Elizabeth Filkin, the former Parliamentary Standards Commissioner (who proved to be too competent for the sleazy MPs) has produced an interesting report into the cosy relationship between the top managment of the Metroplitan Police Service and the print media, specifically, but not exclusively News International.
The Ethical Issues Arising from the Relationship Between Police and Media (302 Kb .pdf)
When reading this report, you could and should mentally replace the words "MPS" or "Metroplitan Police Service", with "Downing Street" or "Whitehall Department" and especially with "Home Office", "Cabinet Office", "Ministry of Defence MoD", "Security Service MI5", "Secret Intelligence Service MI6" or "GCHQ".
Almost all of Elizabeth Filkin's conclusions and reccomendations for improving the Metropolitan Police's duties of transparency and accountability to the public, whilst protecting the operational security of ongoing investigations and also protecting the personal details of innocent members of the public and junior staff etc., could and should be applied to these other powerful, privilged, yet increasingly untrusted, supposedly public institutions.
The Metroplitan Police Service has been practicing the black arts of media spin and manipulation and their public reputation has suffered as a result.
3.2.1 Inequality of access
It is felt both internally and externally that the MPS has not given equal access to all parts of the media for a number of years and that certain special relationships have developed selectively.
The kind of off the record nature of it all is actually counter-productive, and if we really want to hold public institutions to account we have to do it in an open, transparent and proper way. But the way they operate is they have the kind of closed press briefings, drinks at the pub - it's a club. Journalists get too close to senior police officers, because you get far more stories if you're nice to them than if you're not. And the result is I think we are quite generally in this industry, too reluctant to write critical pieces, than we were previously.
Trading information and even betraying details about innocent members of the public, in order to about to divert media attention away from embarrasing stories about the MPS themselves:
I have also been given examples where inappropriate information has been provided to the media, to dilute or prevent the publication of other information which could be damaging to the MPS or senior individuals within it. Of course there can be proper and ethical negotiations with the media to prevent the obstruction of an investigation, harm to
members of the public or the MPS, or to ensure accuracy in reporting. However some negotiations have included unethical placing of material, or offering exclusive stories to the media to bury other information.
"So that if you get the Press Officer who says, well, if I give Reporter 'A' a particular story exclusively, then next week Reporter 'A' will do me a favour. And you've got a direct conflict now between what the public needs and what the Press Officer wants."
Nick Davies, Freelance Journalist
Lack of Transparency, even when there is no justifiable operational need for it:
According to some, MPS contact with the media has in the past been characterised by back door briefings through informal and unofficial channels. This view was also reached when MPS communications were the subject of some informal advice from the private sector in 2010. I understand that this offer of help from an outside expert on improving communications with the public was undermined by the threat of negative press coverage.
Some contact will involve trusting the media with confidential information. There will also be occasions when negotiation between the MPS and the media will be necessary to ensure accurate reporting. I am concerned that some may use these proper practices to justify a general lack of transparency both in terms of who has contact with the media and what information they provide. Problems like the trading of information or the apparent closeness of some relationships with the media fuel the perception that the business of dealing with the press is by its nature secretive.
"I think if you spend your whole career working on secretive investigations, and concealing information, things like that, which is really, really important, it just goes to your head somehow, sometimes, and you think that you kind of own this information, and you forget that you're there to serve the public."
In most circumstances police officers and staff providing information to the media should expect to be named. In some instances it may be appropriate for only their role or position to be published. It should always be the case that the information is attributed to the MPS.
The culture of secrecy and the use of "Anonymous briefings" attributed to "police sources" are as stupid and counterproductive as those attributed to "Whitehall sources"
"I phoned up and said 'I've got some questions here', it was almost as though you were asking for them to release something which is privileged information somehow, it's absolutely not. So I just try back channels now, trying other contacts in the Met, going round the back within the slightly kind of shadowy stuff that you have to do to get data, because the front door doesn't work."
It is clear both from speaking to journalists and politicians, and from media reports even during the time of my review, that use of the word 'police source' can mislead. Every time this phrase is used it implies a leak. I have been told that it is also used in situations where the information comes from a different but related organisation such as the MPA, or as a generic term to try and protect the real provenance of a source. It is also sometimes used where the information has been legitimately and formally supplied by the MPS press office. This is a damaging practice with the potential to create a perception that leaks from the MPS are more widespread than they are.