John McLellan: Police press restrictions keep public in the dark

Share this article
Have your say

Tight controls threaten public right to know, writes the editor of The Scotsman

The relationships between police and the press in Scotland has been under the spotlight at the Leveson inquiry, and it’s no exaggeration to say that contact between the two today is far removed from the times not so long ago when socialising and exchanging information was the norm. Paying police for information was never, in my experience, anything like the norm but it was not unheard of. Yesterday, Strathclyde chief constable Stephen House admitted as much.

But now it’s pretty much strictly business at all levels, not just because of any fear of corruption allegations but also stemming from a desire by the boys and girls in blue not to allow fear of crime to grow out of proportion.

At it’s most mundane level, daily requests to the duty sergeants from news desks with pages or airtime to fill for information about latest incidents will almost always be met with a resigned “No, nothing tonight, all quiet. Sorry.” But if our communities are measured by the responses to these calls alone, we should be living in Shangri-la.

Of course, we know the reality is very different and while the majority of people live in overwhelmingly law-abiding neighbourhoods, we all know of incidents which rarely see the light of day.

But if you live in an active neighbourhood watch area, your local newsletter is likely to paint a very different picture from that portrayed in your local paper. For it seems that beat cops have much more latitude to speak to their neighbourhood watch co-ordinator than the beat reporter from the local paper.

My part of Edinburgh has a particularly enthusiastic neighbourhood watch and diligent police officer, but judging by the pamphlet which comes round once a quarter or so, we live in the equivalent of Manhattan, not Merchiston.

Our own experience would seem to bear this out. In what is regarded as a good neighbourhood, we have had a window shot through with a BB gun, a bike stolen from our locked shed, windscreen wipers ripped off the car in the driveway, wing mirrors kicked, housebreakers disturbed along the canal and two incidents of crashed stolen cars. The last one, a month or so ago, resulted in half-a-dozen police vehicles cordoning off the street, yet the initial call to police HQ from a reporter to find out what was going on received the usual “no, all quiet last night” response. Eventually, details emerged and a story appeared in the Evening News.

Now, despite all the above, we like where we live and don’t feel threatened, but we do have a right to know what’s going on much more quickly than the neighbourhood watch newsletter. As contact between police and press becomes ever more tightly controlled, there is already a real danger that the public is only informed on a “need to know” basis and that can’t be right. Let the people be the judge of what they need to know, not the authorities.

Cycling safety

Not before time has a government minister held a meeting to discuss ways of improving the safety of cyclists on Scotland’s roads, after four cycling fatalities in the past year in Edinburgh alone.

I write with some interest in the subject as a regular cyclist to work, during which time I take my life in my hands dodging the bin lorries, hotel laundry services and dray deliveries along the Cowgate, few of which pay any heed to motorists never mind those on two wheels.

So transport minister Keith Brown should be applauded for taking the initiative this week, although like Scotland’s drinking habits, it is the attitude of the non-cycling public which needs to be addressed as much as the provision of cycle lanes and any other scheme he may propose.

The truth is that having been brought up in a country in which inactivity is as much a part of the culture as a half’n’a-half and Embassy Regal, a zero-tolerance towards cyclists is all too evident.

Once, when cycling home along said Cowgate, a van driver berated me for “taking his f***ing parking space.” Me? I use an underground car park and have a shed at home, old boy. Then, on Gilmore Place a few weeks later, a shaven-headed 20-something swerved into me, clipping my handle-bars with his wing mirror because I had the temerity not to want to hit the parked car on the other side of the lights. Fortunately for us both, I couldn’t quite catch him. I could go on.

Yes, I’ve cursed stupid cyclists flying along pavements or hurtling across pedestrian crossings. Some pedal-powered anarchists (and there are a lot of them in Edinburgh) give cycling a very bad name, but the truth is that cyclists have to put up with an awful lot more trouble than they cause and I can’t remember the last time a cyclist killed someone.

Maybe cycling on the road for a week should be part of the driving test? I’m sure most people would thing that a ridiculous idea, but at least then they might understand what it’s like to be exposed to the dangers of inconsiderate people driving half a ton of metal at them. And they’d be just that wee bit fitter.

Ofcom reject

Wanted, new members for Ofcom’s advisory committee for Scotland. Applicants should be able to demonstrate knowledge of communications matters, an understanding of Scotland’s evolving economy and culture, etc, etc.

I rather presumptuously thought I might fit the bill, and given the looming PCC-sized hole in my diary it would be a good use of my time and experience. Didn’t even get an interview. Ofcom, it seems, is no country for old newspapermen!

Winning work

Congratulations are due to Ruth Sherlock, our Middle East stringer who has brought Scotsman readers regular eye-witness accounts from the strife in Egypt, Libya, Lebanon and Syria.

Ruth has just been named Young Journalist of the Year at the British Press Awards and she epitomises resilience, resourcefulness and courage. And she can write a bit. Well done, Ruth.