British lawmakers have criticised the police for leaking too much information to the media. I agree. But what’s really required is a communication overhaul.
The police have taken “transparency” too far. Instead of organising cover ups – another no-no – the cops have exposed their inner thoughts and speculations stream of consciousness-style. No sooner are statements made; apologies and clarifications follow. The police’s beg forgiveness plea over the Tory MP Damien Green case was a classic example. Such episodes paint a picture of chaos at the heart of the police’s communication practice.
The Metropolitan Commissioner Sir Ian Blair was much too much in our face until the media blew up in his. His attention-seeking lost our respect. Had he not jumped to conclusions and then spoke to the media during the first hours – days even – of the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes at Stockwell Tube, he might still be Commissioner for London today.
The police have damaged their credibility by releasing half-baked speculative information during ongoing investigations. Reputations of the investigated get trashed in the process – Forest Gate “terror” arrests, Harry Redknapp’s house-search with the media alerted in advance. The police are now known for being gaff prone.
Have the police taken on-board too much advice from media gurus. Or too little?
Whatever the explanation, combative politician-style real-time rebuttals and comment communication has met with failure. In short, an offensive proactive approach might work for politicians, but it is a disaster for the police.
Holding fire with comment and statements during media-led public opinion storms requires strong nerves. It requires maturity. But nobody said managing police PR was easy.
I do not believe that leaking information is always wrong. It is just that the police have got carried away with attempting to “manipulate” coverage in their favour. But that’s a mug’s game. It’s a game for losers because the cards are stacked in the media’s favour. The police must set the rules, not be led by the media’s and the mob’s insatiable demands.
Moreover, some police officers have been seduced by the promotion prospects that they suspect being a high-profile cop provides. Only to discover too late that the media often bites the hand that feeds them and that public adulation easily turns to condemnation. Puffed egos of media cops also breeds resentment among rank and file coppers. It sows the seeds of the high-profile personality conflicts that have plagued the Metropolitan Police Service.
Cops are not employed to be celebs or media players. They should keep their political thoughts and internal differences behind closed doors. Or at least the property of their trade associations.
PR professionals are employed to educate the public about the role of the police in fishing for evidence and maintaining public order. Their allegiance is to their employer, not the media. Their task is to defend the police’s reputation.
It matters that when the police do speak that what’s said carries weight and is sustainable.
Let’s stop spinning law and order.