News Analysis: Pressure mounts on London's police

Amid the fallout from the Forest Gate raid, Alex Black gauges opinion on the Metropolitan Police's comms team.

Anger is still simmering in East London after this month's controversial anti-terror raid on a house in Forest Gate, apparently after a tip-off from MI5.

Throw in the London Assembly report on the Metropolitan Police's 7/7 comms response (PRWeek, 9 June) and ongoing rows over the shooting of Brazilian electrician Jean Charles de Menezes almost exactly one year ago, and the unproductive raid in the early hours of 2 June was the last thing the Met's comms team needed.

Damage limitation
As well as fielding hundreds of press calls and issuing regular updates, the Met's press team has acted quickly in a bid to rebuild community relations in East London.

An apology was issued and senior borough officers joined the Met's deputy assistant commissioner Rose Fitzpatrick to meet community leaders and listen to their concerns. All just another week in the life of the UK's largest police press outfit.

Capital Radio news editor Matthew Schofield says the past few years have seen an improvement in the Met's media function and describes the press service as, on the whole, ‘impressive'.

Bob Cox runs the Met's central news bureau and describes it as the busiest police press office in the country. ‘The police never close, so we never close,' he says. ‘Our region has more than seven million inhabitants and hosts some of the biggest public events in the country.

‘As well as the domestic press, we also deal with the international media. Recently we received an award from the Foreign Press Association for our work on 7/7.'

A lot of the time, Cox says, the bureau will give stories to journalists, and he estimates that, by and large, the Met ‘tells the media more things than the journalists already know'.

He admits that sometimes information can come out slowly. One broadcast journalist grumbles that, despite calling in as usual at 5am on the morning of the Forest Gate raid, he was not given the story until 8.15.

But Cox points out that, given the nature of what the Met is dealing with, facts come first. ‘I'd sooner say nothing than be wrong,' he explains.


THE MET COMMS TEAM - WHO'S WHO

The Met's press function has 67 staff, 55 of whom are PROs. The ten-strong 24-hour news bureau is open seven days a week all year round, and is the first port of call for major stories. The Met's key press contacts are:

Dick FEDORCIO: director of public affairs and corporate comms

Chris WEBB: deputy director of public affairs and corporate comms

Bob COX: chief press officer - runs the 24-hour press bureau

Stephanie DAY: head of publicity

Des STOUT: head of internal comms

Joy BENTLEY: head of corporate comms and day-to-day press for Sir Ian Blair

Jeff EDWARDS, chief crime writer at the Daily Mirror

‘Doing PR for the Met is not like any other PR. It's crisis management on a daily diet of rape, murder and Kate Moss. Journalists always demand the impossible, but the Met operates a very slick machine, delivering hard-nosed information in real time. A lot of the time it is dealing with the most senior people in journalism, and with issues that have a huge impact on people's lives.

‘News should be things that people don't want out in the open, and journalists should always be digging for it. The Met's press team accepts that. I imagine most people who work in the Met's frontline press team would walk into any crisis management role in the country.'

Jonathan RICHARDS, editorial director of LBC and Heart news
‘There have been massive improvements in the Met's press function over the past few years. In the past, you wouldn't be told who you were talking to and they wouldn't always get back to you.

‘Our traffic news team can pick things up very quickly, sometimes before the Met press team. In the past we'd go to them with something and they'd say "We don't know anything about it" - and that would be it. Now the response is "We'll look into it" - and they always get back to you.

‘The London Media Group - when Bob Cox does monthly briefings on trials and operations - is also a great innovation. Sometimes he'll bring in a senior officer for extra background, too.'

Greg TRUSCOTT, chief reporter for the South London Press
‘Before the SLP, I used to work on the Echo in Cardiff, and I can tell you that the Met's press team is noticeably better than those of regional outfits.

‘Of course we need speed and accuracy, but from our point of view, it's often the details of smaller local incidents that are important to our readers. Lambeth Borough is particularly good at giving us access to the information we need, and we have an excellent relationship with them.

‘The press teams are proactive, too. They will send us advance details of major trials.We have also been invited to go out on operations, which gives us an insight into the pressures the police are under.'

Colette BOOTH, corporate comms director, Greater Manchester Police
‘There is a fine line between learning lessons and picking holes after events such as 7/7. With hindsight, it is easy to be concerned about the length of time it takes to get information out to the public via the media. What is not so easy to imagine is the sheer immensity of the task of dealing effectively with the operational needs of multiple attacks. The police service has to maintain its credibility as an authoritative source of information.

‘Communication is recognised as a vital component of emergency plans - not just in the immediate aftermath of major incidents, but also on an ongoing basis. The excellent work of the Media Emergency Forums should continue to develop into a greater mutual understanding.'

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