One standout take-away from the Belfast Telegraph’s ‘BelTelBomber’ piece was an unexpected response from police which cut to the very core of how large organisations deal with the media in two interesting ways.
Firstly, a recap: the Belfast Telegraph’s story followed up on the Manchester bombing by sending a reporter to visit local tourist attractions, complete with a backpack, to check if he could do so without any checks.
The newspaper’s front page was given over to the piece along with the (print) headline “Just how safe are we really? Just days after the Manchester atrocity, our man walks into various visitor attractions in Belfast with a large rucksack that could have contained explosives”.
The social media response? A tongue-in-cheek ‘BelTelBomber’ hashtag on Twitter poking fun at the story (stats below) was quickly established while a stream of Facebook commenters also made their negative views heard.
Meanwhile, something very different in the PSNI’s handling of the story caught the attention of many, due to police not only taking to social media to openly criticise the fact that the piece had been compiled in the first place but also going on to publish their full response, complete with the sections critical of the story itself, which were not published by the newspaper.
This was an important break from the norm as it shattered a time-honoured code overseeing the relationship between a large organisation and the media.
This code is based on a simple understanding:
– The media, who have laid off many of their writers and very much need press office information, dislike their decisions becoming the story.
– Press offices, who need outlets for their message, dislike also their decisions becoming the story.
In short, everyone agrees that the main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing. And so it continues.
Most of all, if an organisation doesn’t like how a story has been handled? Bad luck. Sure, tomorrow is another day.
Except this time.
Police have some unique considerations: firstly, the fact that large organisations are hampered by privacy and legal restraints when faced with an accusation in the phone-in show era has been previously explored.
(A brief TLDR: An organisation faced with an accusation by a member of the public will be hampered by such constraints, not to mention public image and their own commercial or investigative sensitivities, when responding. This can often extend to considerations around human decency and sparing the blushes of an individual accuser, who meanwhile has near-impunity to claim what they wish via the media cheered on by whichever elected representatives happen to find the claim on-message. This, of course, long overdue an overhaul. Oh, and neither their claim nor the elected representative’s support will be followed-up by the media when it turns out to be untrue and drops from the headlines.)
This ‘sparing their blushes’ approach also extends to journalists when an outlet’s methods are considered to be unreasonable by the organisation, as the simple code of the press office/ media relationship must continue unhindered.
Secondly, when an organisation decides to aggravate a relationship with a media outlet, it runs that risk of its actions becoming the story rather than the message it wants to communicate. The problem being that one negative story leading into another can create a cycle of news-worthiness for more of the same. This is the reason why you’ll see stories criticising an organisation such as the PSNI appearing, at times, in distinct waves.
A risk for police also occurs in that the tragic events in Manchester have obviously raised the debate around threat in the GB media while the ever-present potential for our traditional summer disputes lies awaiting just around the corner. As if foreshadowing how easily the two issues could become entangled, an appearance on BBC Talkback by Jamie Bryson seemed to claim that George Hamilton’s decision not to instigate an Army response to Manchester locally was taken for political reasons (and not, therefore, because of intelligence briefings and the small matter of the already armed anti-terrorism force at his disposal).
And so, it was time for PSNI HQ to set the agenda, remind one and all that the ownership of the terrorist threat debate is theirs and say enough is enough.
An outstanding decision was made and a spotlight was directly turned onto not just the issue of terrorism threat, but to that day’s front page story and the fact that it had been published at all. After all, the social media response to the piece – which comes with the usual echo-chamber health warning – was the most empathic in its criticism I have seen locally since outcry into the legal and consenting sexual preferences of a then-MLA caused a similar online storm.
With police giving an unexpected but very welcome peek behind the closed doors of the relationship between HQ and the media, it seems fair to ask ‘why stop there?’.
Online publication of police media responses in full – where have been sliced or twisted out of shape by an outlet – seems to be a transparency boost with no downside.
In an age when information is garbled and stripped of fact, and fast, why stop with full responses either? Has a report of a crime carefully positioned as ‘alleged’ or ‘reported’ been turned into a confirmed event by an outlet? Why not say so?
What could be more important for public reassurance than the full, unfiltered police view?
Has an outlet been pretending not to understand the difference between two things: (1) police ‘receiving a report and working to establish if a crime was committed’ (e.g., when police are being dragged into a political mess of no concern of theirs) and; (2) ‘police are investigating’? Why not say so?
The arrival of large organisations adding context, correction, commentary and factual input to the headlines – even after they have been published – has never been more appropriate or easier to carry out.
Meanwhile, a bigger picture is at play in that video content now dominates and will increasingly over-shadow all else for those who source their news on social media. This led to Avon and Somerset Constabulary making a similar decision to that seen from the PSNI over the ‘BelTelBomber’ when they took charge of an unfolding story by facing down the fact that many people will accept the contents of an online video completely without context. This ‘trial by Facebook’ is an issue we’ll be seeing more and more often, especially in Northern Ireland where policing is something most people believe they know how to deliver better than police themselves due to many years of their elected representatives convincing their voters that this is the case.
We’re also in an era of the fake news debate feeding a wider discussion of the lines between demonstrably untrue stories and those simply guilty of bad journalism. An era which even brings about the need to teach children the difference a straightforward fact and an “alternative fact”.
A perfect time, therefore, to open some doors and bring some more much-needed authoritative information into wider view.
After all, and returning closer to home, while media organisations will always be very quick to attempt to hold police in Northern Ireland to account, anyone who has ever tried to make a complaint to the regulators may well ask themselves ‘who holds the media to account’?
The PSNI may well have tipped the scales in the public’s favour a little. Long may it continue.
Conor Johnston writes about subjects including mental health, culture, identity and media.
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