Some years ago, former British parliamentary commissioner Elizabeth Filkin while investigating the relationship between the media and senior metropolitan police officers, pointed to the excessively cosy relationship between some officers and journalists at the News Of The World.
This was in the wake of the inquiry into hacking allegations against that newspaper, and she noted that the very close media/police relationship had undermined the official inquiry and “damaged trust in the impartiality of the police”. Dame Elizabeth said their relationship compromised the ability of the media and the police to scrutinize properly the activities of each other.
Some in the media railed against her attempt to put a wedge between them and the police, describing Dame Elizabeth’s assertions as attempting to crack a nut with a sledgehammer.
Years earlier, a study in Sydney, Australia, suggested that 70 per cent of police stories in specific newspapers over a period of time had originated from police public relations –– most stories published related to police successes. Reporters assigned to cover police-related matters received daily emails about incidents that might have occurred overnight, 48 hours before or longer, all dependent on when the police wanted the information in the public domain.
Reports are that a situation also developed where shady officers were careful to remain close to specific journalists who could be compromised, and would furnish them with the occasional major police story, and also inform them about police raids and arrests. Of course, there was always some degree of reciprocity from the media where unsavoury police activity was unearthed.
In the most ideal situation, the media should be presenting unfettered news, devoid of any consideration for advertisers or ownership, unhindered by threats from politicians and other powerful societal elements –– and while keeping within the dictates of the law and good public taste. In any society where stakeholders are aware of their roles and also the rules and regulations by which they should function, the relationship between the media and those stakeholders should not be adversarial.
But this is not an ideal world and unfortunately there are many stakeholders who pretend to know the rules and regulations by which they function, but are really ignorant of them. Often there are those who are quite au fait with operational protocols, but ignore them because of powers which might be vested in them.
There seems to be an uneasy relationship between the media in Barbados and the Royal Barbados Police Force, and in most instances the angst appears to originate from nothing more than ignorance.
We have had unsettling instances of journalists having cameras and notebooks confiscated by police officers at various scenes. This has occurred even in circumstances where the question of the journalists’ presence provided no obstruction to the working function of the officers on the scene. We have had situations where photographers were verbally ordered not to take photographs and threatened with arrest if they did.
It would appear that training in media relations and the protocols to be followed in the relationship between the media and the police do not form a vital part of the tutoring at the Regional Police Training Centre. It would also appear that such training does not form a part of the refresher programmes to which officers are exposed from time to time.
If this supposition is erroneous, and there is indeed such training and retraining, then judging from what frequently occurs when the media and the police come into contact with each other, then many of our officers are not listening.
We have had laughable scenarios of police shielding the faces of accused persons as they exited the precincts of the law courts. We have had occasions where attempts to take photographs at various scenes were blocked simply because might and ignorance found comfort in each other.
It must be understood by those in law enforcement that not every function of the media as it relates to their relationship will be in controlled circumstances. There is no blocking or snatching of cameras at police passing out parades. There is no confiscation of notepads at police awards ceremonies or the coverage of events related to the celebration of the annual Police Week.
There is no unease when senior officers call Press conferences to apprise the public of one issue or the other. There is no confrontational atmosphere when bulletins and pictures related to wanted felons are passed to the media for public dissemination. What always applies is an atmosphere of mutual respect and appreciation for individual roles and the benefits which can redound to the public because of that positive relationship.
Inasmuch as media practitioners must be aware of the necessity to be guided by police officers as to how close or far they can position themselves when going about their legitimate business at scenes of crime, accidents or other mishaps, our police officers must respect the role of the media and, importantly, ground their dealings with the media in legality and fairness. It is one sure way of avoiding a case of theft or malicious damage being sought against an overzealous officer who unlawfully deprives a media practitioner of his or her property or damages it in the attempt to do so.
We take Dame Elizabeth’s point about the need to have an environment where one does not have situations arising where news gathering and dissemination are compromised by too-chummy a relationship between the two entities. But we believe that there must be a balance, and certainly, a discordant and adversarial atmosphere should not form part of that balance. Suffice to say, the good, the bad and the ugly which we humans do are all deserving of ventilation in the public’s interest when it is the public’s business.
That is a picture worth taking and a script that merits writing.