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Commissioner's speech at the Brian Redhead Lecture

Blog post   •   Feb 10, 2016 18:45 GMT

The Commissioner Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe has spoken at the Brian Redhead Lecture in MediaCityUK in Salford - 10 February 2016:

Good evening and thank you for the invitation. As a Yorkshireman and a Sheffield Wednesday fan, it’s always hard to cross over to the other side of the Pennines and come to Manchester. Even worse, I spent much of my career in Liverpool, but despite all that you’ve given me a great welcome tonight. 

I’m particularly pleased to be asked to speak in the Brian Redhead Lecture. I know what a powerful symbol he continues to be of the best of BBC journalism.

To me, his skill was his crisp, clear, concise questions - he’d have made a good detective.

(I’ve also listened to him on Desert Island Discs) 

I recognise very clearly some similarities between what motivated him to be a journalist and what motivated me to be a police officer. He talks about being nosy, I prefer to talk about being curious, but I’m sure they amount to pretty much the same thing. 

Indeed, there are strong similarities between police officers and journalists - that desire to find things out, a fascination with people and their stories, and if you can, helping them out - and a desire to see justice done.

We both went to Oxbridge late - he’d been a journalist already and done National Service, I’d already served seven years in the police after working as an NHS lab assistant. We spent a lot of our careers as Northerners working in establishments dominated by Southerners. Mind you, let’s be clear I have the greatest respect for Southerners, and so would you if you met the Met’s finest. 

Of course, not all our motivations were the same. I became a police officer - because I couldn’t stand the bullies on the estate where I grew up. I wanted to take them on and stop them. Actually, remembering how Brian dealt with some of his interviewees, perhaps we were even similar even there.

I had to read it twice when I saw he’d died in 1994. It doesn’t seem that long ago. And you really do have to pinch yourself when you see how different the media is now. No internet. No social media. Can you imagine what @BrianRedhead (At Brian Redhead) would have been like on Twitter? An editor’s nightmare, I’m sure.

(Our key challenges when communicating with the public) 

Profound changes indeed, so I want to set out how I think policing needs to respond and also address the criticism that we’ve pulled up the Scotland Yard drawbridge and don’t talk to journalists any more.

You don’t need me to tell you it’s not easy. When you’re carrying out an investigation, you can’t disclose your evidence. If it’s being conducted in the glare of the media – like Operation Midland – what you see reported will always be an incomplete and partial account. My job is to let the officers get on with their work, to protect the integrity of the investigation, and make sure it’s not knocked off course by the public commentary. That can make us look insensitive at times, but I hope the expression of sympathy and regret we issued to Lord Bramall demonstrates that we do understand the distress felt by those under investigation.

We’re not afraid to learn how we can do these things better, and that’s why I’ve announced today an independent review of how the Met has conducted investigations involving non-recent sexual allegations against public figures. We need an independent legal mind to advise us whether we can provide a better balance between our duty to investigate and the interests of suspects, complainants and victims.

I’m sure the media will be reflecting too. If you look back even 18 months, you can see a staggering range of stories about the Dickens Dossier, allegations of paedophilia and policing cover-ups. The clamour to get to the bottom of this was deafening and the Met is now subject to several IPCC investigations involving historic cover-up allegations. Finding the evidence, if it exists, is a painstaking job for policing and will be for the Public Inquiry too. Final conclusions can only be reached once all the evidence has been assembled and analysed.

I accept that one challenge we have in communicating this to the public is the legacy of phone-hacking.

We had to launch one of the biggest anti-corruption investigations we’ve ever done, Operation Elveden, to find out how many police officers and public officials were being paid for confidential information. The other issue that has caused problems is how the police have used RIPA - the laws allowing us to access communication data to detect crime - where journalists are involved. I’ll address both later.

But first I’m going to lay out a few factors that I think should govern our approach to communicating with the public and the media over the next few years…

Firstly - doing the right thing

Our guiding principle as police officers must be to do the right thing and then explain it, however difficult. We should never ask ourselves what would be the most popular thing to do. Difficult decisions usually upset someone.

We must also retain public confidence. We need victims to come forward; we need communities to give us information; and we need the public to back us in the difficult things we sometimes need to do, like confronting armed criminals, or running challenging investigations. 

Secondly - digital transformation

The impact of digital on policing is profound. We’re about to equip all our frontline officers with body-worn cameras. This means all our contentious encounters with the public - including stop and search - will be recorded. Our officers love this because it provides a source of truth that is hard to dispute. I think the public will love it too. 

We’re also allowing our officers to access information on mobile devices and to use them for gathering evidence. They can then do their job without constant visits to police stations, and without writing down everything in their notebooks - very few have passed their shorthand exams. 

Digital will dramatically change our relationship with the public, allowing us to be better at informing, reassuring and empowering people so it’s easier for them to protect themselves and their property, and easier to help us. 

It’s already changing our communications function. Providing digital content, video, graphics, data to journalists and the public and requiring us to engage directly with the public as individuals and as virtual communities. I’ll talk more about how we’re doing this in a moment.

Third and last, the public, their changing expectations and how communities are evolving. 

People expect transparency and they expect high standards of behaviour in public life. Policing has responded to this, with a new Code of Ethics. It’s partly about showing the public on what basis we take decisions so they can be confident we’ve acted with integrity, but it’s also about helping our officers to work through the issues properly, just as medical ethics help doctors. 

In this context, our dealings with the media - and the public - have to be transparent and ethical. It is often said it is the Leveson Inquiry that has changed the police/media relationship. In truth, it would never have survived the Standards in Public Life test. It was doomed by changing public attitudes.

The public is changing in other ways. London is growing by 100,000 people every year, with more than 40 per cent of the population from minorities and over 300 languages spoken. The impact on policing is as profound as it must be for the BBC. Like you, we believe it’s our duty to uphold freedoms, values and a certain way of life through a British model of policing based on consent that works for all communities.

So with these three factors in mind, doing the right thing, transforming digitally and meeting the public’s changing needs, what are we doing?

Our approach to communication with the public broadly falls into four goals we have:

First, getting public support for operational policing – using the release of information to catch criminals and protect people; 

Second, managing crises and risks to the public, ideally through good prevention activity;

Thirdly, demonstrating transparency and accountability, leading to the fourth goal, 

Building confidence in the police – so that people trust us with information, help us with our investigations, accept that we have to do unpopular things that sometimes upset individuals, and understand when the complex job we have of protecting the public doesn’t always go the way we’d all like it to.

I’ll go through those in turn.

First, the public and the media have an enormous capacity to support operational policing

By using mainstream and social media, we can encourage the pubic to provide us with information that leads us to suspects, helps us find missing people, or generally builds public support for policing activity.

As far as our appeals are concerned, we are hugely indebted to the BBC for continuing to produce Crimewatch. Not only does it deliver four million or more viewers, it is also a powerful reminder of our collective responsibility to protect each other.

Our ability to put out high quality video using our own social media feeds has transformed our ability to appeal for information. We can also localise and internationalise our appeals too. In our recent appeal into the murder of WPC Yvonne Fletcher, we used paid-for Facebook advertising to get our message to parts of the world where we thought witnesses may be.

Supporting operational policing also means seeking and maintaining public support for difficult tactics which can bring us into conflict with individuals and communities. A good example is our need to use firearms to tackle armed criminals. Our firearms officers get called out thousands of times a year to deal with potential armed threats, but they only ever fire a handful times. It’s a split-second decision taken to protect life, the public’s, their colleague’s or their own.

I’m disappointed that support is sometimes equivocal, and I think anyone commenting on police shootings has a duty to put themselves in the shoes of the officers concerned. They don’t get up in the morning intending to go to shoot someone, but sometimes it happens, and when it does, the presumption should be that they are a witness not a criminal.

Secondly, we manage crises and risks to public safety 

We have a particular role in a crisis to ensure the public is informed, and minimise threats to life. We have very little experience in this country of roving gunmen – Hungerford, Dunblane and Cumbria are the examples most people remember. But we’ve had to plan for a Paris-type attack, with great support from the media. The Met has developed an approach where the police have a set of prepared messages to put out – with the support of the media – if there is an active gunman at large, whether they are a terrorist or not.

Social and digital media allows us to reach the people most directly affected in an incident. But we shouldn’t ignore traditional media. In Cumbria, the quickest way to get information out to do what we call ‘warning and informing’ was via local radio.

We manage many of society’s risks as well. That means the risks to vulnerable people and to all of us who may become victims of theft, burglary or a physical attack. The most obvious, perhaps, is the risk of a terrorist attack. We’ve been managing, with our close partners in the security agencies, the fact that an attack is highly likely since the summer of 2014. We’ve talked in detail to journalists about the nature of this threat, and for the most part, the reporting of potential risks has been calm, sensible and considered. That has allowed people to carry on living their lives, attending the England-France game at Wembley four days after the Paris attack, or celebrating New Year by the Thames. All in all, there’s no better example of the relationship between the police and the media working to best effect and to the benefit of the public.

As we move towards 2020, the Met wants to put crime prevention first, and to be as effective across all types of crime as British policing has to counter terrorism in recent years. Much good work is already done, but we’re raising our game so that we can give the public better information and hopefully nudge them towards reducing the risks to themselves or their property. We want to share this approach with journalists when it’s fully developed, because the media will have a vital role to play in helping us use the data we’ve got to reduce the risks to all of us.

Next I want to talk about our commitment to transparency and accountability

We’re committed to being as transparent as we can as that’s the best way to be held to account and build confidence in policing. 

For the Met, this meant dealing with nearly 60,000 enquiries from the media in 2015 through our 24/7 Media Bureau. We try to answer every question. They all get passed on to the relevant officer or member of staff - unless we’ve already prepared an answer. 

It also meant dealing with around 4,600 Freedom of Information requests, 40 per cent of which qualified for a response. Our dedicated FOI team has 24 people in it and costs around £1 million a year, the equivalent of almost 20 police officers.

However, transparency has to be qualified: we have to protect the confidentiality of police investigations, the evidence we’re gathering and the strategy for securing a conviction. 

We have to protect our tactics so that we don’t compromise our ability to defeat criminals.

And we also have to protect the confidentiality of individuals involved, whether as victims, witnesses or suspects. At times we’re criticised for this as in Yewtree, when the media was desperate to find out who was being investigated. More recently, we’ve been criticised because of the public scrutiny faced by those investigated. That’s why I believe they should have anonymity until they’re charged.

Ultimately, on very rare occasions, we follow the same approach as the security services by neither confirming nor denying things that are put to us, such as the identity or activity of undercover officers. This protects them, it protects the tactic, and it hasn’t stopped us apologising for the wrongs of the past.

So although we try to answer every question, some of our answers will be brief and I can understand why that can be very frustrating for the media.

And finally, building confidence 

You’d imagine that if we got all those things right, public confidence in the Met would continue to rise. It would, but only if the public knew what we were doing, understood what we’d had to do to manage risks to their safety and could see that we’d addressed the things that bother them most. 

Transparency is vital and that was why I wanted the BBC to make The Met documentary that was broadcast last year. It shows our officers are normal human beings, approachable and also fiercely committed. Our research showed that people felt more positive towards us after seeing the programmes, especially viewers from minority communities who had started from a more negative position. 

Of course, we have to demonstrate the same professionalism in all our encounters with the public, show that we treat people fairly. 

We can achieve some of this through our direct communication with the public through social and digital media. But we also need good relationships with journalists. That’s why I’ve been clear with my officers that I want them to have an open, professional and trusted relationship with media. I’ll set some ideas out in a moment, for how we can continue to work towards that.

What more are we doing to achieve these goals?

I mentioned earlier the profound impact that digital transformation is having on policing and in particular on our opportunities and our responsibility to communicate with the public.

The BBC is dealing with much the same issues so I wouldn’t suggest for a moment that what I’m about to say will surprise you. But I hope you’ll get something from hearing how police are responding.

Like you, we must go where the audience is and we must meet their demands and expectations, use the channels they are using for news, and provide them with the kind of content they’re used to getting from other news sources at the time they want it - nearly always right now.

First and foremost, this means we try to put news stories out first through social channels, usually Twitter, accompanied where possible by more detailed information. This meets both the demands of the public and the 24/7 news media, and ensures we can get out accurate information. In recent months, we’ve increased the amount of context we provide, recognising that many news stories are produced by journalists who don’t have the benefit of years of crime reporting. We also believe the public expect to be able to access this context directly.

It’s especially important to get news out quickly on social media when we’re dealing with an emergency like a Paris attack. We’ve been clear with mainstream media that they’ll get the fastest updates on social media, and I would say the same to the public. Know your local police force’s social accounts and follow them now - ready for an emergency.

Secondly, we need to be as adept at providing content for news websites. In particular, we’re trying to maximise the amount of video content, which is such a vital driver of traffic for our customers in the online world, and which news websites have told us they really want.

Increasingly, we find we need to create our own video content to maximise the benefits of social media, because we need particular messages to get across as part of an appeal. Likewise, we create an increasing number of information graphics. The mainstream media can immediately have a compelling way of telling the story of an event like the Hatton Garden robbery, whilst the audience gets to interact with the story.

The third key way in which we’re responding to the needs of the audience is by increasing the range and number of social media channels. Policing needs to engage with many different communities, and social media offers the ability to provide niche content for those audiences. That’s why I’ve encouraged hundreds of our local policing teams to open up accounts and give their public hyper-local news and information, whilst engaging with people’s concerns. 

What can we both do to improve police/media relations?

Not all news can be delivered via Twitter, and social media isn’t always the best way to show accountability. Policing can’t communicate all it needs to the public without a well-informed group of journalists who understand the issues, and care about reporting them to the public. I accept that the relationship we have with journalists is not in good health. Not enough officers feel confident to talk to journalists, but I want them too. So how can we build the relationships that have been tested so severely?

I think it’s too simplistic to blame Lord Leveson’s Inquiry. There have been profound changes to journalism because of the internet and social media; more pressure on journalists; more opinion and comment whilst social media often gets stories first; and standards in public life have changed putting a premium on transparent, open communication.

Added to this are the investigations involving journalists. Take Elveden – the investigation into payments made to public officials including police officers. This was a significant anti-corruption investigation to find out to what extent confidential systems had been compromised by police officers, prison officers and other public servants taking money for giving information to journalists. Whilst only one journalist has been convicted, 21 public officials have been.

It was really important to get to the bottom of this. In policing, our ability to protect the integrity of our confidential information is paramount. Criminals want that information. It’s got great value to them, and we had to find out the scale of the breach and deal with it. I fully accept that the media didn’t want to use that information in the same way that organised crime does, but you cannot have officers being paid for confidential material. 

The other issue that’s hit us both more recently has been the use of RIPA - the laws governing interception of communications and the gathering of data for investigative purposes. It was the Met that voluntarily disclosed how we’d done this to try to find out if there was a conspiracy behind the Plebgate incident. We recognised the ensuing concern and the impact on journalists’ trust in police, and we’re happy to put our requests through a judge in future if there’s the potential to disclose a journalist’s confidential source.

This leads me on to the first of my proposals for improving the media/police relationship. Police do understand the importance of protecting confidential sources. We spend a lot of time doing it ourselves, but I do think these cases demonstrate that we could be better in understanding the particular issues involving journalism. So I would like some clear ethical guidance on investigative issues involving journalism to be quickly developed. It will build on the Code of Ethics and help policing to develop the same body of ethical guidance that doctors already possess. 

I have asked the Society of Editors’ Director Bob Satchwell to work with the Met’s Assistant Commissioner in charge of professionalism, Martin Hewitt to produce some draft principles. These will need to recognise the importance of journalistic confidentiality and the potential conflict with the investigator’s duty to seek out evidence in criminal cases. 

I hope we can build confidence that our officers do respect freedom of expression. I also hope it will allow journalists to see some of the challenges we have to wrestle with in the pursuit of justice and the public interest.

I will ensure that any ethical guidance produced is incorporated into our renowned detective training programme, and I hope it will be become part of media training courses too to help trainee journalists understand some of the issues involved in dealing with the police. 

We know that trust is based on good relationships, and to that end, we regularly invite reporters to events at New Scotland Yard where they can meet murder detectives and counter-terrorism teams. We had a group in last week to see how we use communications data to find missing people and fight criminals. Two-thirds of comms data requests are about fighting criminality, so I thought it was important to show this debate isn’t just about countering terrorism. 

Now, I want to go a stage further by also inviting home affairs, political journalists and editors to a half-day event at which senior officers and investigating officers will both be present. We will build on the work we’ve done together around counter-terrorism and bring in specialists on organised crime, sexual violence and domestic abuse to give those attending an opportunity to listen and ask questions. 

My third proposal is that we try to fill the gap that journalists feel has opened up over giving them better guidance to understand the background to incidents. I think the rules we’ve brought in to require officers to record the contacts they’ve had with journalists are required to meet the standards expected by the public, so I won’t be changing these. But I do want my officers to share understanding as well as information, provided it’s done in a way that’s recorded and open to public scrutiny. I want them to talk to journalists more.

I wasn’t going to come here and talk about trust without having something to offer, and I hope my ideas will move our relationship forward. But trust is a two-way street, and I think journalism needs to think how it will respond. I can ask my officers to speak to journalists, but I can’t order them to have trust. That has to be earned, just as we have to do week-in, week-out with the public in all we do. 

Brian Redhead used to say that presenting Today gave him the opportunity to ‘drop a word in the nation’s ear’ each morning. That’s your privilege and power, as broadcasters, whilst your print and online colleagues have the power to catch the readers’ eye. It’s as true today as it was when Brian said it, and it’s why I want this relationship to work. We know we need your help to keep people safe.