I know some brilliant journalists. I’m proud to count some of them as friends. And dealing with the media is an important part of my job – something, believe it or not, that I actually enjoy.
As a police officer, I have a professional responsibility to engage, to respond, to explain – and, dare I say, to offer an insight into the person behind the uniform.
But, truth be told, these are challenging times for relationships between the police and the press – with each seeming to nurse and nurture a set of grievances about the other that sets the tone for so many of our dealings.
The potential causes for this are well documented, but I don’t think anyone benefits from the current state of play: police, press or public.
The fact is that the police service needs the media:
To help us in protecting the vulnerable.
To assist us in catching the dangerous.
To support us in getting critical messages out to the wider community.
To inquire. To hold us to account. On occasions, to ask deeply uncomfortable questions.
We do our job better when journalists do their job well.
Policing occupies a unique place in society and, as I have suggested before, we ought to be held to a higher standard than anyone else – not least because of the promises we have made and the powers we have been given. And the experience of recent history reinforces the view that when policing gets it wrong – individually or institutionally – the consequences are likely to be disproportionately damaging.
I want the media to keep us honest and true. I want them to question and challenge and to be bloody awkward when circumstances demand. I don’t want them to allow us to get away with a single thing.
But (and this is one of those significant ‘buts’), there are other things I want from them too. Beginning with a far greater balance – and sometimes accuracy – in the coverage provided of this extraordinary job I do.
The prevailing narrative when it comes to policing can be astonishingly negative. In fact, I can think of no other public service so consistently under fire. I’m not looking for anyone’s sympathy, but I am seeking some recognition and understanding. The imbalance damages our relationships with victims and communities – and it has a very real impact on our own people.
Sometimes, it feels as though the only story being told about policing is the one suggesting that we are incompetent. Or corrupt. Or racist. And in the vast majority of cases, the vast majority of the time, that simply isn’t true. In fact, the complete opposite is true.
In most cases, the things that police officers do take my breath away: their bravery, their brilliance, their simple human decency. But these don’t tend to be the stories that get told. On the contrary, the focus is relentlessly on the negative – often with language and headlines chosen seemingly to make things as difficult for us as possible. On occasions, the coverage is downright inaccurate.
Twice in the last week or so, I have seen colleagues challenging news headlines broadcast on social media. Both concerned allegations of shocking crimes perpetrated by police officers. And, in both cases, the casual reader was left free to conclude that these events had happened in the UK. In fact, one crime took place in America and the other happened in Afghanistan.
Mistakes, mischief or malice?
Then there was the story published online a few days back – concerning a five-year-old boy who was hit by a police car. The language used in the article was remarkably emotive, suggesting that the child had been ‘mown down’ – and emphasising that the patrol vehicle was not using blue lights at the time. Exactly the sort of horrifying circumstances likely to impact negatively on public opinions about who we are and what we do.
Except that the content of article was, at best, misleading. It required a direct written response from the boy’s dad to explain that his son had lost his footing on the kerb and fallen into the road. He pointed out that it was a freak accident and that no one was to blame.
I will never be a blind apologist for policing. We are capable of getting things spectacularly wrong and, when we do, it is absolutely right that we face the consequences. I don’t for one moment want to shy away from stories that are difficult for us – not least because doing so allows for the repetition of dreadful mistakes.
But we are also capable of getting things spectacularly right. And I could tell you endless tales…
Of lives being saved, of missing people being found, of escaped prisoners being recaptured, of killers and sexual predators being tracked down and detained, of sieges being ended, of organised crime networks being dismantled, of desperate souls being talked back from the edge. Stories of extraordinary courage and remarkable compassion. Stories of the everyday heroism of the men and women who police our streets
And those, surely, are stories worth telling.