A political editor has hit back at a senior police officer’s refusal to answer her newspaper’s questions on the grounds that its journalists “write what they want anyway.”
Manchester Evening News politics and investigations editor Jen Williams has criticised Greater Manchester Police over its response to the issue of a new £29m computer system which has been beset with problems.
The MEN began writing about the troubled system more than six months ago, and numerous police officers have contacted the paper about it regarding issues ranging from lost records to delayed investigations, crime backlog and soaring costs.
But the latest failure of the system prompted Jen to take to Twitter to recall a recent police scrutiny meeting at which Chief Superintendent Phil Davies said he “doesn’t want his team answering our questions about problems with it because ‘they’re going to write what they want to write anyway’”.
In a series of follow-up posts linking to a story about the system, Jen wrote: “Greater Manchester Police says it doesn’t need to bother answering our questions about their vastly expensive and troubled IT system because we ‘write what we want’ anyway.”
“I know I periodically whinge about attitudes towards the press in this country, but when it comes from the top, I do think it needs to be called out, whether that’s from Number 10 or Greater Manchester Police. It’s insidious.
“Anyway, aside from that, I might as well explain, in basic terms, why we keep writing stories about this.
“Public expenditure. Big IT problems in the public sector do ‘make a really good headline’, as the officer says. But there’s a reason for that: It’s our [money].
“When you have this many frontline police officers approaching us, in fear of losing their jobs, all saying the same thing and saying please keep writing about this, you know there’s a problem. Police officers don’t routinely do that.”
The Society of Editors has now spoken out in support of Jen.
Executive director Ian Murray said: “Attempts by government officials and public bodies to control the flow of information is nothing new however, in the past few weeks, we have seen overt and deeply worrying attacks on the media’s ability to fulfil its function on a scale of which we have not seen previously.
“From attempts by Number 10 and elected officials to bypass the mainstream media and to determine who gets to report the news, to senior police officers that do not wish their team to focus on responding to legitimate questions by journalists where matters of safeguarding have been raised by other officers, public officials are increasingly taking it upon themselves to determine what should and should not be reported.
“It is the Society’s belief that these overt attempts to clampdown on what is being reported and by whom, are resulting in the public being knowingly deprived of vital information that it is entitled to in a democratic society.
“Moving forward the Society will not only be seeking greater assurances from government and public officials that they recognise the intrinsic and vital role that the media plays in relation to the public’s right to know but we will be openly calling out attacks on press freedom wherever they take place.”
The SoE has also written to Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police Ian Hopkins on the matter.
It said: “It is unhelpful for a senior officer to suggest that answering the questions of reporters should not be a focus for his team. More worryingly, the inference that journalists will write what they wish to regardless of the facts is both inaccurate and grossly offensive.
“The whole point of journalists asking questions is not only to provide a clearer account and context to an issue but also to avoid inaccuracies and to provide the subject of an article with a fair opportunity to respond to concerns and criticism.
“As I hope you will appreciate, a Chief Superintendent openly criticising a newspaper for performing its role not only works to undermine public confidence and trust in the force’s willingness to be scrutinised but it also has an insidious effect on the value placed by other, less senior, officers on the vital function that journalists perform on behalf of the public.
“Ultimately, attempts to control the flow of information and the refusal to engage and answer the questions of the media only results in the public being deprived of information that it is entitled to in a democratic society.”
HTFP has approached GMP for a response to Jen’s comments.