Crime reporters express fear over limited police contact

Crime reporters across the regional and national press have expressed fears that contact between press and police will be restricted further in the wake of the Leveson Inquiry.

Highlighting the current climate, Tim Gordon of the South Wales Echo revealed that one of his reporters was told that Gwent police were “tightening up” rules in place for dealing with the media due to the Inquiry and the recent Filkin Report into press-police relations.

He added he was “concerned” that Gwent police had announced that their officers could not talk to the media unless they had been given prior permission from their press office. He described the difficulty in getting information from official channels, noting that the force’s press office was closed on weekends.

“I would much prefer that we could move forward trusting each other,” Gordon said, ” that my reporters could build and develop relationships with police officers on a professional basis, so there’s no fear or favour granted on either side, but that the information is free-flowing.”

“I would much prefer if the police were encouraged to give as much information as they possibly could,” he added.

Similar concerns were voiced at the Inquiry last week, with the Guardian’s Sandra Laville lamenting what she called an “over-reaction” by the Metropolitan police in response to the Inquiry, and that “open lines of communication, which have been there for many years, are being closed down”.

Gordon also had reservations about suggestions made by Elizabeth Filkin that contact between reporters and police officers be recorded. “My fear with a written record,” Gordon said, “is that it already suggests something is wrong with talking to a journalist.”

His view was shared by Wolverhampton Express and Star Editor Adrian Faber, who questioned whether or not what he called a “codification” would necessarily make police officers “more open”.

He said recording contact would lead to an officer “slightly looking over your shoulder and saying ‘should I be saying this?'”.

Faber added that such a measure “would lead to extra dimension that isn’t necessary locally”, noting that the regional press operates on a basis of trust with the communities they serve — a theme also raised by Gordon. “If we don’t have their trust we can’t go back to them,” he said.

Sunday Mirror crime correspondent Justin  Penrose added that there was now a “state of paralysis” in police-press relations, noting that police officers are less forthcoming or willing to talk to the media.

Tom Pettifor of the Daily Mirror echoed this, saying there may be “more reticence” among officers to talk to him if he did not go through a force’s press office, and that “informal contact” was now more difficult.

Logging press-police contact, in Pettifor’s view, “is obviously not going to eliminate the problem of corruption”, but would “freeze up” the information flow.

The Inquiry also heard from Metropolitan police Commissioner Bernard Hogan-Howe, who replaced Sir Paul Stephenson last summer following his resignation amid speculation over the Met’s links to News International after the phone hacking scandal. Hogan-Howe conceded that public confidence in the Met had been “damaged” and he accordingly had to “set the boundary high” in terms of press-police relationships.

“I’d rather be criticised for setting the bar too high than too low,” he said, adding later that his aim is to build a “positive” relationship with the press, but accepted there might be “restrictions” when crime was being investigated.

He praised press coverage of the murder of schoolboy Rhys Jones in Liverpool in 2007. While he said the press interest was at times “challenging”, it ultimately led to more witnesses coming forward.

The Inquiry continues tomorrow.

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