Readers who follow us on social media will have noticed that we regularly appeal to the victims of crime to contact us.
This is because Cheshire Constabulary no longer feels it has a duty to keep the public informed of what is going on.
This is not a new thing: we’ve struggled for some years to get crime reports from the police, but the policy seems to have shifted from not telling us about petty crime to not telling us anything – flashers, burglaries and even rape have been kept from the Press in recent months.
When we do report something, we’ve had their Press office on asking what right we have to print crime news. (No, really).
Twenty years ago (ok, 30 years ago), as a trainee, this writer would wander down to West Mercia Constabulary’s local nick and be handed a ring binder containing all the crimes from the past 24 hours. Reporters across the country were doing the same.
It was all down to trust — we knew what we could report, and when we occasionally erred, we’d be hauled up before a very fierce chief super for a rollicking (after which he’d give us a cup of tea).
After West Mercia, a new job saw the morning calls being made with Lancashire Constabulary, and a severe but friendly head of CID would give us a daily briefing. Moving to Congleton, the same practice was in operation, at least for a while. Then computerisation led to claims that the daily crime log was hard to access, and after a faxed list of crimes ended about 15 years ago, we’ve had little since.
This pattern has been repeated across the country, but the annoying thing is that we’ve always had good relations with the police. While other papers got arsy with their local officers and fell out, relations between the Chronicle and local police remained good.
As each sergeant left, his successor would be introduced, often being told that bad experiences with the Press elsewhere would not be repeated with the Chron.
Sadly, all the goodwill has got us nowhere.
We’d go over and see the last sergeant, the affable Russ Thomas, who’d raise areas of concern the police had with a story or two, and we’d raise the issue of being kept informed. We’d go away and take on board what he’d said and he — like all his predecessors — would promise to take up our issue with his superiors. Nothing ever happened.
The past 18 months have seen it get worse. In case you think we’re just moaning about a few petty crime stories, here are some examples.
Last year we had reports of a man exposing himself on Park Lane, Congleton. We contacted the police Press office and they denied it was true, even though we were getting solid reports from the public. Eventually, using back channels, we were able to get it confirmed and forced a statement.
The man then started exposing himself in Biddulph — would he have been stopped earlier had his antics been given more publicity?
More recently, after appealing on Facebook, we found about two spates of burglaries, one in Congleton and one in Alsager, about which we had been told nothing.
More so than the flasher, we find this hard to believe — not only should the police be warning people to take more care, but appealing for information might help catch the burglar. Flashing and burglaries: these are not petty crimes.
The sex attack in Mill Street is still to go before the courts so we can’t say much, but that took the police three days to issue a Press release, during which time social media was awash with mostly untrue speculation and we were unable to do our job of supplying factual information.
Most surprising was the story last year, when a man was viciously stabbed at Astbury Mere. The police were less than helpful and when we ran the story, a senior figure from HQ phoned us to angrily demand what right we had to put the story on the front page. George Orwell, are you watching?
We’d like to stress: we have nothing against the police. We’re a local paper with staff who live in the community. We are part of that community and we want it to be safe one. We’ve always got on well with the local police on the ground. We’re fair to the police and avoid sensationalist stories.
The secrecy is growing: Alsager’s PCSOs (partly paid for by the town council) want to report details of crime to Alsager Town Council behind closed doors, so the Press cannot find out.
We realise that the Press and the police may sometimes disagree, however cordial relations. However, our job is to report the local news and when people on social media are telling us stuff that we don’t know about — especially serious matters like burglaries — it means we are failing.
Social media can now be faster than official lines of communication, but when the Press office doesn’t even return calls or denies an event has occurred, it doesn’t help.
We have no real idea why the police are so unwilling to release details of crimes.
The force logo includes the words “Be safe, feel safe” and police cars carry the legend “Helping Communities Feel Safer”. Maybe perception of crime is now more important than dealing with the actual crimes? As long as we “feel safe” they’ve done their job. Perhaps those at the top think it’s better not to scare people by letting them know that a crime has occurred.
Or perhaps, like many organisations, the police just want to control the message. Everyone, from schools to voluntary groups and private companies, now seems to have media managers who have to justify their position by doing just that.
Maybe it’s just unfortunate that the Chronicle IS responsible – perhaps we’re suffering because other media outlets are less so.
Whatever the cause, we’ve (sadly) had enough of asking the police politely, and for nothing to ever be done.
Our goodwill towards the police has extended to co-operating in spreading their corporate message — basically, we print all the Press releases they send us, for, despite a reluctance to share details of crimes, they’re more than willing for us to print their hand-outs. From now on, we’ll treat police Press releases with a harder news eye than in the past.
While stories that are in the public interest will still be printed — appeals for information after serious crimes etc — other news items will be given less priority. Press releases from the police and crime commissioner, for example, or news about internal successes. There’s little point in printing routine crime awareness stories, either, if — as far as official releases go — there is no crime in East Cheshire.
Maybe we’re just getting old. Maybe in these days of social media and data protection the police really do have no need of local newspapers and it’s just that times are changing.
But if that’s the case, they can hardly expect us to print the thoughts of their crime commissioner or the fact that a police department we never heard of has won an award known only to crime professionals.