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Mail investigation exposes "secret police"

Police are only telling the press and public about a tiny percentage of crimes reported to them according to an investigation by one regional daily.

Using the Freedom of Information Act, Oxford Mail crime reporter Matt Wilkinson discovered there were over 6,000 crimes reported to Thames Valley Police in Oxfordshire during a four-week period in July.

During the same period, only 22 were then put out to the public and the sum total for one fortnight in July was a single appeal for witnesses to a teenager whose foot was run over by a car.

The Newsquest-owned paper’s editor Simon O’Neill has hit out at what he calls the force’s “no-communications policy” after the findings were carried in the paper under the headline ‘Secret Police.’

Among the crimes reported to police but not disclosed were 49 robberies, 41 sexual offences, 310 burglaries and 452 violent incidents.

When the Mail asked for further details on the unreported serious crimes, the force’s press office refused to provide any information.

Said Simon: “We’re not in business to bash the police. On the contrary, we explicity support and respect the job being done by our hardworking policemen and women.

“However, after four years battling with a force culture which suppresses more and more information, we had to do something to expose what we see as Thames Valley’s secretive and manipulative communications policy. It should be called a no-communications policy.”

He added: “My predecessor at the Mail, the late Jim McClure, was once a crime reporter in white-ruled South Africa.

“He once told me that he got more information and co-operation from the apartheid regime’s police than he did from Thames Valley. I thought at the time he was exaggerating. I now know he wasn’t.

“This is an organisation funded by the taxpayer and answerable to them. Denying the Press and public information on what is happening in the interests of reducing the fear of crime is hardly the work of a truly open and democratic organisation.”

Chief Constable Sara Thornton and her deputy Alex Marshall, whose portfolio covers the press office, both refused to speak to the paper.

Oxfordshire area commander Brendan O’Dowda did talk and said there were other ways for the force to put out information, including through Neighbourhood Watch, neighbourhood action groups and policing boards. She admitted ‘the fear of crime’ was one reason so little was released.

Now Oxford East MP Andrew Smith wants to meet senior officers to discuss the paper’s findings.

He said: “We all have a shared responsibility as a community to combat crime and if the public is to do all it can to help, it needs to know where and when information is needed.”


Cliff Mogg (10/09/2008 13:08:58)
I am not surprised at the findings of the Oxford Mail’s investigation.
Until my retirement just over a year ago, I worked for 13 years with the Surrey Hants Star at Aldershot.
When I started there a Sergeant or Inspector would each week give us long list of crimes ranging from car thefts and burglaries to punch-ups and robberies.
Then, during my final years with the paper, civilian press officers took over and the news dried up.
According to these press officers the Aldershot-Farnborough area was almost a crime free zone.
We knew it wasn’t true because readers would contact us with stories of arson and other crimes which the police hadn’t told us about.
The only time we received a press release from Hampshire police was if they were seeking witnesses.
It was always my contention that the news black out was part of a policy to reduce the fear of crime in the area.
The Oxford Mail’s findings confirm that view.

drew cochrane (10/09/2008 16:47:07)
Exactly, the same is happening in the west of Scotland. In my area of Ayrshire a police constabls sends an email listing 2 or 3 small items. The police effectively censor the news.
There was a great tradition of the local reporter meeting the sergeant or inspector at the police office but Strathclyde Force has stopped this, and suppress crime items. We had a letter to the editor recently asking if anyone knew who the local police were. It was spot on. We used to know them by name.
A month ago we offered to do a picture story on a local bobby on a bike. We are still awaiting an answer

Nigel Green (11/09/2008 09:50:03)
I am writing to congratulate the Oxford Mail for exposing the way police now hold back huge numbers of crimes from the media – and thus the public.
I am a freelance journalist based in the North East and I have spent most of my 23 years covering crime stories.
In recent years, I have noticed a disturbing trend for police forces to release fewer and fewer crimes.
My own local force of Northumbria is particularly bad. I have collected hundreds of examples of horrendous crimes, including sex attacks and armed robberies, that have been kept hidden for no good reason. After a particularly “quiet” two weeks last Christmas and New Year, the force released just 27 incidents to the press – roughly two a day. This is from one of Britain’s busiest forces, which spends more than £1 million a year on its press office.
I made an application under the Freedom of Information Act and found there had been more than 17,000 incidents during that period.
When I questioned this, the Deputy Chief Constable David Warcup wrote to tell me that all the crimes mentioned were held back for “operational reasons” and the force did not have to “further justify” this to me.
Obviously, forces cannot be expected to release every detail of every crime. Likewise, it is understandable that personal details of crime victims are withheld.
However, there is no doubt they are now regularly hiding a huge number of serious crimes. I am told this is because they are under instructions from the Home Office to reduce the “fear of crime”. In other words, they are censoring the news for political reasons. More importantly, failing to warn the public what is happening in their area, while also missing out on a helpful way of catching criminals.
While this is an issue for all journalists, it is particularly important that regional editors challenge forces when they refuse to information.
I am glad to see that the Oxford Mail is doing this.
Keep up the good work.
Nigel Green. Freelance Journalist, Northumberland.

Paul Kelly (11/09/2008 11:22:13)
If the police want to be kept out the paper then so be it: next time you guys receive a press release about how good the force is then just bin it. Likewise you should also bin PR puffs from MPs who praise the police. If the police won’t play ball then why should we? If MPs won’t change the system then why should we publicise their thoughts?
I knew one editor who also refused to publish stories on bravery awards or anything reflecting well on a force such was his annoyance at the ‘no communications’ policy of the police on his patch. Sounds harsh but is it any harsher than the Home Office’s policy of ‘keep the public in the dark’?
Time and time again we hear from Home Secretaries how they’re looking into our grievances and how they value the regional press. We should tell the lot to sling their hooks and keep them out the paper until we get fair play.
When I worked in the Midlands I remember police officers on the ground complaining their sterling work was never highlighted in the paper. It came as a shock to them when I told them their own force never bothered to tell us or even respond to basic queries.
So the Home Office’s ‘keep them in the dark’ policy is as frustrating to journalists as it is to the rank-and-file.
What a system.

Old hack (17/09/2008 14:48:28)
This is a trend I have noticed and s
tems from the rise of the civilian press officer. Perhaps the public (and some MPs) would be interested in hearing from the police how much they spend on press officers. In most larger forces it is well over a million quid.
There is a way around this problem and that is to get talking to the sergeants, especially those who have been in the job for a long time, as they still want the public to hear about the mess they have to clear up on the public’s behalf. The university educated twits who head most of the police forces of course are only interested in reaching targets such as public perception and these are not helped when there are regular reports of crimes.

Mum of two (04/11/2008 16:41:07)
Don’t the police realise that keeping quiet about the crimes in their area just makes them look daft? I live in the Thames Valley Police area, and some years ago tipped off a reporter friend of mine about a bus full of passengers which was attacked by baseball bat-wielding thugs late at night. When he contacted the Old Bill for details, they told him it did not happen. Perhaps I imagined it all then. Meanwhile, everyone in town knew about it and just despaired or laughed at the police attitude. Who do they think they are kidding? I used to think the police were PUBLIC servants. Guess not.