashire Police’s handling of the case that was published in November issued a similar assessment, saying “the failure to brief the mainstream media on a non-reportable basis on this information, or to adequately fill the information vacuum, allowed speculation to run unchecked”.

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The report published on Friday argued: “If officers take journalists into their confidence, there are real benefits for policing…

“The Crime Reporters Association has been in existence since 1945 and to our knowledge there has never been a case where a member has breached the terms of any briefing.

“If officers don’t know or trust the media present, they can request journalists to sign legal waivers in the same way forces currently proceed in a pre-trial briefing.”

The report also said that the Bulley investigation review “exposed the perils of not identifying the difference between bona fide news reporters and third parties such as social media influencers or bloggers”, and argues only accredited journalists should be allowed to attend press briefings.

The report observes that, “in the event of a terror attack, the current media protocol appears to be to direct media to ‘check on the force Twitter/X’…

“In the hours after a terrorist attack or critical incident, getting accurate information to the public is vital, yet social media platforms can allow false narratives to spread causing confusion and panic.

“If a national mechanism for informing the media was established, guidance to reporters could be quickly disseminated to prevent falsehoods being repeated in online reports.”

But at a more basic level, the report also notes that “since the pandemic, there has been a worrying trend of police press officers being unwilling to speak on the phone about cases”.

“Police forces must advertise their press office phone number and email address clearly on their website,” it advises, adding that forces “should be prepared to answer the phone to respond to press queries…

“A default response of ‘can you just email in’ will do nothing to build relationships or engender trust.”

Among its other recommendations the report asks forces to permit their press officers to discuss “all crimes, regardless of seriousness” with reporters, including “cautions, fines, out-of-court disposals, [single justice procedures] and other fixed penalties”.

At present, it said, these crimes “are often not being released or confirmed”.

“These may be regarded as lesser crimes, but they remain offences and the public have a right to know how they are being dealt with in the criminal justice process.”

The report acknowledges that “many in policing don’t trust the media and increasingly, journalists feel the same about the police. Officers at even the most senior level are nervous about engaging. The prevailing message throughout the ranks appears to be that officers should avoid the media who cannot be trusted. The walls have gone up”.

It argues the media, too, has “a large part to play” in rebuilding trust.

“But with the support of police leadership in changing the narrative, we believe rebuilding this relationship is vital for public confidence.”

Society of Editors executive director Dawn Alford said that “urgent action is needed to re-set and rebuild the relationship between the police and the media”.

“Our joint report offers some key recommendations that would help restore trust and a better working relationship between officers and journalists for the ultimate benefit of the public.

“We now look forward to the College’s response to our recommendations which we hope they can endorse with a view to working together to drive forward much-needed change.”

Full list of recommendations from the Society of Editors, Media Lawyers’ Association and Crime Reporters Association to the Police Chiefs Council and College of Policing:

  1. Police forces should advertise their press office phone number and email address clearly on their website, including any out-of-hours provision if applicable
  2. All forces should be prepared to answer the phone to respond to press queries
  3. Press officers should identify themselves by name on the phone so that professional relationships can be forged with the media 
  4. Press officers should be empowered to provide as much guidance as possible to reporters. There should be provision in the APP [College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice] to allow press officers to make their own ‘reasoned judgements in individual cases’ when confirming details of investigations
  5. Forces should continue to use emailed press releases as a primary form of communication with the media rather than simply placing information online
  6. Consideration should be given to a mechanism for informing the national media about stories, whether this is a simple contact email list or software that can deliver email alerts
  7. Police should consider providing guidance in major incidents (on a reportable and non-reportable basis) to prevent panic caused by social media speculation, misinformation and rumour
  8. Police should be able to discuss case details where people have been dealt with by cautions, fines, out-of-court disposals, SJP [single justice procedure] and other fixed penalties 
  9. The NPCC, College of Policing and staff organisations need to work together on training for all ranks to promote a better professional relationship between police and the media
  10. The police and press must work together to ensure that officers feel more confident and comfortable speaking to the media.
  11. The current College of Policing Authorised Professional Practice (APP) guidelines around counter-corruption are damaging officers’ perception of the media and are in urgent need of revision
  12. Police must be prepared to act when threats are made to journalists’ safety including online threats and in-person stalking
  13. It is essential that press conferences are for accredited media only
  14. Officers should seek to have a trusted dialogue with journalists and aim to provide regular updates in major investigations providing both reportable and non-reportable background briefings
  15. Forces should endeavour to provide the media with charge details as soon as possible. The media should be afforded advance notice of cases to allow them to attend the defendant’s first appearance at magistrate courts
  16. Forces should consider pre-trial or pre-verdict briefings to help the media to understand a prosecution and inform reporting at the end of the case
  17. Press offices should endeavour to release pictures and video material shown in court on the same day as shown to the jury throughout a prosecution
  18. Press releases containing mugshots and other relevant information should be sent out as soon as possible on the day of the verdict, not after a sentence
  19. Police should release mugshots for all custodial sentences. Forces should be aware that releasing mugshots, CCTV, body worn video or other picture material from the case such as images of the weapon or exhibits heightens the chance of publication. Without images, some stories won’t be published
  20. The CRA, MLA and Society of Editors would like to work with the NPCC and the College of Policing to understand how we could improve the handling of media approaches to victims and relatives
  21. It should always be the choice of the victim or relatives whether to speak to the media. If families do wish to speak to the media, providing as much information and photographs as possible can increase the prominence of reporting about their case and provide opportunities for follow-ups which may be useful publicity in cases such as a missing person or a manhunt. If families do want to speak, don’t wait for sentencing
  22. Interviews by police press officers of witnesses and victims should be discouraged, they are no substitute for an independent interview by an accredited member of the media
  23. Policing needs to consider a robust strategy to tackle some of the risks to investigations posed by social media
  24. Reporters face challenges in verifying information appearing in real time on social media and we anticipate that the relationship with the police will prove ever more crucial in establishing the truth. Forces must understand the need to move quickly to respond with guidance in the face of speculation, misinformation and correct information posted by witnesses
  25. In recent times there has been a series of cases where members of the public have posted footage from arrests and police searches which have led to highly critical commentary of the officers involved. Forces should consider providing more guidance about the circumstances of incidents and/or the release of police body worn footage to ensure that the public has a balanced view of what happened
  26. We would like to work together with the College of Policing and the NPCC in a review of the Authorised Professional Practice to reflect the recommendations above.

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