New Police Media Relations Proposals Would ‘Entrench Police Secrecy’

New guidelines for police to use in dealing with journalists would “entrench police secrecy,” the News Media Association has said.  

Proposals such as suggesting off the record conversations should only happen in “exceptional circumstances” and requiring officers to record all contact with the media amount to new unwelcome controls on police contact with journalists, the NMA added.  

The NMA has responded to the College of Policing’s consultation on its authorised professional practice on media relations.  The College of Policing was launched in December 2012 as a professional body to develop the standards of conduct and professionalism required by police officers and staff in England and Wales. 

It took on a number of responsibilities from the now defunct Association of Chief Police Officers, particularly with regard to training and the setting of policy.  The NMA believes that the draft guidance proposes unnecessary retreats from the 2010 version of the ACPO Communication Advisory Group Guidance in a way that will adversely affect day-to-day reporting, to the detriment of the public interest. 

The draft guidelines give rise to particular concern in that they seek to impose a number of unwelcome new controls on police contact with journalists. They mandate that “non reportable” [off-the-record] conversations should only happen in “exceptional circumstances” and prescribe a wide range of circumstances in which officers are urged to involve corporate communications departments rather than liaise with journalists directly.  

The guidelines also place an expectation on the police to record contact with the media, a bureaucratic nightmare for any officer who dares to speak to a journalist. Officers have indicated privately that it will be simpler not to talk to journalists rather than risk being reprimanded if their words cause the force discomfort or embarrassment. Inevitably these measures will further erode the trust between reporters and police officers, and inhibit meaningful dialogue. This is detrimental to the public interest, the NMA said.  

Another issue of concern is that the guidance stipulates that the police should neither confirm nor deny that a person has been arrested.  The NMA maintains that there is a public interest in naming those under arrest, not least to facilitate oversight of the police process. 

Catherine Courtney, of the NMA, said:  “The approach taken in the draft Media Relations guidance places great weight on the Article 8 and Article 6 ECHR rights of those individuals who are the subject of police operations, but fails to balance this against the Article 10 right to freedom of expression.  This encompasses the entitlement of the media to impart and the public to receive information in relation to the process of justice, and is integral to the principle of open justice.  

“Professional guidance must create a framework to help and support police officers in achieving a good relationship with the media, rather than erecting new barriers that entrench police secrecy.”  

The NMA urges the College of Policing to address the relationship between the police and the press without effectively treating journalists like pariahs.  As Lord Justice Leveson cautioned: “It might be said that, where relations are poor and there is insufficient engagement, public confidence will suffer.”