ANTHONY LONGDEN COLUMN: Making sense of new police reporting guidelines and when it’s RIGHT to get arrested
Last month, a trainee reporter from the Kent Messenger was despatched to investigate an incident unfolding at a primary school.
Joshua Coupe duly went along to Barming Primary School in Maidstone. It turned out there had been a bomb threat, and 400 children were being evacuated. He took some scene-setter photographs, and was immediately approached by three police officers who demanded he delete the images.
Coupe reportedly remonstrated, quite rightly pointing out he had every right to take pictures of the incident. But then one of the officers resorted to a low – and in my view despicable – tactic: he suggested the pictures were being taken for the reporter’s ‘own personal use’.
Those three words, in the context of pictures of children, becomes an accusation of the most menacing kind, and was enough to cause the reporter to comply and delete some of the images.
The full sorry tale can be read here.
My advice in circumstances like these is always really simple: get arrested.
It takes a great deal of nerve, especially for a young trainee, but the police position will certainly collapse once the matter starts careering towards the courtroom.
None of this is new. It is often due to genuine misunderstanding on the part of police officers whose focus is, quite rightly, on the incident itself, rather than media coverage of it. But that still doesn’t make it right, and it must always be firmly resisted.
Common sense has at long last prevailed in the case of Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies who was issued with a ‘prevention of harassment’ notice by the Metropolitan Police.
He had doorstepped convicted fraudster, Neelam Desai, on one occasion, and sent her two follow-up emails to ask her about claims she had conned people out of thousands of pounds.
She had the brass neck to make a harassment complaint to Plod, who duly leant on Davies, visiting him at his office and warning him he could be arrested if he contacted her again.
There then followed months of complete nonsense, as the police, then even the IPCC, continued to defend the indefensible. As their legal ship sank slowly under them, they maintained the ludicrous line that a reporter making one visit and asking questions via email ‘…were considered to have gone beyond a reasonable course of conduct’.
Davies, and his employers – first Local World, then Trinity Mirror – stuck to their guns, and were all set to take their case to judicial review when, on May 11, the Met revoked the harassment notice.
The force was careful to stress it took the step ‘without admission of liability’, but together with the IPCC, it will pay most of the significant legal costs of proceedings that need never have happened in the first place.
The Met also agreed to write to the College of Policing, asking it to review its national guidance, and to take a particularly close look at its practical advice on investigation of stalking and harassment. More detail can be found here.
The bigger picture for police/media relations generally remains gloomy.
One might reasonably expect the College of Policing to grab the issue by the scruff of the neck and polish its advice. Unfortunately, it hasn’t.
Its latest set of draft media guidelines illustrate the police are set on a course that takes them ever further away from an effective working relationship with the media. Ultimately, it is the public that suffers when goodwill between journalists and officers evaporates.
Fuller details of the row about the guidelines can be found here:
The new guidelines appear to bolster communications departments in their zeal to insert themselves between officers and journalists. Some police officers are also concerned about the deterioration in the relationship. One commented last month that he could see nothing wrong with talking to journalists directly, subject to common sense caveats:
Discussions are still taking place between the media and the police, and in fairness, the College of Policing still believes it is trying to encourage officers to talk to the media.
This dialogue is important, and our industry continues to push examples of best practice from around the country to help illustrate the mutual benefits of a solid, well-informed police-media relationship in the hope that we can rebuild the damage done over the last five years or so.
“I genuinely don’t understand why… authorities fail to seize the opportunity to work in co-operation with the press rather than treat us in such a contemptuous and combative manner.”
Editor, Kent Messenger, May 2016
Anthony Longden advises News Associates on journalism. He spent 20 years as editor and senior editorial executive in various regional companies in the UK, including Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.
He is a member of the Society of Editors’ parliamentary and legal committee, lobbying on behalf of the media industry on a wide range of issues.
He was an editorial member of the Press Complaints Commission, and sat on its reform committee. He advises the SoE and Alder Media, a London-based crisis handling and communications consultancy. He judges the annual UK national and regional Newspaper Awards.