The revelation of celebrity hacking at the News of the World has opened a plethora of worm-cans, one of which has ultimately lead to a report by Elizabeth Filkin warning against the 'cosy' relationship between the press and the police.
As both a police officer and a type of journalist - albeit an unregulated, unedited type - this latest move is of interest, and suggests an imminent tightening of the net in regards to police blogging. But the general public view is unclear. There's a juxtaposition going on: the same people who bemoan the lack of information given by the police are also asking for us not to have close relationships with journalists. The same voices crying out against hacker-gate are also calling for more freedom of the press.
So are we supposed to be giving information to journalists or not?
If you were to ask Blandshire Constabulary's media officer, the answer would be about as clear as mud. What's more she'd have to write to the Chief Constable's Management Team before using the word 'mud', and to ensure the font size was not discriminating against anyone. In the world of Twenty-First Century policing, we're very confused about the media.
And, as can be seen in the case of the blogger Nightjack, the media are very confused about us. When The Times set out to 'out' Nightjack, on the spurious grounds that 'he might not have been a police officer (but was)', they seemed confused between the concepts of a corrupt police officer, a vigilante member of the public, and an anonymous source. As a whistle-blower into the inner workings of the police, he should have been the latter. As an independent journalist requiring no editor, or payment, they went for him the former. And interestingly enough, this article suggests they actually outed him by way of computer hacking.
Perhaps all of the above is an indication that relations between the police and the media are a complete mess, and that we do need some form of guide-lines. But if the result is a greater breakdown in communications, not only will it further harm the public image of the police, but it may actually damage our ability to handle a massive investigation such as the Soham murders, or a Madeleine McCann on British soil. When it comes to the crunch and a child is missing presumed-about-to-be-murdered, a strong pre-existing relationship with the media is vital to ensure the right information is released or withheld.
The above is an extreme example, but there are day-to-day concerns too, and Elizabeth Filkin's report talks largely about senior officers, rather than the likes of me. No doubt the reaction of Blandshire Constabulary, to my regular conversations with journalists and editors, would be one of horror. But why should good media relations be the remit only of the highly-ranked? Is a senior officer's lunch with a journalist any more or less corrupt than the neighbourhood bobby's coffee with a councillor? Or my phone-call with Radio Five Live? If the police is to truly connect with the media, and the public, we need to start giving more information, from a wider range of sources. The era of Twitter is not that of the carefully-worded press release, but the off-the-cuff witticism. Done without prejudicing any investigation or trial, naturally...
Of course, there is one problem with the vision of openness and transparency, and it's a problem that means such a vision will never be realised. If you embrace the concept of total transparency, it means you actually have to be carrying out your role with integrity and principle. Perhaps PC Nick Manning can raise this when he faces Professional Standards for his Tweets on Dorset's staffing levels. Is it his Tweeting that has undermined public confidence in his force, or is it his force's severe under-resourcing? Or as I will respond in my pre-prepared statement: 'If you don't want it blogged about, don't do it.'
Perhaps, one day, Blandshire Constabulary will have its own blog, that actually tells you the truth about Twenty-First Century Policing. Until that day, some of us will have to have beer with journalists. Or cappuccino, in my case.
'Diary of an On-Call Girl' is available in some bookstores and online.