Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Upbeat police and media relations

LORD Leveson, the judge heading the inquiry into press standards, has said he hopes tighter rules on police and media relations will not stop beat bobbies tipping off local reporters. Well, put out the flags, bang the big drum and three cheers for his Lordship. But don’t assume that his words of wisdom will lead to a restoration of the sort of working relationship that used to benefit society. Lord Leveson said it was obviously important that neighbourhood police officers should be able to speak to local press about events, pass on good news stories, raise concerns, seek witnesses and other material that helps glue communities together. “It seems to me sensible that everything one can do to encourage that sort of contact is worthwhile,” he said. He seemed to find a sympathetic ear in The Home Secretary Theresa May who responded: “The important thing is for officers to know where the line is drawn between who they are able to speak to and what they are able to say in those conversations.” She added: “It shouldn’t have a chilling effect but I think what’s important is that we have a framework that doesn’t have a chilling effect and a framework that enables common sense to be operated in these relationships.” “I think it’s trying to apply common sense to the relationship the police should have with the media,” she added. Mrs May has received guidance from police chiefs which recommends that officers should not accept gifts, gratuities or hospitality except those of “trivial nature”. The Assocation of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) has suggested allowing officers to receive only “light refreshments” during meetings with reporters, seemingly ruling out lavish lunches. Previously forces drew up their own guidelines, with wide divisions in what was deemed acceptable. The new guidance calls for more robust decision-making and recommends that forces should have a single register of gifts and hospitality governed by the head of professional standards. It calls for a “shift to blanket non-acceptability save for a certain circumstances and a common-sense approach to the provision of a light refreshments and trivial and inexpensive gifts of bona fide and genuine gratitude from victims and communities”. The guidance continues: “One extreme can properly be considered to be a breach of criminal law (the Bribery Act 2010) through to the low-level hospitality which could in no way be considered as a breach of integrity on any party involved.” Mrs May said: “I think that is a sensible approach that is being taken by Acpo in an attempt to find a greater consistency. “What’s important isn’t that they have a single force register but that everybody knows that there is a general belief that they shouldn’t be taking gifts, gratuities and hospitality, except where they are of a more trivial nature.” The real obstacle to a sensible approach, however, is the control freak tendency of senior police officers with their armies of press officers, public relations experts and marketing departments. If, instead, they trained officers to tell the media what is going on, leave editing material to the trained journalists and their legal advisers, encourage relationships built on trust and mutual support, with nothing more than an occasional cup of tea or pint of beer involved, then it would make for a more honest, open and helpful attitude. The ultimate beneficiaries would be the public, with fast dissemination of information leading to apprehension of villains, traffic updates and hazard warnings. If Leveson’s inquiry leads to this then it might have been worth a smidgeon of its time and cost, at least.

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