For the Metropolitan Police, press briefings are a thing of the past â€“ and itâ€™s the public that is losing out
Gates of wrath: Diplomatic Protection Officers stand at the gates to Downing Street where the then Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell was reported to have sworn at police officers
The row over what did or did not take place between Andrew Mitchell and the Metâ€™s finest at the gates of Downing Street has now reached farcical proportions. It has taken more than two months for a Channel 4 investigation to establish what the police could (and should) have found out in days. The public is entitled to ask what on earth is going on.
It appears that, had it not been for Channel 4, this matter would probably have remained hidden from public view. In a similar vein, the media have been told very little about other newsworthy incidents such as the recent arrests of high-profile figures as part of Operation Yewtree, which followed the revelations about Jimmy Savile. Gone is the practice of helpful and informed background briefings â€“ and in has come the default position of concealing rather than sharing information. The result? The public knows less about what is going on. And important public institutions, such as the police, are becoming less accountable.
We have heard much this week about the term â€œproportionalityâ€. Other high-profile arrests have also brought this into question. What is different in the new post-Leveson world is that journalists have very little upon which to base a judgment of what may or may not be proportionate. True, relations between the police and the media were frozen well before Lord Justice Leveson reported. But in recommending a supposedly transparent system of non-reportable but fully documented briefings, he has unwittingly turned the temperature down even more.
The idea that newsworthy police investigations can operate in a sterile vacuum is not tenable. But what we have at the moment is exactly that â€“ an apparent absence of any meaningful background briefing to help journalists understand why events or arrests have taken place. It means the stories are reported on the barest of facts. Journalists hardly know what to say, let alone what not to say.
Take, for example, the arrest of the officer apparently caught up in the Andrew Mitchell saga. I can think of numerous and perfectly proper reasons why an arrest would be made. It provides, for example, the lawful authority to search someoneâ€™s house to recover evidence. It also gives the investigator an element of surprise. None, some, or all of these circumstances may apply to the arrest of this particular officer. But, until Tuesdayâ€™s public comments by Bernard Hogan-Howe, the Met commissioner, which were along the lines of â€œif you only knew what I knewâ€ â€“ most reassuring â€“ and the Channel 4 programme, we had no idea what lay behind this action. The result has been a huge amount of confusion.
We have also had numerous arrests over allegations of historical sexual abuse. To be clear, sexual abuse of any type is abhorrent, even more so if it involves children. However, while the Met has been more than vocal about its intention to arrest people, we know little about what really lies behind its decisions. I am sure that the Met is being meticulously careful in balancing the needs of the investigation and support for the victims, as well as proper concern for the impact each arrest has on those suspected. These are, after all, extraordinary allegations and the basic journalistic errors exposed after the McAlpine Newsnight programme are a clear illustration of how these cases can go spectacularly wrong.
If prosecutions and convictions follow, then there will have been nothing to worry about. But if all this comes to nought, then the Met has a significant problem on its hands. Having deliberately cut itself off from meaningful contact with the media, it can hardly expect the same media to report glowingly when things go awry.
What used to happen was something some would call â€œnews and reputation managementâ€, while others would call it preventing misreporting and potential prejudice to an ongoing investigation. The higher the profile of the case, the greater likelihood of media interest and the greater the need to ensure people understood, without disclosing confidential information, what were the challenges and difficulties. This was not â€œleakingâ€; rather, it was a means, when legally viable, of ensuring that the media, and thus the public, broadly understood why the police did or did not take certain action.
It was also a means to gauge and canvas alternative views to those emerging from the intensity of the Scotland Yard operational bubble. It provided another perspective, sometimes infuriating but nearly always valuable. All this has stopped and everyone now appears to be operating in a vacuum. Arrest celebrities, arrest journalists, arrest police officersâ€¦ it must be OK. This may well be the case. However, if high-profile cases start to veer off track, the Met might want to establish a gentle rapport with the media to explain why, rather than wait for another revelation to explode in its face.
John Yates is the former UK Head of Counter Terrorism
Confusion reigns when the police wonâ€™t talk
See: Mitchellgate: Who Does The Law Apply To?