Chris Marshall: Police problems highlighted by journalists, not caused by them

The role of the police is always going to be under media scrutiny, but that does not mean the problem is the messenger.
The role of the police is always going to be under media scrutiny, but that does not mean the problem is the messenger.
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Sir Stephen House, the former chief constable and no great lover of the press, once surprised journalists with the revelation that he had joined Twitter.

An old-school copper with a inherent distrust of the Fourth Estate, Sir Stephen was quick to add that he would be keeping an anonymous watching brief only and had no plans to tweet his innermost thoughts on the state of policing.

This natural reticence seems to have been overcome by Police Scotland’s current top brass who have joined Twitter en masse over the past few months.

The era where readers found out about a new lead in a murder inquiry or the latest twist in a High Court trial via the pages of the late night final are fast receding from all but the most nostalgic of minds.

In a world where most members of the public now consume news through Facebook and Twitter on their smartphones, it makes perfect sense for Police Scotland’s senior officers to step into that virtual space.

A missing person appeal from a chief superintendent which goes viral on social media has a reach and an immediacy which a newspaper story – or even an online article – will likely fail to replicate.

But for every senior Police Scotland figure on Twitter there is a larger number of anonymous accounts claiming to be serving or retired officers. While many of these accounts appear genuinely interested in debating the state of policing, others seek to shut that debate down, railing against what they see as sensationalist or misleading reporting.

These views have been in some way legitimised in the past few weeks by comments from Assistant Chief Constable Iain Livingstone and Derek Penman, HM inspector of constabulary in Scotland.

Mr Livingstone called for space to make decisions free of political interference, saying he and others had been unprepared for the “intense” media scrutiny which came with the creation of Police Scotland in 2013.

While acknowledging the importance of the press, Mr Penman said “sustained” media interest had the potential to undermine public confidence and put off candidates from applying for senior leadership roles in the service.

Police Scotland would no doubt love a situation where any news about the service appeared only on its official Twitter feed or Facebook timeline, but it would be the public left bereft.

Without dogged investigative journalism it is unlikely we would know about early failings in the inquiry into the 2005 murder of Emma Caldwell or the problems being experienced in Police Scotland’s call handling.

Contrary to what some may believe, the police’s problems are illuminated by the press, not caused by them.

At times over the past few years policing in Scotland has attempted to withdraw from view in the face of this perceived media intrusion.

Moves such as the Scottish Police Authority’s short-lived decision to hold the majority of its meetings in private and away from prying eyes are nearly always destined to backfire.

Many of Police Scotland’s most controversial decisions – deploying armed officers to routine incidents, for example – would have been less contentious if better communicated.

In the year ahead, let’s hope for a period of stability in Scottish policing but also a grudging respect for those who seek to cover its highs and lows.