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Commissioner's speech to the Society of Editors Conference

Blog post   •   Nov 13, 2017 16:25 GMT

Thank you. Firstly, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the great Lord Imbert, former Commissioner of the Met who has sadly died.

He was a truly amazing police officer. He was a great encourager of people and for successive generations a rather hard act to follow.

It is a great joy to be in Cambridge, a city close to my heart, and to be here at the Society of Editors.

To Ian Murray, congratulations on your appointment as Executive Director. Bob’s shoes are big ones to step in to. By the way, that is a figure of speech, we don’t have a secret police list mapping out the shoe sizes of the British press. And to Ian McGregor, I hope you enjoy your one-year term as President. I aim to last longer than that – in fact I am already half way there – but I guess a lot of that depends on what appears in the papers!

At my first press briefing back in April, just after I was appointed, I made it clear that I wanted to re-set the relationship with the media. That is why I am so happy to be here today. It is important that everyone from me – the Commissioner – to the local ward PC in Camberwell Green can have a constructive, confident, professional and honest relationship with journalists. It is not just in our best interest but it is in the best interest of everyone in London who we police and who read your copy. You are an essential component of our relationship with the public.

I thought it would be useful to start by reflecting on my first six months in the job and give you a feel for my priorities and show where our relationship plays in to that. I am then going to offer some practical actions I want to take. Finally there will be a challenge to you.

My first day in the job was tough – the funeral of PC Keith Palmer killed in the Westminster Bridge attack. Since then, in London, we have been faced with Borough Market and London Bridge, Finsbury Park, and Parsons Green attacks and the Grenfell fire. And our colleagues in Manchester faced the hideous concert attack there.

I believe the values and quality of the officers and staff in the Met have spoken for themselves this year. All of you have done a fantastic job at conveying this. As a police officer I know that each and every day officers are running into danger as others run away. Right now there will be an officer facing down extreme violence while another will be showing humanity and care to the most vulnerable among us. This year’s horrific events brought that in to sharp focus to the public. My pride in the Met has been matched in the public’s gratitude, and surveys and anecdotes show public confidence in the police is very high.

In terms of communication, this summer has shown how important the work we have done in partnership with the Society of Editors in preparing for major incidents has been. We wanted you to understand our response and concerns; we were able to bring the issues you raised in to our planning. The two major exercises with the Met and the media and the debrief we hosted at New Scotland Yard show how a trusting and constructive relationship can work at its best.

So what are my challenges six months in? Of course, the terrorism threat – here, overseas and online. I am pleased that I am able to act as Mark Rowley’s warm-up act so he can give you more detail about that. I know for you that reporting on terrorism is a fine line, a balancing act. You must inform but not glorify and provide the platform this evil craves. You must investigate but not in a dangerous way which disrupts the extensive efforts of the police and security services. You must comment but not in a way that creates excessive fear and multiplies the terror. The police and security services have a duty to help you balance these issues and I hope that briefings such as Mark’s following the Manchester attack and Commander Dean Hayden’s following London Bridge have helped.

The rise in crime and especially serious violence is another key area. Two weeks ago I led a crime reporters briefing explaining what we know about the issues and what we are doing. We need to be upfront about it. We are redoubling our efforts and our public are getting involved in this fight back. The issues are complex and cannot be solved by police alone. But equally we need context. London is a safe global city – none of us should unfairly put our great Capital city down.

The press play a vital part in this. Thanks to a brilliant press photo, appeals through traditional and social media and good old fashioned detective work we put behind bars a gang of moped criminals who did their best to knock over the UK’s most prominent chancellor turned editor. Every day we see crimes solved because of the media attention – that is one reason why our relationship is so important.

I have been crystal clear that bearing down on violence, in all its forms, is my number one priority. In recent months, we have deployed what can only be described as a Herculean effort in tactics and resources to suppress violence, knives, guns and mopeds. We are – I am pleased to say – stemming the tide. But it is early days – and we are not complacent.

There are many other challenges. One I will highlight now is money. Budgets are tight, we are policing a different, tech-enabled society. We have to make choices. We are closing front counters - providing oven-ready campaigns for local papers. We need to spell out clearly the reasons, that some see single figures of people visiting them in a week. We have to prioritise the crimes we respond to. These are difficult choices to explain to the public and the press and often these tough decisions create easy headlines and acerbic comment. I am not here to complain about the coverage because these are important issues for Londoners and our decisions should be scrutinised. However I do ask that where possible you search behind the headlines, look at what we face and understand that our simple priority remains the same as the year we were formed, 1829 – keep the peace, prevent crime and, where we can’t prevent, bring people to justice and support the victims. We are doing all of this in extraordinary, unprecedented times. Put another way, I imagine you face impossibly difficult decisions in your newsrooms every day – where and when to send a journalist, what stories not to cover because the resource is simply not there. You are constantly prioritising. Now put yourselves in the posiiton of my officers – the “Duty Officer” on a busy borough who has to decide whether to deploy a team to a street fight, a domestic assault, historic damage to a car, a stabbing.

The police service is often the service of last resort. Increasingly we are called upon to be a first resort – providing services that we may not be skilled for. It is my job to stand up and explain what we can do, what we won’t do and what the consequences are of shrinking budgets and extra demand. That might mean critical headlines and angry columnists but I have to be honest with the public about our service and I will not promise something that won’t be delivered just so I can get a good press.

As you can see my first six months and my challenges have strong connections to our relationship with the media. As I said at the outset I do want to re-set the relationship and this is happening. My officers do have more confidence. We are providing information on the big issues, providing dozens of media facilities every week, encouraging our local officers to speak directly to their local media. In London we have seen local papers close at a worrying rate – that is sad for those communities and devastating for journalism. Yes the police does have a huge reach through our own social channels and hyper local conversations. That is not us going in to competition with the media. We have to be where the conversations are and where the public are looking for their information. But I believe that can sit alongside quality journalism including local journalism and we should not be there to replace it.

As you have difficult judgements to make in what you publish we have to make judgements on what we are making public within the umbrella of being open and accountable. Of course “public interest” is a powerful phrase and we must be mindful of that. However, we all understand that of interest to the public is not the same as public interest. The public do not expect the Met to disregard our responsibility to the information we hold simply because it is of interest to the public. We have to be accurate, factual and objective whilst being speedy and compassionate.

Quite rightly, the Society of Editors stands for journalistic freedom. Let us be clear, compared to most, I suspect nearly all of the world, UK police are extremely accountable, scrutinised and transparent. However that does not give us an excuse to say “don’t challenge us”. As a citizen, I don’t want to see media freedom curbed – if we are getting the balance wrong we should be held to account.

I wanted to try and get through this speech without mentioning Leveson. But I can’t! I do think that right now we do have more integrity and better foundations for the relationship the public expect us to have. Quite simply the public was not going to accept things staying as they were, I won’t apologise for Operation Elveden – corrupt police officers and other public officials were locked up for taking money for information – that is a good result. Whilst an officer was dealing with a horrific death his colleague’s priority was to provide a newspaper with personal details of that victim – that is not right. I know that journalists were charged and then cleared and that caused a great deal of anger. I only ask that we try to move on now with clarity and lessons learnt on all sides.

I will be transparent in my relationship with the press – the public expect that. However a relationship with a journalist should not be categorised in the same way as a relationship with a criminal – that sends out the wrong message to everyone and destroys confidence on all sides.

So what can I offer you?

Firstly, and most importantly, I am prepared to set the tone. I will encourage my force to be as open and transparent as possible within professional boundaries whilst maintaining the integrity of our investigations and responsibility in holding the most personal information. I will listen to criticism and new ideas. The Met will be outward facing, confident but humble.

Secondly, it is in our interest and yours that we provide content that engages your readers and gives us all the satisfaction of catching criminals and helping crime to be prevented.

Thirdly, I will guarantee a senior officer at a minimum of four industry wide events a year to provide context and understand of a policing issue. We will work with the society on this.

Fourthly, we will arrange a minimum of one media/police training exercise a year.

Finally, I will guarantee every newly qualified NCTJ reporter on a local London newspaper the opportunity to join a borough response team for a busy night shift.

These are small practical steps but I hope ultimately they reflect my positive intent.

You may have other ideas of what I, and we, can do.

And from you I ask for this – fairness and respect to the officers who put their lives in to keeping London safe – ultimately it will mean the officers have trust and confidence in you. I would like you as executives, journalists and citizens to look at how you can prevent crime before it happens – mobilise your readers to help the police not expect us to do everything for them, lock up the moped you ride to work, think of creative ways to provide crime prevention advice, involve the police as soon as possible in any criminal behaviour you become aware of, make sure all your reporters know what their responsibility is to safeguarding the most vulnerable – even above getting a story.

Help us mobilise our communities.

And finally I ask you to continue holding us to account – the public deserve it. I love policing as I expect you love journalism – warts and all.

I am proud to lead an infinitely more professional, diverse, accountable, transparent, humane police force than the one I joined in the 1980s. The transparency and scrutiny does not always result in raised confidence but it has undoubtedly raised standards. And in a democracy like ours it has to be a central part of how we police. If the scrutiny and accountability is fair we should have nothing to fear.

The public need to know and understand the police and we need the public's support and help to put bad people behind bars. Journalists and police officers are often working towards the same goals. Both want to investigate those intent on harm, both want to expose what that harm is, bring it to an end and expose those responsible. Both journalists and officers want to work for those who on their own would be powerless and vulnerable. Both want to get to the truth. Your theme for this conference is Fighting for Real News. In the police we are not short of news - but moving forward I would love to see us stop the fighting.