Medis: Analysis; Police and local press collide

DESPITE ALL the changes that have buffeted newspapers in the last 10 years, in local papers there remain some staples of the job. These include the "condition check" to a hospital to find out how a car crash victim is doing, and the police briefing to find out the latest crimes that have been committed, and who the victims are.

This now seems under threat. Across the country, police forces are changing the way they deal with local newspapers and the amount of information they give away.

Late last year, Gloucestershire Constabulary started the trend when it announced that it would no longer provide the details of those involved in road accidents. The force claimed it was acting after receiving complaints from car crash victims who felt they had had their privacy infringed by local papers.

Editors were furious, arguing that they were being cut off from a supply of stories which they regarded as their right: "If a local person is in hospital it is of interest to their neighbours and friends to know how they are doing," said Anita Syvret, editor of the Gloucestershire Echo. "I wouldn't fight to my last breath to protect the right to receive details of every bang and shunt, but criminal cases can slip past us if we don't have the identity of the driver to watch out for when a case goes to court."

The Gloucestershire force later amended its rules so that criminal cases could be released to journalists, but local editors don't believe that that instruction has been passed down the line to all police officers and press officers. A system giving accident victims an identity number, which could be used for condition checks at hospitals, has been rejected as too slow and imprecise to suit newspapers' requirements: "Who wants to read about a severe concussion that may or not be a young man or an old woman?" asked one reporter on a local paper in the county.

Gloucestershire's initiative was followed last week by Cheshire police, again to howls of outrage from local editors. Cheshire decided to hold back not only the identity of car crash victims, but also most details of any crime committed locally - again, to protect the identity of victims, who objected to seeing their full names and addresses in local newspapers. A meeting was hastily convened between local newspapers across the North- west, and local radio stations in Manchester and Merseyside. Cheshire police backed down - and will hold back identities only of those victims of crime who specifically request it.

The Congleton Chronicle put the story of the police's attempted "news blackout" on its front page, and its editor, Jeremy Condiffe, believes this helped push the police back to a policy of openness: "More local newspapers should take a stance if the police attempt to cut off the supply of information. The advantage at this paper is that it is part of an independent company, so I was able to make the decision to put the story on the front page."

However, recent legal developments mean that editors may be fighting a losing battle to keep some of these traditional sources of news. The Association of Chief Police Officers' media advisory group is currently engaged in drawing up new guidelines for local forces' dealings with the media.

ACPO believes that the passing of the European Convention on Human Rights into British law, with its clause on a right to privacy, means police forces would be breaking the law if they gave out the identities of victims of crimes and car crashes. The updating of the Data Protection Act last year has also meant that the Data Protection Registrar is in a stronger position to tell police forces not to give out details of victims who have been entered on to computer records, and accounts of incidents.

The Data Protection Act has always applied to police forces and victims of crime, but has been ignored up until now. Some in the media believe that the police's desire to obey it and the Human Rights Convention to the letter is symptomatic of a freezing of relations between police and press. "There is growing reluctance to help out when you are writing a background piece," says one member of the Crime Reporters' Association. "You feel that the police fail to understand why journalists have any right to any information at all."

On the other side of the argument, Elisabeth Neville, chief constable of Wiltshire, made a speech last year to the Guild of Editors telling of a man whose wife and two children had been killed in a car accident. When he got home, he found a pack of reporters trying to get quotes. Given the power of the law, and the power of such emotive tales, some traditional newsroom practices are likely to be on the way out.