In the days before the world wide web and instant news journalists on a local beat got the news of the day by physically going to the police station and sitting down to a cup of tea with the duty officer, who would arrive armed with the incident log, a sanitised, neatly typed version of the previous night’s mayhem.
Admittedly, some reporters used the phone to obtain this. I always preferred to wander in for a chat. I felt it always got me that wee bit more.
What it certainly got me was “face time” with high ranking cops who were happy to help if they saw me at some later date on a job they were also attending. That’s what you did. It’s how you grew your contacts book as a young reporter and it’s how most reporters over 40 would have begun their careers.
There was a relationship there, between the press and the police. The reporter is acting on behalf of members of the public who don’t have time to go and seek out the news from their area. You do the legwork, publish the news that’s fit to print, and they reward your efforts by buying the paper. Simple enough.
Some of those relationships evolved into contacts, some did not. Over two decades in hard news reporting I’ve had police contacts. Lots of them. Any decent journalist has them. And any decent cop has journalist contacts. But something changed.
It was a centralising process, I suppose, somewhere around the early 90′s.
You could no longer walk into the cop shop for a cuppa. They no longer appreciated a free bundle of first editions at the counter. You had to “go through the press office.” Barriers went up.
The news that was being fed down the line was no longer what had actually happened the night before, it was what they wanted you to know about. Press managers and forces began to control the flow of information. In that event any journalist worth a candle should be trying to obtain the real news at any cost.
That’s where police sources come in. The officers who are not on-message. The ones who will give you the unedited information, especially if it concerns corruption or failings within a particular force. What press office is going to hand that over?
Add to that the FOI machinery now in place across the UK. A police press office unhappy at handing over damaging statistics or information will almost always ask you to make an FOI request. This can delay having to answer by over a year, in real terms.
Bona fide news gathering journalists have been fobbed off with this in recent years. I know it has happened to me on a number of occasions. We are now in the position where calling these press offices is almost a waste of time, apart from obtaining the anodyne and humdrum.
You may not realise it, or if you do you may not like it, but these relationships are a necessary evil. Without them we wouldn’t know what’s really going on. Some of the officers involved may take money for their services, but in the main they do not.
You may well say the ones who do are corrupt, but they have families, pensions and mortgages to balance against the risk of telling journalists about things that matter. I know journalists have paid police officers for information. That should come as no surprise.
But what about the senior officers who turn up in a pub to meet a journalist, get free drinks all night, a four course meal, and wander home with four free tickets to the races in their pockets. Are they as corrupt? They’ve simply taken their payment in kind. No paperwork.
Or the senior officers who use journalists to brief against each other. A Deputy who sticks the knife in the chief through a friendly reporter will hope to be elevated to that chief’s position. There is a financial gain there. Corrupt? Or politics?
And if you’re looking for corruption, how about the lodge meetings across Scotland where very senior police officers, judges and journalists all share information within the four walls of a lodge? That’s to their mutual benefit, is it not?
Strathclyde Police has been tasked by the Crown Office to investigate Scotland’s civic life, effectively, but I’m told this probe will focus simply on links between Lothian & Borders officers involved in the Tommy Sheridan case and journalists from News International.
I’m also told Strathclyde Chief Constable Stephen House is keen it stays on that track. He has watched two of the Metropolitan Police’s most senior officers walk the plank over corruption and hacking. He has told senior officers his force’s probe will not repeat their mistakes.
Meanwhile across the country senior officers at L&B are furious, I’m told, that their “weegie” counterparts will be examining their roles and relationships. Historically the Lothian force has had the better reputation.
House knows better than most, given recent events in London, the price to be paid for an incomplete inquiry. He has been handed something of a poisoned chalice. Damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The prospect of a return to the Big Smoke, where a couple of vacancies have recently opened up, must seem appealing at the moment.
If there is to be a proper corruption probe in Scotland it should not be run by Strathclyde Police. First Minister Alex Salmond should build an independent task force, with the power to take witness statements on oath. That is the only way we can ensure a full, proper investigation into perjury, corruption, collusion and hacking in Scotland.