Police press offices are a public insult

I ran into the Guardian’s Paul Lewis after the Julian Assange event at City University last night. He’d just come from reporting this story on the fallout from the secret £3m CCTV surveillance operation that targeted Muslims in Birmingham.

Project Champion was sold to residents as a safety measure. Residents were told that the hundreds of CCTV and Automatic Numberplate Recognition Cameras (ANPR) installed in streets around Sparkbrook and Washwood Heath would be used to combat vehicle crime and antisocial behaviour. Police had planned a total of 218 cameras in the area, 72 of which would be covert.

It was due to an investigation by Paul Lewis that the truth came out which was that the project was, in fact being run from the West Midlands police counter-terrorism unit with the consent of security officials at the Home Office and MI5.

Yesterday, Thames Valley Police released their report into the project and found among other things that:

Police devised a “storyline” that concealed the true purpose of the cameras. Counter-terrorism insignia was removed from paperwork as part of a deliberate strategy to “market” the surveillance operation as a local policing scheme to improve community safety.

This ties it directly with something I talk about in The Silent State – the takeover of Public Relations in our public bodies. But there was another worrying thing I discovered about this incident while talking to Paul.

West Midlands Police had failed to tell him about the press conference and then refused to respond to any of his enquiries once another reporter told him about the event. He ended up tweeting:

At 1.07pm: ‘West Midlands police press office ignoring my queries about inquiry into Project Champion Muslim spy plan.’

Then at 2.21pm when there was still no response he named the head of the press office directly: ‘could @mattmarkham1 or his colleagues in west midlands police office answer questions about this story? http://bit.ly/bRy5zb’

‘I phoned seven times and they still never responded,’ Paul said.

Matt Markham is Chief Inspector at West Midlands Police and the Head of Press and PR. The common excuse given by public bodies for excessive spending on press offices is to say it’s needed to help the media. As I document in The Silent State, nothing could be further from the truth. PR exists for control purposes, to hinder, rather than to inform, and this is a fine example.

Public officials also often complain about the irresponsibility of the press. Yet here we see a responsible reporter who writes stories based on facts and in the public interest being frozen out of a press conference precisely because of the strength of his journalism, by a police force already accused of misleading the public with false information.

It is entirely too common for public officials like Matt Markham to believe they don’t have to account for themselves and their organisation to the public. Mr Markham’s refusal to answer Paul’s questions isn’t just an insult to a good reporter, it’s an insult to all the people who pay Mr Markham’s wage and in whose name he is supposedly working. By keeping silent and refusing to answer important questions that people have a right to know he has shown the absolute contempt with which West Midlands Police views its citizens.

Sadly, this is not unusual. Too many public servants refuse to account to the public directly. And too often journalists collude in protecting this corrupt system of secrecy. Journalists need to blow the lid on this lack of accountability. If press officers want to insist they are the only conduit for official information but can’t be bothered to respond to serious questions then they need to be named and shamed.

5 Responses to “Police press offices are a public insult”

  1. Alex M says:

    I like how you object to all journalists being tarred with the same, ‘irresponsible’ brush, yet are happy to paint all PR people as control freaks whose one job is to make sure the public are not informed.

  2. Rajendra Joshi says:

    A retired police sergeant, I challenged for most of my service, this inept nepotism that exists inside policing. Press Offices exist for one reason and one reason only; primarily their role is to big up policing, sell only positive stories, and boost trust and confidence. The latter element is no bad thing.

    However, in conducting this role press office managers “just do,” they rarely question; they have no vision or idea of equality or diversity; in fact in my experience, some of the managers in such units consider themselves to be secondary Chief Constables almost. Such is their close relationship with the Senior Teams; and this club culture continues beyond and even into the office of secretaries to the most senior officers.

    Most are often blasé, lack any people skills, are abrupt and often direct towards others. Very early in service I walked in to the press office as a new Sergeant, but my views on race equality were not liked by the manager; who behaved verbally rude towards me. What is worst still was that 2 Asian colleagues were present and both were aware that this manager then went and spoke with the Deputy Chief Constable to try and get me banned from their offices.

    This damaging culture is the culture of gate keeping and fantasy. I only found out years later that this had occurred. Most of these people do not even have the powers of the Constable; but they behave like they do; almost living in some sort of dream world. But Chief Officers allow this because press offices and secretaries act as “gate keepers,” holding back those n the inside that have questions.

    Now consider the number of employees working within press offices, promoting and developing internal departmental websites and so forth. These units are full of unnecessary roles. When it comes to writing the “truth,” press offices are not interested if this truth reduces confidence; and this view from the inside is the irony of the “control mechanism” you write about; that is fully supported by Chief Officers.

  3. Matt Markham says:

    Notification went out to all media which included the Guardian. No one was excluded and one to one interviews were given by the Chief Constable to BBC, ITV and BBC Asian Network amongst others. They were all free to ask whatever they wished
    Paul HAS been given answers to previous quesions and FOI requests. Likewise, he was free to come to the press conference and ask whatever he wished.

  4. Timothy O'Brien says:

    I have read the silent state book and I must agree with the concept of naming those that make the decisions because knowing that their name is attached to those decisions will make them a lot more careful and act with due diligence.
    To be fair I don’t know who said what when, but I am minded to side with the reporter who is after all acting in the public interest and not the PR officer who is acting in the police interest.
    I wonder, has heather ever considered going on question time? Would the powers that be allow her on ;)

  5. Matt says:

    I’ve just been reading The Silent State and can see that our democracy is diminishing far more than I had thought. It’s a masterly account of how people in the UK are obstructed in our attempts to find out what is going on. I recommend everyone should read it and worry.

    It entirely mirrors my own search for information about a local medical matter. Unfortunately I have also found considerable apathy amongst people for getting to the truth. For some it is because of disillusionment with their obstructed attempts to discover the truth and for others it is due to a naive trust in what they are told by ‘officials’

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