The Australian Centre for Independent Journalism study found that 70% of police stories published in the chosen newspapers over five week days originated from public relations. Many of the stories are pure Police PR.

The Spinning the Media team reports on how the police public relations achieve such success.

Each morning, police reporters in Sydney receive police media emails, anywhere between five and 20 outlining various events.  These incidents may have happened overnight, over the past 24 hours, or be something from a few days previous that the police didn’t want to release until now.

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“Police media is a large part of where we gather our information,” said Sydney Morning Herald reporter Dylan Welch, “As sad as it is.” If a reporter gets wind of a story, they can try calling direct to Sydney Local Area Commands, but information is often restricted. There is a similar routine in other states.

Our findings are neither new nor surprising, although the extent of the replication of PR across Australia’s city newspapers is startling. For decades in the 20th century police reporters worked out of what was then the NSW Central Investigation Bureau.  They worked and drank with the police and an SMH police reporter was later quoted as saying, he was present but stayed silent when corrupt police planned crimes.

By the late 1970s, the Sydney police reporters had moved to media headquarters and police corruption reporting was on the rise. Corrupt detectives made sure that critical reporters were cut off from the flow of police PR but at the same time, very senior anti-corruption police worked closely “off the record” with these journalists. The result was that for a while, there were two kinds of police reporters, the ones who worked and drank with the police, guaranteeing their media outlets got the odd big police story by being warned about police raids and arrests while the investigative reporters got on with the job of developing their off-the-record contacts.

Over the intervening years, experienced police reporters say that the flow of information from police to the media has become more tightly managed and controlled.  Police sit on stories as journalists wait on the drip feed of information, while staged media events are dutifully published.

As Dylan Welch notes: “Of all the really good reportage formed by investigative reporters relating to crime and police over 20 or 30 years, none of that information has ever come from the Police Media Unit.”

There remains, of course, some critical reporting. Recently, for example, The Australian and The Age have carried reports about racism allegations against the Victorian police. In the week of our study, the SMH’s ranking was helped by Kate McClymont’s stories about the shooting of stand-over man Michael McGurk, which she got through her own “off-the-record” sources.

Nevertheless if you track police stories back to police PR with a quick Google search, police PR is easy to find.

On January 28, for example, Strike Force Forsythe busted a multimillion dollar drug ring, made up of seven alleged “criminal masterminds” from inner and south-west Sydney.  NSW police say they seized 3.1 kilograms of the drug ice, with a street value of nearly $4 million.

A press conference was held 11am the next day, with assistant commissioner Stuart Smith emphasising the importance of the raids and linking them to intelligence gained from the use of sniffer drug dogs at this summer’s music festivals.  While no evidence was provided, this claim bolstered the controversial police case for their increased use of the dogs at festivals. The NSW police have been on the defensive about the use of dogs since a NSW Ombudsman report questioned their usefulness. In the light of the controversy, one might have thought that journalists might question or distance their account of the facts from the police claim.

By 11.30am, NSW police issued a release detailing the raids, along with select quotes from the assistant commissioner’s press conference. A live link on the release brings up the NSW Police’s own YouTube channel, which displays among other arrests, a video of a young man and woman arrested in Marrickville as part of Strike Force Forsythe.

By midday, the Sydney Morning Herald’s crime editor Geesche Jacobsen published an article online, reproducing the information and quotes in the Police Media press release plus one additional quote from assistant commissioner Smith that matched an  AAP story based on the press conference. The Age Online published Josh Jerga’s AAP article, straight from the press conference, titled, “Music festival raids lead to ice arrests”, as did the Daily Telegraph, including a picture of the raid straight from Police PR:

Full DT screen shot copy

The YouTube arrest footage also aired that evening on Today Tonight, and formed the entire visual sequence accompanying Seven’s Sean Berry’s voiced-over narration.

In the absence of any evidence and despite research disputing the effectiveness of sniffer dogs, the assertion that the increased use of sniffer dogs contributed to these particular arrests was prominently published without further evidence as fact. Since then there have been no further reports about these arrests. The ACIJ approached the Police Media Unit to get more information but were told that none was available.

Police PR now has sophisticated websites — you can follow them on Twitter helping them solve crimes and watch the latest dramatic arrest, But you only get the information the police want. Their public archive of press releases disappears after a few months so it is hard to use it for background research. Meanwhile the journalists have lost some sources of information.

In March of 2008, the New South Wales police radio system became digitally encrypted.  Journalists could previously listen to some, if not all police chatter on short-wave radios — a mainline of raw information.  Now it’s nothing but a digital screech.  The Police External Agencies Transfer System (PEATS) was set up to give authorised news organisations purportedly similar information on police activities.  In reality, journalists consider it a waste of time.

As an informant dials 000, police receive information from the computer-aided dispatch (CAD) system; for example, incident type of “concern for welfare”, and status of “keep a look-out for person in Myra Road, Dulwich Hill”.  Officers receive more information en route.

“Those jobs automatically flow through the PEATS system … it attempts to provide as much information as possible, without jeopardising police operations, police response or giving away victim details,” said Tim Archer, media manager at the NSW Police Media Unit (PMU).

Certain categories have a 15- or 60-minute delay on release, which Archer said, “ensures that police are getting there first and media aren’t putting themselves in danger in getting to some of these jobs.”

On the PEATS website, anything from a naked man in public to a full house of dead bodies will register a “concern for welfare”, a street and the time.  There’s no more information unless police provide amended notes, which often doesn’t seem to be happening, according to reporters.  It’s difficult to discern major incidents, as NSW generates about 6000 PEATS jobs per day.

“In reality it’s a complete waste of time and any journalist who uses it will tell you that.  I’ve been a police reporter the whole time it’s been around and I’ve looked at it maybe 20 times.  Not once have I got any information out of it,” said Welch.

The digital encryption of police radio has logical benefits for police.  A few years ago, criminals could use a radio scanner to monitor police activities in the area, but Welch questions why news rooms weren’t given updated police scanners.

“I have every right to try to protect information, to keep my conversations secret.  So do the police.  But, the difference is they need to balance the public’s right to access information … via the media generally, with their need to protect the privacy and integrity of information systems.  At the moment, that balance is perhaps a bit askew,” he said.

On this, Archer was quite clear.  “Our first and primary stakeholder group is police in the field, our secondary group is the media,” he said.  “So whenever we’re considering an issue, we think well, ‘Why do we want to talk to the media?’

“We use the media to maximise assistance and inform the public to help solve crimes.  To warn people of dangers or threats, to even improve behavior by increasing the perception of detection.  Increasing police visibility, highlighting good police work, reassuring the community and reducing the fear of crime; that’s what we do, that’s what police do.”

Operating 24 hours a day, seven days a week, many journalists consider the PMU a restrictor of information.  Archer denies this charge. “The last thing the public wants is for police to jeopardise a brief by providing too much information, and as a consequence have an offender walk free, escape a charge or not get captured at all.”  From the police point of view, all of this is understandable and while the media may on occasions help the police, media reporting on police needs to be independent of police goals.

Big stories, such as corruption, always come from whistle blowers.  Les Kennedy, veteran reporter now at the Sun-Herald, said that tips on corruption flow to journalists when an informant doesn’t trust the police.  Experienced crime reporters have their own contacts and rarely, if ever need to deal with the PMU.  They’re oblivious to the frustrating realities of PEATS and operate beyond official channels.

Fairfax National Times editor Darren Goodsir exposed deep corruption in the NSW Police Force in the 1980s, involving former Detective-Sergeant Roger Rogerson and the attempted murder of undercover officer Michael Drury, later produced as ABC TV series Blue Murder.  He spent 10 years as an investigative reporter, before working as press secretary to NSW Police Commissioner Tony Lauer in the early 1990s.  With time on both sides of the fence, he agrees sources are “everything,” and “absolutely vital to knowing what’s going on.”

Police sources are similar to political sources; each leaks information for different reasons.  “There are some sources, particularly in the police area, where people are motivated by very altruistic callings; to expose things and shine light on dark places.  Others are motivated for reasons of embarrassing police rivals, or people they feel have not done very good jobs,” said Goodsir.

“I think you have to treat with a healthy degree of suspicion the merit of any information that’s being supplied to you by a source … you must always look to understand the motivation behind the giving of information to a reporter.”

While working as a police press secretary, Goodsir observed that few journalists did their homework, failing to make more than one call beyond a press release.

About four years after his time in police PR, Goodsir returned to reporting at a Sydney metropolitan newspaper.  Relations with police were difficult.

“I found out that every time I would call the police switchboard a light would go off in the operators’ room.  And similarly the police switchboard was programmed so that a light would go off if anyone called my mobile phone number or my work phone,” said Goodsir.

Records of calls between Goodsir and possible sources were circulated within the police hierarchy; a highly effective way of identifying potential leaks within the police.  A contact within police internal affairs was assigned to investigate Goodsir, and given the phone logs, the officer chose to inform him of the surveillance.

“I decided the day after I was warned to out myself in the community, as a bit of a warning to all of my contacts to not call me via the conventional means … I held a press conference and said that I was the subject of a police operation that was designed to crack down on people finding out information about the police force.”

In 2007, NSW Superintendent Adam Purcell was taken to court by the Police Integrity Commission, prosecuted and sacked for leaking too much information.  As Media Watch reported at the time, Purcell was judged to have given inappropriate and exclusive information to Channel Seven’s Robert Ovadia, concerning a serial s-x offender.

Welch said that within the media, “it’s generally accepted [the Purcell case] was not just an attempt to prosecute him, but was also a shot across the bow to any other police who were thinking about providing information those executives did not think was appropriate.”

Kate McClymont, long-time investigative reporter for the Sydney Morning Herald agreed that officers are now more cautious.

“If [officers] were afraid before, they were even more afraid after that case.  You’d then have to meet your good sources for coffee; you couldn’t just call them on the phone.  But people that you didn’t know very well … I think … thought it just wasn’t worth risking a career to help a journalist.  It doesn’t matter how small the piece of information was that they were trying to verify.”

Goodsir said the paranoia will not last.  “People will resume their activities.  Police and journalists have a little bit of a symbiotic relationship and it will just carry on regardless.”  However, it’s easier with an established base of contacts.  It can take years for a reporter to earn the respect of senior operational police.  You must cultivate relationships.  People need an assurance of integrity to shine light into darkness.  They speak anonymously.  You protect sources.

Goodsir believes the production of online content is stifling journalists’ development of off-the-record sources:  “To make an investment in face-time, by meeting people that may yield lots and lots of dividends (or not) down the track.”  With journalists having less time to meet with sources out of the office, and police feeling paranoid, the flow of anonymous information is reduced.

Meanwhile, a stream of police-generated stories is a constant part of the daily news agenda across the media. So much so that those who are interested in getting their news from the police perspective might do better to visit the website and make their own news selection.

Nicholas Hollins has recently completed BA (Comm) (journalism) at UTS . Wendy Bacon is director of the ACIJ

Additional research by Sasha Pavey, a freelance journalist and c-oordinator of Spinning the Media.

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