Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Bad situation made worse by silence

The family of James Fenton, the young man who died after disappearing from a hospital ward where he was being treated for depression, has every right to be outraged at the behaviour of certain PSNI officers in this case.

Not only did the police make blunder after blunder in the search for the man, who was found 10 weeks later just 40 metres from where he was last seen alive, but the media were led to believe that the family did not want to talk to reporters when the opposite was the case.

It would be difficult to think of a more damning case of incompetence. And to make matters worse, the PSNI is now refusing to tell the family what action is being taken against those deemed responsible for failing to find James. The Police Ombudsman made recommendations for disciplinary action against 13 officers – from constable to chief inspector ranks. Those have been implemented, although one officer successfully appealed, but the family and the public are being kept in the dark.

We have no idea if the sanctions taken were serious or a simple rap on the knuckles. Some members of the Policing Board are highly critical of the PSNI's silence on the matter. The action taken could easily be made public without infringing individual officers' privacy.

While the trauma caused to the family should be everyone's major concern – they have been treated shamefully – it is also alarming that the media were misled. The family wanted publicity in their frantic bids to find the missing man.

The media were denied their rightful role – as underlined by Lord Leveson recently – which is to act in the public interest. Newspapers and broadcasters certainly should not have been subjected to arbitrary censorship.

This once again underlines the importance of an open society and the danger of public officials being able to call the shots on what the public should or should not know.

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