The transcripts of the official inquiry into the culture, practices and ethics of the press. More…

  • MR ROBERT JOHN SHORTHOUSE (sworn).

  • Please provide us with your full name.

  • It's Robert John Shorthouse.

  • Thank you. You provided us with a statement dated 28 February 2012. Is that your formal evidence to the Inquiry?

  • I am going to start with your career history, it's at paragraph 1 of your statement. You started your career in 1998 after university, you applied to join the Government Information and Communication Service in 2001, you worked with a number of ministers within the Scottish Executive, finally becoming senior communications officer working for the First Minister. Then in 2006 you were seconded to the Glasgow 2004 team for the Commonwealth Games bid as head of PR and media. Then you joined the SFA as head of communications in November 2007, and you were appointed director of corporate communications at Strathclyde Police in October 2009, and that's the role that you continue -- the post you continue to hold?

  • You've travelled the field.

  • Politics, football and the police, that's pretty wide-ranging.

  • Pretty much covers everything on the West Coast of Scotland.

  • In response to questions 2 and 3 you tell us a bit about the corporate communications department of which you are director and you explain that the media team within Strathclyde Police sits within the corporate communications department of which you are a director, there's no press office as such.

  • You explain the role of the team. This is the media team. Firstly, staff are expected to react to media interests and issues and incidents, and secondly it's also got responsibility for proactively promoting the work of the force through the media. These are the sort of good news stories that best demonstrate your activities and the priorities of the Strathclyde Police?

  • You explain in response to question 3 that you don't actually work in the media team, you're director of the whole department, which includes not just the media team but a number of other parts, and the media team is managed by a media manager on a daily basis but you're here because you assume responsibility for all media issues that relate to the Chief Constable and you have responsibility for the maintenance of relationships with the media at editorial level?

  • How large is the corporate communications department in terms of numbers of staff?

  • We are currently sitting at 25 members of staff.

  • Can you tell us about the hours of operation?

  • We try and provide 24-hour coverage as best we can, through a mixture of the actual media team themselves and on-call service and through our force control room. So what we tend to find is -- or not we tend to find -- the fact of the matter is that the media team work on a shift basis between 8 o'clock in the morning and 8 o'clock in the evening seven days a week, and then we move onto the on-call system, supported by the force control room.

  • Straight in with the difficult questions, I'm afraid. You'll have heard the exchange a moment ago about serving police officers being directors of a press office, something that was raised also when the Chief Constable of West Midlands Police gave evidence. Do you have any views on that?

  • Perhaps not surprisingly I would -- my view is that it's better -- a post better held by somebody that has the necessary skills, experience and qualifications. I think it probably gets to the nub of the matter, which is what exactly do you want your department to do? Do you want it to be an interface with the media or do you want it to actually be something more than that, do you want it to be something that looks at communicating in its broadest possible sense, so not just communicating through the media but communicating to people directly using social media, working on your internal communications, working on your marketing campaigns.

    That's an awful lot of skills, and I'm not saying that there's not a very bright police officer out there who could learn all those skills and could do the job, but I think you're basically looking for somebody that has a command of that broad discipline. It's not just about how you work and deal with the media. I think that would be wrong to think like that, so that was the case.

    Certainly, my own experience of -- in the two and a half years that I've been there was that when I started there perhaps was an overemphasis on that relationship with the media on behalf -- in terms of the department. You know, people, even the staff would pick up the phone and say, "Media services", they felt that they were a resource for working with the media, whereas my own view and what I've tried to change during the time I've been there is to move it away from that. It's not just about the media, it's about speaking to people -- the media are a channel for communicating with the public but they are not the only channel, there are a plethora of other ones, social networking being one, and we're embarking on a huge project which will launch next month that really puts us at the forefront of the use of social media as a communications skill.

  • Can I ask you about how the corporate communications department and the media team work in terms of the relationship with the media. You heard obviously Chief Constable House explain that the majority of contact with the national media is channelled through your staff and your department. Is that right? In your experience, is that the position?

  • I asked him a number of questions which I think he would rather that you answer and it was about how this works in practice. As I understand the system, the national media would contact the department, your department would process the query, you would ask the relevant police officer, if someone needed to be asked, then you would provide the response, and the query and the response would both be logged. Does that logging include off the record information that's provided?

  • Yes, as demonstrated in my written statement, we do try to log every contact that we have, be it on the record or off. So yes, in answer to your question.

  • How do you define off the record information?

  • We feel it's information that -- or perhaps if we're moving into definition we should talk somewhat about the purpose. The purpose that we apply to using off the record information is to make sure that information is always presented accurately. So the examples that I give in my witness statement are where we are concerned that undue public fear and alarm are going to be caused by -- with the best of intentions -- incorrect reporting of a specific instance, so the wrong person being named, the wrong suggestion of suspects.

    I think one of the examples that I use in my witness statement is about somebody was arrested for possession of indecent photographs and that person worked at a school and they were creating an immediate impression that the photographs were taken at the school until we corrected that. So we try and make sure that the off the record information is all about correcting inaccuracies or stopping inaccuracies from appearing in the first place.

  • Off the record is not reportable at all, but merely to provide context for what is reportable?

  • Yes, that's certainly the view that we take on that, sir.

  • It's rather different from not attributable, which might be reportable?

  • Yes. Yes. There's the view that we take, which is important to correct or prevent inaccurate, and then there's perhaps this "Well you didn't get that from me" approach which certainly is not something that we encourage.

  • You wouldn't do that at all?

  • We certainly don't encourage that.

  • So "This is true but it mustn't come from me" or "a police source", that's a concept of communicating with the media with which you do not approve?

  • No. I think there's perhaps a middle ground on that, which is when the media puts something to us which is already circulating, so, you know, "somebody's been named locally as", or "we hear that", and that, if we felt it was appropriate, that would be in conjunction with the senior investigating officer, if we felt that was appropriate then that would be confirmed and again that wouldn't be on the record or attributable.

  • That would be off the record because that's merely to ensure accuracy?

  • So that falls within your original definition?

  • To be absolutely clear, on the record information is all logged?

  • Off the record information, the way that you've defined it, is all logged?

  • Is there any information provided that's not logged?

  • Sticking with the national media?

  • Yes. We would have set piece press conferences and various other things where we would log that the press conference had taken place but not necessarily the whole time we would log all the content, and we would -- if an individual officer has an interview that's been arranged by the department, again we would log that that interview would take place but we wouldn't necessarily transcribe it and log it on the system, but we would file it.

  • I asked Chief Constable House whether there's any system in place to monitor your logging system. Spotlight, is it called?

  • Whether or not you prepare any data on who's been speaking to the media or how often they speak to the media or provide responses or are asked about things. Is there any such system in place, as far as you're aware?

  • When you asked the question, I quickly got on the telephone and sought out an answer for that when I phoned back up to the office. I think it tells its own story that I had to ask that question. Technically it's possible for us to run a query on the system to see which particular officer has been speaking on which particular issue but it's not necessarily done as a matter of course, the fact that I had to go and find out that information.

  • What does "it's not done as a matter of course" mean? Does that mean it's generally not done or is something that you might do if you needed to find out --

  • I can't think of any example where it's happened.

  • The interesting feature is that you didn't even know whether it could be done.

  • Exactly. But I'm assured technically it can.

  • You were asked at question 13 about:

    "What is the media's attitude towards the press office? Are they satisfied by the provision?"

    You tell us about some of the concerns they might have. Overall -- I'll ask again Mr Russell in a moment -- what's your perception of whether or not they find you useful, get on with you, it works well in practice?

  • I think overall -- and I'm conscious Mr Russell is coming on after me so he may have a different view -- but overall I get the sense that we have a positive relationship with the media and the media find us useful. I think they appreciate the fact that -- and a lot of this is based on the high calibre of staff that I have working in that team. The staff are very dedicated to making sure that there's a quick turnaround and that people get the information that they want.

    I think some the frustrations from the media would be of course this perennial issue of they want direct contact with individual officers, I'm sure, and I think that's just a debate that's going to play out throughout the course of this Inquiry.

    But such is the competitive nature and such is the change in dynamic of the media over the past few years, with social networking and everything else coming into play, and I note some of the evidence that some of the editors have given over the past few days where they talk about -- they've launched iPad apps and everything else, so it's not just about let's get the information by the print deadline at 9 o'clock tonight, we're dealing with people who just want information and want it as quickly as possible.

  • Yes, sir. And you have to include the newspapers in that because the newspapers all have websites and various other things. Obviously they're trying to raise revenue through that, but it's not the way it was five years ago where there were very traditional rules at play of "Here is our print deadline, this is when you need to get back to me by and let's make sure we've got that sorted for the Evening News", because everything is 24 hours, as you rightly describe.

  • Let me ask you about your role, please. In response to question 16, you say that you hold regular meetings with editors and broadcast heads in order to discuss the way in which the force is engaging with the media. Now I need to ask you questions about that. I mean how often is that? In what context? Is it done over a meal in a posh restaurant or over a cup of coffee?

  • It's the latter, generally. I am trying to think of the last time I had -- I think I mention it in my evidence that I had lunch with the news editor of the Sun about a year and a half ago, but generally it's -- if it can be, it's face to face, but more often than not it's by telephone. I maintain the contact with the editors in a way that the staff who work in the media team don't. They tend to deal with the daily churn whereas I deal with problems.

  • You were asked about hospitality at question 17. You say you don't as a general principle accept hospitality from the media. The overwhelming majority of meetings would be either in the offices of the editor or your own. You said yourself that you once accepted lunch with the news editor of the Scottish Sun, that was paid for by the Sun, the estimated value of this lunch was £20, and it was logged in the hospitality register. Why would you adopt a different approach in an individual case like that one?

  • The truth is I can't actually recall what led to that, but I can remember the general circumstances round about it, which was I'd never met the chap before and he suggested going for lunch and I obviously said yes, whereas most of the other -- because of the length of time that I've worked on the West Coast of Scotland and the roles I've had, I knew most other people who work in the media, but I didn't know this chap and we clearly had a strong relationship with -- well, the staff had a strong relationship with him and his staff on a daily basis and I didn't know him, so that was clearly -- must have been the reasoning.

  • Touching still on hospitality, in response to question 23, you say that as a general principle, senior officers in this force don't accept hospitality from the media on a regular basis. I'm asked to ask you this question: do you know if there's any difference between local media and national media in that respect?

  • By "the national media" I also mean newspapers representing the whole of Scotland.

  • I must admit my level of knowledge would probably be on what happens on the national situation, and I would imagine that there must be situations where local commanders would be invited to various events in the division, just as they're an important figure in civic Scotland, that's sort of part of their world, but it would be recorded as a matter of course on the hospitality register if that was taking place.

  • Touching on leaks briefly, you were asked whether or not -- sorry, I should say, in response to question 35 -- how many investigations there have been in the last five years into actual or suspected leaks from the press office. You remember Chief Constable House told us how many investigations, there'd been 45 in the last five years. You say that in your time with Strathclyde, there have not been any leak enquiries conducted that centre on the media team staff. You're not aware of any having taken place?

  • That would suggest that the leaks come, if they were coming at all from the police, they would not be coming from your department or your media team?

  • There's absolutely nothing to suggest at all that we have an issue with leaks coming from the media office.

  • There's only one other issue I need to ask you about and it's in response to question 45. This is about police officers asking the media to delay publishing particular information because of the risk of prejudice to a criminal investigation or a future criminal trial, and you're asked:

    "To what extent do the media comply with this request?"

    Essentially, you give an example of an investigation into explosive devices being sent to high-profile people linked to Celtic Football Club. And you say you told the media, "Don't print this story for 48 hours because we need to investigate some particular avenues", and the media didn't print it, they complied with your wishes. That would suggest that that particular request goes down relatively well and that your requests are listened to. Is that fair?

  • Yes, and I must say that this is a -- this particular example -- I need to be careful about what I'm saying, because it's currently in court.

  • But I think in general asking the media to settle on something of that particular magnitude -- as I've already alluded to, you know, football, politics and the police on the West Coast of Scotland are big things, and I brought a lot of that together with that particular example. Asking them to sit on it was a big thing to do, and I think it was a measure of the responsible nature of the media in Scotland that they -- well, they found it exceptionally difficult to comply with that decision, but they actually did, and they held onto it for 48 hours, which allowed us, the SIO, to pursue particular investigative lines, which he needed at that time to do, so I was surprised that we got it, I didn't think it would be something that they would be willing to do, but I was pleasantly surprised and happy that that was something that --

  • Right across the media?

  • Those are the questions I have for Mr Shorthouse, unless you have any, sir. Sorry, I forgot to ask you whether there's anything you wanted to add.

  • No, I'm happy to take questions.

  • Again, I say to you, as I said to the Chief Constable, this is not necessarily straightforward, so using your experience, if there is anything that you can suggest that might make the system work better, then I'd be very interested to hear it.

  • Again, as my Chief Constable said, I'm not going to use that as an invitation to start waxing lyrical about my own thoughts on things, but there are a couple of things that I would raise, one being that I think everybody who works in police communications is expecting there to be a change as a result of all of this, and us being the police and the candid organisation that we are, we will wholeheartedly adopt those changes.

    I think what will be interesting to see is that's one side of the relationship, and we can record all meetings and everything else, but that's just changing our behaviour, so I guess we are particularly interested to see what happens on the other side of that argument, what, if anything, is being proposed about the media.

    The other thing I would say is that from my own experience in working with the media for as long as I have, I've never actually been a journalist. The change in the nature of the media at the moment is huge, absolutely huge, and the pressures that are being brought to bear as a result of that, because of social networking and because of -- you know, people can send -- as is happening right here, right now, people are using Twitter to discuss what's happening at this Inquiry, I think the impact of that, I think, needs to be part of the thinking, because it's changed the media and it's going to continue to change the media, and it's going to just make that need to be more immediate and move away from the traditional roles that journalists have played, and I think that's an important part of the debate. I don't necessarily offer up any solutions about that.

  • I'm sorry about that. I was hoping that you were going to give me an answer.

  • Well, all I can say, and I think I've made it clear in my witness statement, is that, you know, I didn't recognise and perhaps didn't understand a lot of what Mr O'Neill was saying in his evidence, because I don't recognise that culture. People in Scotland are obsessed by crime, but not -- they're obsessed by the crime, but they're not obsessed by the politics of who is who in Strathclyde Police and various other things. That's just something I don't recognise. I think that we have a pretty healthy relationship -- again I'm conscious that Mr Russell's going to come on and probably shoot that down in flames, but I think we have a healthy relationship and a healthy understanding of the way that things work. I think that we've built it on trust and that we all do trust one another, and we understand the rules that we all have to play.

    There's times where things appear in the press that infuriate me, because they may have looked like they've come from something that's been leaked or because it paints the organisation that I work for and am very loyal to in a negative light, but if we do something wrong, I think it's very important that we're properly scrutinised and held to account and the press play an important part in that process.

  • Yes. I think there may be quite a lot in what Mr House said about the square mile that surrounds New Scotland Yard, but would you agree that it's appropriate that whatever happened should be consistent across the country?

  • I think it would help everybody. We're in the fortunate position in this particular context of only eight forces in Scotland are in the process of being merged into one national force, so it would be quite easy for us to introduce new national guidelines in Scotland because we're all going to be one happy family anyway, but I guess just to have that level of consistency, that level of understanding, notwithstanding the fact that I think it needs to be built on the absolutely changing dynamic of the media and the changing roles of communications departments themselves so they're not just a press office, we are trying to develop a whole range of skills across a number of people.

    So I guess it's not necessarily a plea, but my strong view on this is it's not about how do we reform and change the current systems, it's how do we look to the future and see where's this going to go and where are the police going to go and where are the media going to go and can we try and make sure that we have that consistent way of working.

  • Yes. For some of it, it may be how we do reform the current system, but for you I get the clear message -- you've not said this in words -- but for Strathclyde, it ain't bust so don't fix it.

  • We're happy with the way it works, sir.

  • All right, I understand. We'll see what the editor says. Thank you. Thank you very much.

  • Our final witness this morning is Mr Russell. I don't have very many questions for Mr Russell, but we might go to 1.05. I understand we have a very short afternoon, so if we went to 1.05 would that be acceptable or do you want me to stop at 1.00? It's just Mr Russell has to get back to Scotland.

  • I have no doubt the Scottish witnesses do have to return to Scotland and I don't want to do anything that creates difficulty for them.