May the Force be with us, please?
Monday 02 February 1998
It is now 25 years since Sir Robert Mark, the last Metropolitan Police Commissioner, faced with a substantial body of corrupt officers within his ranks, decided that the best way to tackle these difficulties was to enlist the help of the media. Reporters and correspondents were given duplicated sheets containing the direct lines of more than 2,000 detectives and other officers whom Sir Robert believed to be "straight", while the Commissioner made himself available at every opportunity to explain his strategy. The contrast with the present incumbent, Sir Paul Condon, who also believes he faces serious corruption problems, could not be more striking.
Sir Robert's openness was the start of a bewildering flip-flop process in which the police have alternately embraced glasnost and something which seems to resemble outright Stalinism in their approach to information. In the Met, Sir Robert was followed by Sir David McNee, who promptly withdrew all the direct lines previously distributed and slammed the portcullis on Scotland Yard. After a more neutral interlude under Sir Kenneth Newman, openness was back when Sir Peter Imbert took up the job in 1987. A golden age ensued, during which reporters found themselves able to arrange access to officers of all ranks on request, and despite the spate of miscarriages of justice which took place during Sir Peter's reign, it is no coincidence that opinion poll evidence suggests that overall, the public image of policing improved.
I, like many specialist reporters, expected the same approach when Sir Paul took over six years ago. It was with something of a chill that I heard the response to my first request for access to a police station from a Met Press Officer once the new man was in post: "Could be interesting, but what's in it for us?"
In place of an instinctive belief that in a democratic society, the police have an overriding duty to explain themselves, and be as honest as possible when things go wrong, the staff now serving Sir Paul displayed an apparent instant mastery of the dark art of the spin doctor. Information was not only power, but was to be manipulated to suit whatever agenda the high command happened to be pursuing at the time.
In the mid-Nineties, there was a series of vexed meetings between the Crime Reporters' Association and the Yard Press Department, in which correspondents expressed their despair at the basic difficulty they were experiencing in doing their jobs. Each time we were promised openness was around the corner once again, but each time our hopes have been dashed. Today, Scotland Yard bugs pagers and mobile telephones in an attempt to discover which officers are speaking without authorisation to journalists, and news-gathering around the Metropolitan Police is pervaded by a climate of fear.
Sir Peter Imbert, of course, had come from the Thames Valley Police, where he had allowed Roger Graef to make an epochal 13-part documentary series for the BBC, a series which had a lasting impact on police methods throughout the country. Thames Valley weren't always happy with the results, but Charles Pollard, the current Chief Constable, has displayed an equally open approach in allowing the BBC to make my current series, The Force.
In six months filming, our team was granted remarkable access not only to operations, but also to individual officers who were enabled freely to express their opinions, even where these were in conflict with headquarters' policy. Mr. Pollard's approach seems to be that openness is a virtue in itself, and has beneficial consequences throughout the service. We agree to show the finished films to Thames Valley before transmission, but under the terms of our agreement, they would object only if we had depicted something that might endanger an officer's safety, not because of something embarrassing or inconvenient.
Why is openness so important? Aside from the general principle that publicly- funded bodies ought to be accountable, there is the basic but compelling argument that if the police have nothing to hide, then they would find it in their interest to behave in a way which suggests that this is so. In Thames Valley, it seemed apparent to me that morale was markedly higher than in the Met. My conclusion is that officers who are trusted - rather than constantly monitored - are more likely to enjoy their jobs, and thus provide a better service to the public. Sir Paul says he has adopted his restrictive approach to information as a result of cases where newspapers paid officers for tip-offs, beginning with the death of the Tory MP Stephen Milligan.
But it seems clear to me that it is precisely his closed culture which encourages this sort of low-level corruption. In a more open environment, where journalists may speak to police officers more freely, there is little incentive for money to change hands.
It would be ingenuous, perhaps, to claim that the spread of fear and the occasional receipt of tabloid bungs has created an atmosphere in which the big-time criminal corruption which Sir Paul now wants to target, flourishes. But it is difficult to see how his media policy assists his present campaign.
`The Real Inspector Morse', the second part of `The Force', presented by David Rose, is broadcast on BBC2 on Wednesday at 9.50pm
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