Bid to stop cops and hacks drinking together is bad timing

Jan 4, 2012
Robert Chesshyre

No flirting, no boozing, no nothing – Dame Elizabeth’s warning to police is misguided and mistimed

RELATIONS between police (notably detectives) and reporters are much like those in other specialised branches of journalism. The two groups (like, say, City journalists and the financiers about whom they write) have a great deal in common. They live unsociable hours; they thrill to the chase; they communicate largely by means of much loved anecdotes; and they like a drop to drink. Over the years they get to know one another, a relationship often fostered and oiled on licensed premises.

This booze-enhanced camaraderie has long bothered police bosses, who would much prefer relations with the media were passed through their vastly swollen press offices. This way the bosses believe they can control how much (or, more normally, how little) information gets into the public domain. A journalist without personal contacts is rapidly deterred by the bureaucracy and buck-passing of the system.

This desire to keep control appeared to be vindicated last summer when it emerged that senior editors on the now closed News of the World were far too close to senior figures in the Metropolitan Police. Dame Elizabeth Filkin, a professional guardian of standards in public life, was asked to investigate how close cops and reporters had become, and whether some brake should be put on their liaisons.

In a report seen by the BBC, she has come up with some wonderfully dated warnings: police should “watch out” for reporters “flirting” – designed, she asserts, to get officers to drop their defences; drinking alcohol with cunning journos should be “an uncommon event”; and hard-bitten detectives are solemnly informed that “drinking loosens tongues”. I suspect that the various detectives with whom I have drunk down the years might (just) have been aware of this property of the demon booze.

My suspicion is that Dame Elizabeth carries in her mind’s eye a somewhat dated picture, from the era when crime reporters lived cosily side-by-side with cops – rather as Westminster reporters live side-by-side with politicians – sharing not just a fair amount to drink, but also their prejudices. When a major newspaper blew the whistle on police corruption in the early 1970s, the paper’s crime reporter lamented that he had not been on duty - otherwise he would have hushed up the whole unfortunate affair.

Accurate, informed coverage of the many issues for which the police are responsible requires not just official contact – I see in my mind’s eye the Christmas cocktail party at Scotland Yard of which Dame Elizabeth might approve – but genuine knowledge, which is only derived from regular and close contact. Some years ago I wrote a book about the police, spending six months on a south London division. Many evenings ended with a pint, which made for relaxed relations on the job.

My fear is that (at least in the short term) police officers will be terrified of accepting even a half of bitter since Dame Elizabeth recommends that they make a note of any conversation they have with journalists. Most often such out-of-hours conversations concern Arsene Wenger’s latest outburst or the officer’s golf handicap.

Communication is a two-way street. Reporters feed police with information about what goes on in the wider world – police life is narrow and claustrophobic. It may just be that if the first team of detectives that investigated the Stephen Lawrence murder so ineptly has been closer to reporters, they would rapidly have got the message that they would pay (as they did) for the slapdash detection which created one of the greatest disasters to overwhelm Scotland Yard in recent decades.

Official channels are beloved of those who rule over us. Police and reporters, however, need to know each other – even if a pint or three is drunk along the way.

Sign up for our daily newsletter