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

  • DR ROBERT IAN MAWBY (affirmed).

  • Dr Mawby, could you confirm your full name, please?

  • Yeah, Robert Ian Mawby.

  • Subject to one typographical error in the antepenultimate line on the first page where the word "involving" should be "involved", are the contents of your witness statement true and correct to the best of your knowledge and belief?

  • You tell us that you work in the Department of Criminology at the University of Leicester, where you teach criminology and undertake research. Before your appointment at Leicester, you've previously worked at the universities of Birmingham City, Keele and Staffordshire. You have been a criminal justice researcher since 1993 and you have undertaken many research projects on the police covering, amongst other things -- and I'm picking out now what's of particular interest to the Inquiry -- preventing police corruption in transitional states and police/media relations; is that right?

  • Thank you very much for the obvious work you've put into preparing this evidence, which provides a different perspective to this aspect of the Inquiry.

  • Focusing now on your research interest in police/media relations, you've written a book, "Policing Images: Policing, Communication and Legitimacy", which was published in 2002, and you've participated in or instigated various projects facilitated by ACPO, latterly by the Association of Police Public Relations Officers, or the Association of Police Communicators as it now is, and that research has involved interviews with press officers, police communicators, managers and ACPO officers, observational research, three national surveys and work as an academic sounding board; is that right?

  • That's all correct, yes.

  • Most recently, between 2006 and 2008, you conducted a research project called "The Police, the Media and their Audiences", which was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council.

  • You set out at page 2 of your report, in brief terms, some of the theories that circulate in your field, but perhaps I could settle on the bullet point at the bottom of the page where you tell us about your own view, which is that relations between the police and the media are complex and that they differ according to a wide number of factors; that's whether they're local or national, across forces, across media formats, depending upon time and the circumstances of individual newsworthy events; is that right?

  • You describe, at various points in your witness statement, a constant tension between police and media which has to be the subject of negotiation. Can we explore that, first of all. What is at the root of the tension?

  • The root of the tension is the different roles and objectives of the police and the media. The police are in place to detect crime, to maintain order. The media are there to maximise their audiences, to run successful businesses, and also to hold the police to account. So although they have things in common, there's always going to be a bit of tension in that relationship, which will ebb and flow.

  • Looking at that from the perspective of the public interest, in your opinion, is that constant tension in the public interest?

  • I would say so, yes, as long as that tension operates within a healthy framework, where the police are trying to be open and accountable and the media are trying to hold them to account and where there's clear channels to pass information.

  • You tell us in your statement about the way in which relations between the police and the media may have changed over time, and you use as a starting point the research work conducted in the 1970s by Chibnall.

  • He described -- I'm reading from your statement at page 5 now:

    "... seasoned crime reporters meeting detectives in smoky pubs, building relationships and exchanging information for hospitality."

    My first question to you is: apart from the fact that the pubs are now smokeless, has there been any change in those informal exchanges of information?

  • There has, yeah, and perhaps just to set out initially, Chibnall's research focused on Fleet Street and the Met, whereas the research I've done subsequently looks at the police/media relationship nationally throughout England. And the relationship has changed as far as my research has found out, to the extent that one crime reporter told me that you're more likely to meet a copper in the gym these days than in the pub.

  • Do you think that that means that there is still some ongoing contact in the pub, or are those days completely gone?

  • Well, speaking from the research I've done, there was some contact, but it's minimal and not the part of the relationship that it once was.

  • Are you talking here about the national relationship or in the Metropolitan Police?

  • I'm talking more about the national relationship.

  • I get the distinct impression that there is a very real difference between the relationship between the Metropolitan Police and the most senior officers in the Met and between editors and local chief constables.

  • Yeah, that's the impression I get, yeah.

  • You then tell us about some of the other ways in which things have changed. First of all, I think, is the development of police press offices. They're not a new thing, are they? There have been press offices for a long time?

  • That's right. The first one was established in 1919, which was the Met's Press Bureau, and there wasn't a lot of growth in press offices after that until about 1960s, where they steadily were established throughout other forces.

  • When they were first introduced in 1919, the reasons for their introduction were what?

  • There were a number of police scandals which had originated from leaks from detectives, where detectives had been selling information to journalists in pubs. That's back in 1919. And the Commissioner at the time, Sir Neville Macready, he didn't -- obviously he didn't like the idea of the corruption involved, and he set out to counter these informal communication channels with a formal communication channel. Hence he set up what was called the press office, the Press Bureau, which was just one person, his secretary, that went around the department of Scotland Yard collecting information and issuing two press releases, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. That was the extent of news.

  • As we'll come to in a moment, although the press offices have rather changed over time, do the reasons for their existence still endure, are they the same ones?

  • Yes. The reasons are to provide a formal channel for communication, but McCreedy also wanted to -- what he said is "cast back the shadows over Scotland Yard and let people see in". So there was an intention to be open and accountable. That was in 1919 and that still exists today.

  • If we look now at what has changed in terms of how they actually function, you describe -- I'm looking now at page 10 -- how the press offices of today are really probably more accurately described as corporation communications departments.

  • Yes, that's true. It's something of a misnomer, really, press office, these days. In the three surveys that I've carried out, the first 1996/1997 and the last 2006/2007, we see a definite pattern of movement from press offices sort of moving back and corporate communications moving in and the roles of the old press offices expanding.

  • So has there been a trend of an increasing number of communications professionals --

  • -- manning these posts?

  • Yes, definitely. It's now force policy -- or on the last survey, about 90 per cent of forces were recruiting professionals and the survey found that about 400 professional communicators were employed across forces. That compares with 121 in 1996/1997, so quite some growth.

  • And 215 in 2000/2001.

  • So this has been a very rapid decade, between the mid-1990s and the mid-noughties?

  • Is this trend continuing or not?

  • Even at a time -- doing my last survey I was getting the impression that cutbacks were happening. The few forces that didn't participate in the survey -- I know that two of them were restructuring at the time and so chose not to take part -- and there was some research done towards the end of last year, through freedom of information requests, which suggests that I think about two-thirds of forces have cut their budgets for corporate communications. So that would seem to suggest that this increase in numbers that I charted is possibly in decline.

  • Another trend that you identify is a growing deployment of communications professionals outside of police headquarters.

  • That's right. This is -- it was breaking the model, really, of just having a headquarters press office and no press offices elsewhere. It's something that I described as the permeation of communications throughout the force. This might comprise satellite press offices in some areas, some larger cities, perhaps, or it might comprise communication officers working with specific teams.

    There's also non-communications specialist police officers who might be given communications tasks, media-oriented tasks.

  • It seems that yet another trend that perhaps might help to explain the increase in size of press offices in police forces is a growth in demand for media information.

  • That's right. That is something else which I was interested to try and get a feeling for, and with the proliferation of media in recent years, I was interested to find out whether forces were dealing with more media organisations or just more information from the same number, and they didn't seem to be dealing with a lot more media organisation but there was more traffic.

  • Can you help us with the consequence of all these changes? What does it mean on the ground about the flows of information between the police and the media?

  • What it means is in terms of the rise of corporate communications, although a lot of resource has been put into it, it's just keeping up, really. They're running to stand still. And in terms of -- do you want me to talk about the relationship between crime reporters --

  • What I'm getting it, first of all, is that press offices have something of a gatekeeper function, don't they? So if there are now many more communications professionals and they're spreading out from the headquarters into subordinate areas, does that mean there's at least an attempt by police forces more tightly to control the flow of information?

  • I'm not sure. It's to facilitate the flow of information, I think, as much as control it, because by appointing other people who are not communication specialists -- neighbourhood inspectors, for example, it's -- if you're giving the responsibility to more people, you're not really controlling it in the sense of filtering it, funnelling it.

  • And if it proved to be necessary to have more communications professionals and to have ever-growing press offices or communications departments, are they sufficient in themselves to meet the needs of communicating with the media?

  • No. I think they're a necessary but not sufficient element of media relations, in that crime reporters may use the press offices as a first stop but they need to use other sources to build the stories, the specialist crime reporters, to give them something extra, to give them that edge that makes them a crime reporter. So they will use information from the members of the public provide them direct. There's leaks, of course, and there's informal relationships, so not with police communicators but with officers throughout force.

  • Is it your impression that whether or not they're taking place in the gym these days rather than the pub, that that level of informal communication continues just as it always has?

  • That's what crime reporters were trying to maintain, yes.

  • Is the driving force behind that the need to get a competitive advantage --

  • -- and to have more than the information that's just been given out to everybody?

  • That's right, yeah. Yeah, it's the competitive advantage.

  • How are the police forces dealing -- and I'm talking now nationally -- with the issue that inevitably arises of ensuring that confidential information that shouldn't be divulged isn't divulged during these informal contacts?

  • My understanding of that would be it's the trust that's built up between the individuals involved.

  • Can you give us, from your researches, some idea of the levels to which crime reporters will go to maintain that trust?

  • Yeah. A number of reporters said to me that they'd rather lose a story than lose the trust of a valuable source. So in that sense, if there was a story which they thought wasn't appropriate to run, they would perhaps not tell their editor about it and not pass that information on.

  • Do you get the impression that there is a significant problem with leaks arising from these unofficial channels of communication?

  • From the research I did, those informal channels, I wouldn't think leaks arise from those. They tend to provide the background information, the additional information to stories that reporters are interested in. It doesn't tend to be leaks that create a story on its own.

  • Where there are leaks of confidential information which are then reported, can you assist at all as to where they tend to come from?

  • Another feature of the modern communications department which you touch on is the increased use of new media by police forces: the Internet and social networking. Do you see these, at present, as complementing or replacing the more traditional channels of communication?

  • Complementing at the moment. I think it would be interesting to see how things develop. A number of the managers of corporate coms that I spoke to talked about a law of diminishing returns in dealing with the traditional media, in terms of: there's only so much you can do to get the coverage that you want for the things that you need, and so the forces are looking more and more to direct contact through their own new media activities.

  • I've been concentrating thus far on the changes on the police side of things. On the media side of things, you detected in your research a trend in terms of the numbers of specialist crime reporters and indeed the size of news-gathering teams. They appear to be going downwards, don't they?

  • Yeah, that's one of the things I was interested to chart with this apparent rise in police corporate communications: what the balance was on the other side, in terms of media, and with consolidation of ownership in the media, industries and declining sales of newspapers and budget cuts, I was interested to find out what resources were being put into crime reporting, and certainly on a local level, there was evidence that there was less specialist reporters and smaller news-gathering teams, and it was harder for corporate coms departments to get specialists out to an event that they were trying to interest the media in.

  • So what impact has that had on the way in which the media and police communicate?

  • I suppose it's -- rather than more meetings between the crime reporters and the detectives, the press offices will prepare packages which reporters can use from their offices without going out and doing the information-gathering.

  • Is there an increased use of that sort of packaged information?

  • There is an increased use of that, yeah.

  • Moving now to an entirely different issue, that of the role of private detectives in obtaining information from police contacts for the media, your research has not detected any evidence of that at all, has it?

  • No. At the time of doing the research, it just wasn't on the radar. It just wasn't a topic of conversation.

  • So would it be fair to say that that's not something you particularly explored one way or the other?

  • No. No, the research I did was carried out before news of that was emerging, so it was something that I couldn't look at retrospectively. I thought it about it retrospectively and wondered whether there may be some connection to the decline of specialists, whether there's now a need -- because of the declining numbers of crime reporters, whether the need for a private investigator rises there.

  • When you did your research, had "What price privacy?" and "What price privacy now?" been published?

  • Off-the-record conversations. You deal with these on page 7 of your statement and you start with the general observation, using a quotation:

    "The mere fact of the Commissioner of police taking editors into his confidence is calculated in itself to create a sympathetic attitude."

    Then you quote a very experienced crime reporter saying:

    "I like to deal with detectives. Most of the information is off record and if I used it, that would be it. Finished."

    From your research, did you get the impression that off-the-record conversations are important?

  • Yes. That quote that you mentioned, that was from the 1930s, Lord Trenchard. Yes, those off-the-record -- or backstage briefing, really. I've watched and heard the debate over the terminology of "off the record". In terms of when I spoke to reporters about it, it was really about picking up the phone, speaking to regular contacts and building up their ongoing knowledge.

  • Does it follow from that that there's a lot of this type of contact going on?

  • There was when I did the research, yes. It was the bread and butter work of the local crime reporter to do that.

  • I take it from the two quotes that the expression you got was that it's important to both sides, to both the police and the media, to have these channels?

  • How does one ensure that people are clear about the boundaries and the status of such conversations and communications?

  • It's a good point. The impression I got from my research was it tended to -- the people that were prepared to speak off the record were the more experienced officers who knew what was and what wasn't permissible. The people that were more suspicious about talking to the media would be the younger officers who thought there might be more to put their careers at risk than to advance their careers by talking to the media. So I'm not sure it is clear.

  • Does that suggest, as other witnesses have suggested, a need for clarity, guidance, training and perhaps even a change of culture?

  • Yeah. Obviously I've been following the proceedings and the guidelines which have been produced by ACPO, the 2010 guidelines -- it's interesting, in that, as the previous speaker was saying, they had low visibility, and the guidance that is there is all very sensible but it does make you wonder how it is being disseminated, if at all, in the forces. So I think there is a need for that sort of information to be disseminated, to be built into training, introduced for probationer training.

    When I first started doing this research in the mid-1990s, there were some press offices that would do placements in their press departments in police forces, so that officers could do a placement in a press office and get to know how to deal with the media, and they'd do that for a short period and go back to operational policing with confidence in dealing with the media. I'm not sure that sort of thing goes on any more.

  • I'm not sure if it was evaluated.

  • Training and guidance. If it's necessary, should it come at a national level, or should it be left to local forces to decide --

  • I think it should be a combination of both. I think there should be high level principles, such as those which the ACPO guidelines embody, and those could be, as other people have said, extended to include matters of integrity and managing contacts, and then, at local level -- at regional level, there can be arrangements for a regional collaboration for training and familiarisation. Then at local level, there can be local training. So I see it as a mixture of those things.

  • Your research has also looked at the way in which local police forces interact with the media and how national media interacts with the police. I'm looking now at the bottom of page 9 of your witness statement. You set out, at paragraph 8, what it is that your research indicated that local police forces were seeking to do in their relations with the media and what the media were doing. The media were seeking to build long-term relationships with local officers, police stations and press officers that would provide a consistent supply of information to fill space in their newspapers, radio and television programmes, and the crime reporters you interviewed consistently highlighted that they needed accurate and timely information, trust and honesty, access to police personnel and a better understanding by the police of the non-monolithic media.

    By that, do you mean the needs of the different types of media?

  • Sure. I mean, A good example this morning was the discussion about the different needs of a Sunday newspaper from a daily newspaper. Different deadlines.

  • Contrasting your research findings in relation to the local media, how different was the national media?

  • Well, in talking to local police forces and local crime reporters, they had common interests and there would be tensions but they would rub along together pretty well, and then if an incident occurred which brought in the national media, then the national media were seen as here today, gone tomorrow, in a way. The relationships weren't built in the same way.

  • We've had plenty of examples of that.

  • Where local reporters build relationships with their communities, the national reporters come in with a particular story, trample the flowers and the locals have to try and rebuild the relationship again.

  • Sure. I was provided with plenty of that kind of evidence.

  • Perhaps on a related theme, page 15 of your witness statement. You deal with how the police might manage high profile criminal investigations and inquiries, and you set out the findings of research conducted by Feist in the late 1990s.

  • I won't read all the bullet points, but you set out what the police might seek to gain. The reason I'm not reading out all the bullet points of what an effective media strategy might contain is because, in the next paragraph, it seems to be summed up in a nutshell:

    "Service the media's needs at arm's length."

    Is that right?

  • I think so. That was the title of a paper by David Wilson and his colleagues where they interviewed a number of SIOs and analysed their common experiences. They all recognised the need to deal with the media and work with the media, but they felt there was a need to keep some distance to maintain the integrity --

  • The media also have to understand that the SIO is not there simply to provide information to the media; he is there to do a job.

  • Sure, but that's the clash of objectives that I mentioned earlier.

  • So in terms of keeping the distance, it's things like structured contact with the SIOs and controlling the locations that the media have access to. That type of thing.

  • Moving to a completely different topic, cooling-off periods. Can we deal first of all with police officers. Against the background of your research and expert knowledge, what's your opinion about whether or not a cooling-off period is needed for a police officer leaving a police force and moving to work in the media?

  • I would agree with the HMIC report, that they ought to look into cooling-off periods.

  • Do you think, if we look at it the other way around, that there is any need for a cooling-off period for a journalist leaving journalism and moving in to work, for example, for a communications department of a police force?

  • No, I don't think there should be a cooling-off period because they come with all their expertise fresh and it's been one of the consistent avenues of recruitment for police press offices. We referred to earlier the growth of professionalisation, and that's where the professionalisation comes from. It comes from recruiting local communicators.

  • Looking to the future, you help us, at the bottom of page 17, paragraph 20, with observations about what the introduction of police and crime commissioners is going to mean. You tell us that at present, certainly at least so far as your most recent survey goes, a large number of police forces actually help to provide the communications support to their police authorities.

  • Is that relationship going to survive the restructuring of the oversight arrangements?

  • I'd be surprised if it did.

  • I think you have to look at the current arrangements to see if they're transferable to see what's happening. Police forces are supporting LPAs in some areas, but if you look at the PCCs that are coming in, they're overtly political in a way that LPAs aren't. They're party political, in the very least. A lot of them have a media profile before coming in, and in that respect, they're going to be another policing stakeholder, another policing voice competing with the chief constable, with the police fed and with ACPO. I don't see it as being workable that the police force press office would be able to support them in the same way. I think they probably need their own media advisers.

  • So we can look forward and see dedicated communications support for the new PCCs emerging with that consequent need for them to be properly trained, guided and so forth?

  • True. That would be my guess, yes.

  • My final question arises from one of the papers that you've helpfully exhibited to your witness statement. The context of building in, rather than bolting on, is a concept at the centre of the paper. Perhaps I could best leave it to you, in your own words, to explain what you mean by that and why it's important.

  • Okay. My interest in police communications has always been around enhancing the legitimacy of policing, and I think it's much better if communications is embedded into all policing activities, rather than just being seen to be bolted in at important times, for example when there's a serious event and the national and international media descend on an area.

    So I think it's essential that communication is -- including through the media but not just through the media -- is supported and championed by ACPO. I think in local forces there ought to be a member of the ACPO team that is the communications champion, so that the press office has a direct line into the ACPO team.

    One of the things that's come up before is whether the head of corporate coms should be a police officer or not. In most cases, it's not, and maybe that affects the status of corporate coms. If there's an ACPO champion that the head of corporate coms reports into, that's a clear line of accountability and communication.

  • Does it come to this: that if communications are embedded rather than bolted on, then we're more likely to have more appropriate communication, executed more confidently by more people, and hopefully consequently less unauthorised improper communication as opposed to the unauthorised, innocuous or helpful communication?

  • Sure, we would hope so, supported by these things that we've talked about, you know: national guidelines, training, leadership, all those types of things.

    Perhaps the other thing to say about building in and bolting on is the level of development of corporate coms is very different across forces. Some -- one of the chiefs last week talked about organisational maturity. Some of them are more mature than others in the way that they use communications. In some forces, it might still be a case of mainly the mentality of an old-fashioned press office and bolting on communications. It is an uneven picture, despite this rise of corporate communications that I've described in my research.

  • You talk about a champion. In fact, actually, in the Metropolitan Police, the director was a member of the senior management team.

  • Yeah, and you'll have similar arrangements in some forces, but not all of them.

  • Thank you very much, Dr Mawby. Those are all my questions.

  • Thank you very much, Dr Mawby, and thank you again for your work.

  • Right, 2 o'clock, thank you.