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A senior police officer has claimed that tabloid journalists picked up a suspect in the serial murder case of the “Suffolk Strangler” to interview away from police surveillance.
Supporting the claim made last week by retired criminal investigator Dave Harrison, Chief Constable Simon Ash from Suffolk Constabulary told the Leveson inquiry he had obtained information to support the claim that a surveillance team was employed to “pick up and interview” the first suspect in the inquiry into the Ipswich murder inquiry of 2006. Despite supporting information in Harrison’s written statement, Ash did not name name the Sunday Mirror.
Ash was not working at the force in 2006, when the “Suffolk strangler” case received intense press coverage, but the police officer told the Leveson Inquiry: “On the assertion that a newspaper picked up a suspect and took them to a hotel and interviewed them while under police surveillance, I have been able to find information to support that.”
In relation to further claims from Harrison that News of the World had spied on the police and jeopardised the case, Ash told the court that he had not been able to find any information to support the assertion that the News of the World were deploying surveillance teams.
Ash explained to the court that relations were “very good” between police and local press. He said that there is a “healthy” relationship between the two parties, and described meeting editors on an “ad-hoc basis – to resolve whatever the current issues are. We work together for the good of our community.”
The Chief Constable also explained that staff in Suffolk Constabulary are encouraged to pro-actively highlight the good work of staff. He added: “Bad news almost writes itself, we have to work hard to promote the good work officers and staff do day in and day out”
When asked by Robert Jay, QC, if he felt that the corporate communications department of the police force only dealt press a “party line”, Ash denied this: “I think we’re all of the view we take the rough with the smooth, but my overall objective is to create confidence in the police. As we all know, things don’t always go to plan, and sometimes we have to give an apology, explain what happened, and I think that is equally as important as promoting the good work we do.”
Also appearing before the court, Terry Hunt, the editor of East Anglian Daily Times stressed the importance of good relationships between the press and local police forces. Hunt described the key relationship between the two in relation to the Ipswich murder case, after the national press descended on the town, and suggested that the local media were more balanced than the national press.
The editor said: “We were very aware of what the national press were reporting at the time. It was part of our responsibility to put this into some kind of context because there was a great deal of concern about what was going on in a very fast moving, and frankly horrifying story.”
But despite describing the relationship between the two parties as “generally supportive,” Hunt labelled the speed of response from the police as an “area of frustration”.
Hunt told the court of an incident in which three potentially dangerous men escaped from a secure mental health unit. The editor explained that at the time, he had hoped and expected that Suffolk Police would have responded in a more timely fashion.
He said: “These three individuals escaped in the early hours of Sunday morning and were at large in Suffolk and were potentially dangerous. I would have hoped and expected that Suffolk police would have put some information on that into the public domain, so that when Suffolk awoke in the morning, members of the public were forewarned. I felt it very unfortunate that that information did not reach us until lunchtime that Sunday.”
Hunt described a “heightened sensitivity” with regard to the relationship between press and police, explaining that there have always been some police officers who have been reluctant to share “legitimate” information. He added that if the recommendation of recording all contact between the press and the police “if enshrined will be a step backwards for a number of people who are concerned that by talking to the press they might get themselves in trouble.”
Anne Campbell, the head of corporate communications for Norfolk and Suffolk Police, and chair of the Association of Police Communicators (APComm) also appeared before the court, and agreed that local media offer a more rounded view of news stories.
Campbell said: “The local and regional media are constantly covering the issues and the stories of the constabulary, so you build up a daily relationship. They’re more keen to build up a rounded view.”
She added: “We expect journalist will be fair, balanced and accurate. That’s what we work with the media to see reflected, even if the stories are not so good news.”
When asked if corporate communications is a way of controlling what is distributed to the press, Campbell disagreed, and said that communications is “a news editing role, not a control role”.
Campbell stressed that any briefing of police officers was also not to put a slant what was released to the press and public, but to ensure that the police officer has “in his or her armoury the most up-to date information”.
She added: “We’re managing a situation of a lot of demand from the media. We either let officers without any assistance deal with that, potentially in an unhelpful way which will potentially take up a lot of their time. Our role is actually to free up the officers so they can spend the time on what the public want them to do primarily.”
Campbell also suggested “overarching guidelines” would be beneficial for police forces, enabling them all to “sing from the same hymn sheet”
Relating to her second statement to the inquiry, described by Lord Leveson as the statement in which she was wearing her APcomm hat, Campbell told the court that she was not too concerned about leaks to the press, as long as the police were given the opportunity to give a balanced picture.
Anne Pickles, associate editor of Carlisle News and Star, and Nick Griffiths a reporter for the paper agreed that the relationship between the press and public was key.
Pickles told the court that her relationships with the police have been built on mutual trust and respect and that the two parties both serve a common purpose and community. She added that as they lived with those they were reporting on, their role and coverage within the region was crucial.
But the editor explained that national media worked in an entirely different way. She said: “It’s always been my experience that national media are able to sweep in and sweep out into some sort of black hole of anonymity.”
Griffiths added that local press an police worked to the same ends. “We’re trying to get certain information across to the public. There’s a trust there, and relationships are generally working quite well.”
During the high-profile news case of the Derrick Bird shootings in Cumbria, Pickles told the court that journalists from the Crime Reporters Association sought preferential treatment and off the record information.
She added: “We didn’t want to spend a lot of time harassing the victims families looking for big headlines. We didn’t want to cause them further distress. We worked very closely with the police liaison team, who were very helpful in gaining photographs, tributes, anything else we might need. For all it was a dreadful incident, it was, perversely I know, an extremely successful police/local media operation.
Both parties from the Carlisle News and Star felt it was unnecessary to “drive a wedge between local press and local police.”
Pickles told the court “The stain from what has happened to trigger this inquiry tends to spread across all sections of the media. It’s quite clear we’re in a bad place in some sections of the media, but I still think a lot of the media has to blame itself for that, and take responsibility for it.”
Deputy Commissioner Craig Mackey, former Chief Constable of Cumbria Constabulary and Gillian Shearer, Head of Marketing and Communications also gave evidence.
Shearer described the massive pressure faced by the constabulary’s press office in the wake of the Derrick Bird shootings. She explained that an immense number of calls to the press office meant that they had to hire more staff. Shearer told the court that calls to the press office went from 30-50 a day to 300-500 a day.
She added: “In Cumbria the local media has a really unique role. They do a lot of reporting around crime and the people in Cumbria read and believe the newspapers.”
The pair described to the court instances of harassment by national media towards the families of the victims. Shearer explained that the families were “completely and utterly overwhelmed” by the press coverage, and told the court that some contact from the press was made before the police had informed the families of victims.
Shearer said: “We were in contact with the PCC over grieving families feeling harassed. They asked us to tell people to call them.” She added that print and TV media continued to doorstep the bereaved after a request to pull back.
Mackey added that the families felt anger and dismay at the way they were treated, and described “upsetting behaviour”, as rumours spread that money was available for certain photographs.
Colin Adwent, crime reporter for the East Anglia Daily Times told the court it was important to “be able to talk to police officers of all ranks without fear of favour.”
Adwent reiterated the belief that press and police should have a healthy, professional relationship. “If officers are responsible enough to deal with life and death, they’re responsible to know what they can talk to the press about.”