Belfast Telegraph

Policing has much to gain from working with the Press

By Paul Connolly

Things have gotten to quite a state when police officers are afraid to talk to journalists. So said Lord Stevens this week.

As a former Metropolitan police commissioner and leader of the Stevens inquiry into security leaks in Northern Ireland, Sir John has forgotten more about that swirling nexus where information, crime and politics meet, than virtually anyone on these islands.

We should sit up and listen to his comments, because what applies across the water will apply here too.

Sir John’s point is that the pendulum of police-media relations has swung too far away from openness in the wake of the phone-hacking scandal. He should know — he introduced an |open-door policy for the media during his time at the Met, with senior officers being trusted to discuss matters with the media without getting advance clearance.

Things have changed now, he told the Leveson inquiry.

“From what I have heard, people are absolutely terrified of picking up the phone and speaking to the Press in any way.

“I don't think that is healthy. The Press have their job to do, they have delivered some outstanding work.

“There has to be a relation-|ship with them for the right |reasons.”

A failure to engage with the Press means a risk of failure with the public — and that put the |police at risk of not being trusted. “Let me make this clear: in my view, this is extremely damaging to British policing,” he said.

“The media need to know what the police are doing.

“It is absolutely essential to have transparency and openness ... If there's no engagement, then the police risk not being part of the community.”

Due to Northern Ireland’s history, I would argue that policing here has much to gain from openness.

Distrust and hatred of the police was at the root of many of our problems.

But thanks to a toxic mix of phone-hacking, over-hospitality, political battles and score-settling, we could end up in a situation where the only information the public will receive will be official press releases from police headquarters.

I suppose it’s the logical extension of the risk-averse, health and safety-style culture, where the public have no presumed right to know — except that which is handed down in official tablets of stone.

To the uninitiated, many press officers will boast that the skill in writing a good press release is not what you put in — it’s what you leave out.

The journalist’s job is to find out what’s been omitted. Without the ability to do that, fog will replace sunlight.

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