Does the media circus exaggerate crime & get in the way of police work?

It was one of those moments that forces you to step back and consider whether you really want to get involved in journalism. As police marksmen surrounded armed-and-dangerous gunman Raoul Moat in the small village of Rothbury last summer, the nation’s media descended, competing for the best pictures of the stand-off. Although viewers were only treated to an audio feed of the gunman’s eventual suicide, one suspects that if only Sky News had had its cameras in the right place, we’d have seen it all.

Earlier in the day, the BBC’s John Sopel, usually a respectable broadcaster, had reduced himself to virtually snatching the mobile phone of a distraught woman and haranguing her terrified mother for eyewitness testimony from inside the police cordon. Looking at the Blackberry-wielding media mob in the videos from that day, chasing locals, blocking roads and irritating the police, it’s hard for an aspiring hack to argue that the rolling coverage of this story was somehow in the ‘public interest’.

So how do local, isolated crimes like Moat’s snowball into such national events? How does the media select which crimes to cover and which get ignored? Is there such a thing as ‘restraint’ when something is not expressly forbidden by law? And does the 24-hour media circus hinder the police’s efforts to solve crime and reassure the public, exaggerating the threat in a chase for ratings? Crime, lest we forget, has been on a general downward trend since the mid 1990s.

“Getting in the way of justice”

Andy Trotter, Chair of the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) Media Advisory Group and Met spokesman on Crime and Public Order, works with the media every day. He believes that over time, “the police have become much more open with the media” and that it can certainly play a “valuable role” in launching appeals and helping to apprehend suspects.

But, he argues, the decline of specialist crime reporters and the rise of 24-hour journalism put an incredible demand on police officers. Media management has become a significant concern for the force at every level, and it’s now common to have a dedicated senior person on major cases dealing entirely with the press, who are often ill-equipped themselves to stick with a story and cover it in the depth it might deserve. Trotter believes the need to fill airtime leaves reporters second guessing: “running a parallel investigation which gets in the way of justice.”

You’ll never get a journalist putting their hands up and saying “we got it wrong”…

Journalists are often guilty of double standards, says Trotter, ready to criticise police mistakes but less forensic when it comes to their own fudges. “You’ll never get a journalist putting their hands up and saying ‘we got it wrong'”, he argues. “The media will not correct their own mistakes, which get repeated, repeated, repeated.”

Reporters regularly seem to ignore the notion of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The recent killing of Joanna Yeates, for example, saw the media perform a character assassination on her landlord, arrested and then released without charge, but with permanent damage done to his reputation by journalists eager for the scoop. Although it’s usually assumed that such scoops come from police leaks to the press, Trotter argues that often journalists are simply jumping the gun and reporting inaccurate witness statements and hearsay, something which can seriously undermine a case.

Are the Police too domineering? Chris Brown ©

“Herd mentality”

Former Times Crime Correspondent, Stewart Tendler, who worked on the paper for 35 years before a round of ‘cost-saving’ measures saw him unceremoniously dumped, agrees that Fleet Street’s unwillingness to stick at a story and train specialist crime reporters has an insidious effect on the quality of coverage.

“Newsdesks on Fleet Street”, he argues, “don’t have or will not employ the staff for court cases”. Tendler believes that media organisations unwilling to invest the time and resources in staff with a solid understanding of the law and an ability to follow a case to its conclusion can easily fall victim to that age-old journalistic curse of the herd mentality: chasing sensation when consideration may be required.

It’s not just the tabloids either. While Tendler argues that crime stories are the “bread and butter of the local papers” and the red tops, apparently respectable organisations like the BBC inevitably end up following their rivals in covering every detail, however inaccurate or eventually irrelevant, on the latest grisly murder. “The BBC likes to take the moral high ground, but always finds an ‘ethical’ way of doing the story. I see it as having your cake and eating it,” he says.

…most policemen are absolutely scared witless of the media. But there are policemen who enjoy and make use of the press…

That said, Tendler believes that the police themselves are becoming alarmingly well versed in the arts of media manipulation. He says, “most policemen are absolutely scared witless of the media. But there are policemen who enjoy and make use of the press.” To advance their own standing or take down career rivals, high profile police officers will play the press to their own advantage, suggesting that the spin goes both ways.

“Policy vacuum”

Jon Silverman, former BBC Legal Affairs correspondent and now Professor of Criminology at Bedfordshire University, agrees that the police are far from innocent victims in the coverage of crime. “Police have, in the past, tried too hard to shape media stories, often to a misleading extent, and will use the media to fight their own battles,” he claims.

Silverman also argues that the media, while sometimes hysterical in tone, can actually play a vital role in “filling the policy vacuum on public protection”, highlighting black holes that the government, isolated in Westminster, often overlooks. He argues that Labour’s focus on anti-social behaviour was partly in response to media reporting of loutish behaviour, which may otherwise have gone unnoticed.

“There is a collusion between media and government on certain issues…”

Although tactics like the News of the World’s 2000 ‘naming and shaming’ of paedophiles are undoubtedly troubling, Silverman believes that there is often merit in media coverage of crime because it can point to more endemic problems in society, such as poverty and social deprivation.

The trouble comes, he contests, when “the media constricts the debate and has obsessions about certain issues”, which can move the focus away from the causes of crime and into a more black and white hang ‘em and flog ‘em mentality.

“There is a collusion between media and government on certain issues”, Silverman claims, and he says that “most politicians will not step out of the box”, when it comes to advancing the debate on crime, reacting to sensationalist headlines and presuming that the answer always lies in more knee-jerk legislation. And, as with political reporting, there’s a fine line for a crime reporter between keeping your contacts sweet and becoming a mouthpiece for the police. The crime reporter must perform a careful balancing act. “You want a close relationship, but there is a line when you start acting as a PR person”, he says.

“Level of respect”

Ultimately, media coverage of crime is bound by that ever-present contradiction of journalism. It purports to be an accurate reflection of the world as is, yet the very nature of news is the reporting of something unusual, something different, fulfilling that very human flaw of prying into the lives of others.

…the press needs to ensure that it maintains a level of critical respect for the police force and the legal system…

Crime stories fascinate us because, thankfully, they are rare instances. If the media is guilty of sensationalising the stories, that’s nothing new to the profession. But, arguably, the press needs to ensure that it maintains a level of critical respect for the police force and the legal system. As with politicians, hacks need to remember that they are dealing with public servants and not retreat into sanctimonious judgements, being careful not to trample on people’s lives in the rush to fill column inches.

As Trotter argues, ‘good stories don’t sell, do they?’ He’s right, but that shouldn’t stop journalists from getting their facts straight when it comes to crime.


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