Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Banned on the Run

Incredible. An over-used word but completely accurate of my reaction to Avon & Somerset Police banning ITN from their Joanna Yeates press conference this morning. I really could not believe it. The last thing any Senior Investigating Officer ought to want is to prevent a large section of the community from hearing the message - even when that message is, seemingly, quite short and merely releases something that might have been expected to have been in the public domain days ago.

Whoever imposed the ban was certainly acting robustly, swiftly and decisively; whether this is one of those situations where the wrong decision is better than no decision remains to be seen. I have my doubts.

When presenting on the Amelie Delagrange case to the national 'Media Management' course at Bramshill, my rule number one was simple. Police must always engage with the media, if for no other reason than that if there is a dearth of information released then the journalists will find it from other sources of probably dubious origin. Engagement and dialogue means influence - even a degree of control, at least of the quality of the information received by the media if not of what they do with it. Though that too, as we know, is perfectly possible if the relationship is sound.

I saw the ITN report which angered the force so much. It was obviously critical, but thankfully we exist in a state where criticism of the Police is allowed. Unless they banned that while I was worrying about hunting and smoking, and somehow I missed it. Was it unfair, as the complaint alleged? I think it might have been, but probably wasn't. Let me explain. Mark Williams Thomas made some reasonable points; at least he raised a few questions which were worth asking. But for none of them was a perfectly reasonable answer impossible. For example, the drink-bottles and cardboard coffee cups at the body deposition site. Yes, of course one would expect that area to have been thoroughly searched and everything retained. But Joanna was found 9 days ago; that area was cordoned off for some time while searches were conducted, and then re-opened. Since then journalists, film crews, photographers, well-wishers and presumably the odd ghoul or two have spent many hours there. Might they have dropped a piece of litter or two?

I know those who deal with crime on ITN well enough to know they are absolutely professional and keen to support rather than attack the Police. They want Joanna's killer caught as much as anyone, and want to play their part if they can. Once reasonable queries were raised by their pundit, I am sure they will have raised them in turn with Avon & Somerset, to get their views or their explanation. I would be completely amazed if this were not the case.

Which puts the ball back firmly in the A&S court. If these questions were asked of them, and they gave up the opportunity to engage and give their side, then they can't complain when the piece runs as it did. Alternatively, if ITN went ahead either failing to put the questions, or having put them then ignoring the responses, then of course the Police should be cross. Of course they should have words with ITN, robustly, swiftly and decisively. And make sure that ITN give the opportunity to put things right, clear up the misunderstanding and then move on.

But banning a mainstream national broadcaster from a conference? Whether it is a stupid, childish, 'take-my-ball-home' reaction, or high-handed arrogance is in many ways irrelevant - though it may be either or both. Quite simply, the success or otherwise of difficult, Category A+, stranger murder investigations such as this may hinge on maintenance of media interest with the mass communication opportunities that brings. Why effectively switch off half the nation's TV sets to your message? Why risk your media strategy becoming the story rather than a terrible murder? Avon and Somerset must accept that while their primary duty is to solve the murder and protect the public, these high-profile cases bring another responsibility - to enable proper public interest and discussion. It is completely unrealistic to expect to conduct a Category A+ murder investigation from within a bubble.

I fear, indeed am certain though, that this will not be the last time I am agitated by a refusal of Police to engage in a sensible way with the media over a high profile case. It will arise again much closer to home, before the Summer comes, you mark my words..............

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