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Police should realise that the media can be their friends

My column published in the Scotsman on 12 September 2022.

As a young detective I was given many pieces of good advice, among them about police relationships with the press.

My hugely experienced mentor, an ex-Hearts player, was often given to using footballing metaphors. “Remember,” he said, “We often play on the same pitch as the press, and the ball is the same, but the rules are different and the goals are in different places. If you find yourself on the same team it usually means one of you isn’t doing their job.”

The meaning was as clear as it was true. A good professional relationship between police and press was essential but there would rightly always be healthy tensions and boundaries.

After many years in policing I found it had been sage advice, and it came to mind last week when I read that police services across the UK had introduced transparency rules that required police staff to notify associations with journalists along with criminals, members of political parties, private investigators and legal advisors.

I couldn’t possibly comment on the rest of this motley crew, but journalist stand out as different for a simple reason: the police need to work with the media to do their job – in the public interest.

The move seems to have been instigated, at least in part , by corrupt relationships between police and press in a number of notorious cases in London. No corruption with individuals or organisations can be tolerated it should be rooted out. But that should not mean blanket suspicion or Draconian controls should fall on a whole industry.

Perhaps I was more fortunate than most. In the 80s I was given the job as my force’s first Information Officer. The briefing from my old Chief Sir Bill Sutherland was characteristically brief . “90 per cent of what we do is not secret or sensitive, “ he said . “The public has a right to know what they are paying for. Stay inside the law and get as much information out as you can. You will meet resistance and you will make mistakes but as long as you act in good faith, I will back you.”

And with these few words I was sent on my way. And as ever the Chief was as good as his word.

Over the next few years I learned how the media worked and that they were not the enemy. I gained respect for the difficult and unrelenting job they did. Many of the investigative journalists I met had the qualities of good detectives, and for the most part they were straight. In thousands of dealings with the press over the years, I can only recall being let down on a handful of occasions, a betrayal rate no worse than I suffered at the hands of my erstwhile police colleagues.

That experience gave me an edge others did not have. Many of my senior police colleagues did not get the chance to gain experience or confidence and remained wary. It wasn’t helped by the entirely defensive media training we were subjected to. The emphasis was always on avoiding traps rather than getting the message across. It’s still easy to spot the nervous police spokesman, they tend to revert to police jargon – females proceed, rather than women walk.

The truth is that the police often depend on the media, especially in serious cases. Over the thirty-plus years of the World’s End murder enquiry our local press was unfailing in its support as we struggled to keep a cold case warm and deliver justice.

In this time of calculated disinformation and the toxic tripe of social media, it has never been more important to have a healthy, well regulated press.

The media does not deserve to be put on some suspect list. We need them more than ever as a vital conduit of accurate information – in the public interest.

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