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police

Fracking – is it on your radar yet? Coming to the south west in 2014….

This is an article which appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald on January 2 2014 and includes an interview with mum Becky Martin, a scientist by profession.

As 2014 dawns, it could be a very important year for one campaigning mum from Wiltshire.

Becky Martin is the parent behind a new group Frack Free Families which campaigns against the removal of shale oil or gas from the ground – even if it’s for exploration purposes.

Already Becky can be seen handing out leaflets in town centres across Wiltshire, including Salisbury and Swindon, as well as joining forces with other concerned groups. She recently spent day at a protest at Barton Moss near Irlam, Manchester where drilling took place in November and December.

“I became interested in this subject some time ago as a scientist – I’m a biologist and had a career in cancer research before having my son.

“I looked into hydraulic fracturing and did what research I could and I was horrified. I just had to do something about it.

“This is entirely outside my comfort zone. I’ve never campaigned about anything before or taken such a strong stance on any issue. With this subject it was a case of ‘I have to do something about it’.”

Becky often takes her two-year-old son Aidan with her when she hands out leaflets to make the point that families will be affected by this search for a new energy source.

“Being a mother has been the driving factor behind this for me. What are we leaving behind for our children? We could be risking their health with this process and it’s insanity.

“Even taking that into account, it isn’t even going to deal with our long-term energy needs. Even if shale gas was magnificent, it isn’t going to solve our energy problems,” Becky said.

The extraction of shale gas and oil – and in some cases coal bed methane – is likely to become a familiar theme here during 2014. It’s a process which has been used in America for many years but is still in an exploratory phase in the UK. It is just one measure the government is looking at to ensure energy sustainability in the future. Renewables is another.

Becky said: “We have to look at, and invest more in, renewable energy such as solar, wind and tidal power. Shale gas is just too risky and we could be spending money on the burgeoning renewables sector. It’s crazy to me that we’re not looking more seriously at offshore wind farms or tidal power. We’re an island for goodness sake, and that could create a sustainable energy future. We must move away from fossil fuels.

“Apart from anything else, shale gas will not help us with our main addiction when it comes to energy use – our cars. It will not solve the problem of our addiction to petrol.”

A licensing round for exploratory work around is due to be held in the first six months of this year. These licences could allow boreholes to be drilled and/or well pads to be created in Wiltshire. This means companies involved in this exploratory work – such as IGas, Cuadrilla and Celtique – will be able to bid for the licenses.

For Becky this is must not happen. Like many anti-fracking campaigners, she is concerned about the potential for contamination of water sources caused by the process of drilling. She’s also concerned about the long term health effects for communities living around drilling sites.

“Fracking fluid for the process is an unpleasant mix of chemicals. I’ve been told it contains nothing more than that which is under my kitchen sink. However these cleaning fluids are incredibly toxic and we’ll be pumping that into the ground in large quantities. Some of the chemicals used are very, very dangerous such as oxirane.

“There are also risks around what could be released by the process itself. There are naturally occurring radioactive materials in the earth which we would not want to contaminate our water.”

She wrote to her own MP, John Glen, expressing her concerns. He replied in detail:

“It is worth mentioning that the deposits of shale gas identified by the British Geological Survey in Wiltshire are extremely minimal – and located in the north west tip of the county. The majority are in central and northern England.” 

 “I’m afraid that I’m strongly in favour of fracking. I welcome the potential it has to provide with a vitally needed new energy source, and to catalyse a new industry in the UK.” 

However, Becky disputes that there will be any significant creation of jobs for local communities. She claims that in the Fylde area near Blackpool, where the first UK explorations were carried out, only 11 per cent of the workforce was recruited locally.

John Glen also says there is little credible evidence to show that contamination of water sources could occur if proper regulation and procedures are in place.

“It’s important to note the differences between water systems here and in the USA. In the UK, most aquifers like within the first 300m below the surface. Fracking operations will taken place some 2km down – migration of methane or fracking fluids could therefore only occur through fractures in the rock which would allow the chemicals through.”

Becky claims research from America suggests this method of obtaining energy is having adverse health effects on nearby communities – effects which emerge after a period of time. She believes this is not being taken seriously at home.

“There is evidence from Pennsylvania which suggests that children are having frequent nosebleeds, headaches and other problems when they live very close to the drill sites. I would also urge anyone to seek out the film Gasland which looks at the experiences of families living close to sites where shale gas and oil are extracted.”

Becky also claims there are a number of myths around fracking which are common among the wider population. The most common one, she claims, is that obtaining shale oil or gas will bring down the price of energy.

“Many politicians have now openly said that this will not happen including Ed Davey, David Kennedy and Lord Sterne. This will not make energy cheaper.”

Factoids: 

What is fracking? –  or hydraulic fracturing, is the process of extracting natural gas from shale rock layers deep within the earth. Fracking makes it possible to produce natural gas extraction in shale plays once unreachable with conventional technologies.

Germany has taken a different stance and has concluded, due to lack of data, the precautionary principle should be adhered to and a moratorium around fracking is in place.

For the American documentary about communities living near hydraulic fracturing sites – you can find Gasland the Movie on YouTube.

Frack free families can be contacted by joining the Frack Free Families group on Facebook.

 

The police, young people and mental health…in Wiltshire…

Today I’m reproducing an article I wrote for my family column in the weekly newspaper, The Gazette & Herald, which covers much of the county of Wiltshire. It was published on Thursday August 29 2013  and I’m reproducing it here at the request of one of my Twitter followers, an organisation which I much admire, Wiltshire Mind. To follow me on Twitter, you’d be most welcome at @mum3fi, and you can find the Gazette & Herald @wiltsgazette. 

 

Some time ago,  I wrote about an Ofsted report into the safeguarding of vulnerable children in Wiltshire and the fact that the county’s local authority had been found wanting.

I also reported on the fact that the 2012 report had prompted action to be taken and went through some of the measures to improve the situation for vulnerable and looked-after children in the county. I should point out that the report didn’t suggest any children had come to harm as a result of failings.

However, buried within that 2012 report was a comment which really stood out for me – and which I’ve been trying to get to the bottom of ever since.

It said ‘the established practice by police of using section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983 to hold some children or young person in custody where they have committed an offence is inappropriate’.

It goes on to say ‘this practice is under review given that there is now a dedicated CAMHS (Children and Adolescent Mental Health Services) out-of-hours service that can provide more timely and potentially more appropriate assessments’.

This prompted me to find out about Section 136 of the Mental Health Act 1983. It’s headed ‘mentally disordered persons found in public places’. It allows that a constable can remove and detain someone for up to 72 hours until he, or she, is examined by a registered practitioner or mental health professional.

What does this mean? Have the police in Wiltshire – or anywhere else for that matter – been holding young people and children, in custody for up to 72 hours when it’s suspected they might have mental health issues?

Since raising questions around two months ago, I’ve been on a journey of epic proportions around the ‘system’. But the answer to my key question is – yes.

A number of children each year have been arrested and held, usually when they’ve committed an offence, and the police believe mental health issues have contributed in some way.

Several times the term ‘Freedom of Information’ was used by various voices but last week I finally got some figures from Wiltshire Constabulary. They are:

2009 – four children (under-18s) were held under Section 136.

2010 – six.

2011 – four.

2012 – three.

But to confuse matters even further these are not the definitive figures. The police have recorded ‘pure’ cases – those where a child clearly has, at first point of contact, mental health issues. However, there have also been a number of cases where an arrest has been made and police officers have subsequently sought help as they’ve suspected mental health issues.

Taking these cases into account as well, the total number of children between the end of 2010 and the end of 2012 who were held under Section 136 was 23.

So what has been done about it? The Wiltshire Safeguarding Children Board (WSCB –  partnership between Wiltshire Council, Wiltshire Police and Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust) insists much has been done.

In December 2012, mental health services for under-18s was taken over by Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust, known as Oxford Health.  It immediately introduced the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Services (CAMHS) Protocol.

To cut through the jargon this means when police officers respond to a young person in ‘significant mental health distress or crisis’, the officer contacts CAMHS from the scene by phone. They can do this 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Emergency mental health assessments can then be offered or an appointment within 24 hours.

The officer provides information including:

*         Presentation – how is the young person behaving?

*         Need for medical attention – is the young person hurt?

*         Circumstances of the incident

*         Concerns regarding safeguarding or welfare

The CAMHS worker checks the electronic health record system to see if that young person is known. If so, the worker may speak directly with the young person and propose a safety plan or speak to parents or carers.

If distress can be reduced through a phone conversation, the young person is normally offered an urgent assessment on the morning of the next working day.  If concerns remain, an emergency assessment can be offered in a safe location such as a CAMHS clinic or police station within two hours.

If the young person is not known, there may be unknown risks and an urgent mental health assessment can be offered.

The options are discussed with the officer at the scene who always reserves the right to use a 136 detention or other police powers.

In a statement WSCB said:

“It’s a system which enables officers to gain a mental health perspective to inform their decision-making and consider alternative options.  It also ensures CAMHS are alerted to mental health concerns at an early stage stage and can offer an urgent assessment whether the young person is detained or not.

“The benefits of this collaboration between mental health services and the police, is that distressed young people who require urgent mental health support can receive this quickly, in the least restrictive manner which ensures their immediate needs and risks are reduced.”

The Board says that so far, the new system is working.

“We are pleased to report as result of this protocol there has been a dramatic reduction in the number of 136 detentions under the Mental Health Act of young people under 18 years.

“In the last two years, prior to the introduction of the protocol, there were 23 ‘136’ detentions – this has reduced to three since December 2012.”

Mental health issues in the under-18s - how do the police deal with this?

Mental health issues in the under-18s – how do the police deal with this?

 

We’re not talking about many children, of course, but we are talking about children. Children suspected of having some kind of mental health issue. Children who could, quite legally, be  held for up to three days. Let’s hope this new support system keeps on working.

 

 

 

Hope in the midst of horror – the killing of a soldier in Woolwich

A young soldier is attacked and killed in full public view on our streets, seemingly by extremists intent on creating fear and panic among the population at large.

An act of violence and abomination. A  terrible, terrible event for the family, friends and colleagues of the victim. An attack on one of our soldiers, one of the many men and women who are prepared to die to protect our way of life.

Yesterday the news was full of stories about horrible killings in our society. This was one was so shocking because it was so immediate with video clips on the internet and the killers using that medium to spread whatever twisted message they wanted to get across.

Today I’ve heard several negative things which, in my view, play into the hands of all extremists. People calling for death, mobs, marches, violence to a whole group in our society who are as innocent as we are. People suddenly showing support for organisations which shouldn’t be more than an annoying pimple which needs to be popped. These organisations jumping on the horror and claiming it for their own – it’s utterly despicable. What is it that Gandhi said? An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.

Let’s not let anger and fear make us blind to the good things…..

There are pros and cons to seeing a death like this victim’s played out so publicly  – in America, people are used to seeing this type of thing more often. I’m in two minds about this. I heard a man on the radio saying it was disgraceful bringing this into everyone’s living rooms. Is it? Is it disgraceful that we face the horror up front? Those people in that street, that young man didn’t ask for that, did they? They had no choice in it. Can we hide from the risks we may all face?

But this exposure also highlighted other things – small acts of courage and care which happened in the few moments that this horrific event took place. The woman who tried to reason with someone who could not be reasoned with. Did she think or did she act? Her efforts provided, at a minimum, a distraction which could well have prevented another death or serious attack. Could I have done that? Would I have done that? I honestly don’t know.

The person, who even though it was hopeless, held the victim and wept over him – a stranger who cared, who just tried to be there in the most terrible of circumstances and amid carnage. Someone who just saw the young man and reached out. I believe the victim’s family will take a small crumb of comfort from that one act.

I heard comments about wishing the police had shot dead the people responsible. Yesterday, in the immediate aftermath I too had some sympathy for that view. But our police  are professionals. They too, being there and in the midst of that awful situation, may have felt that way. But they, like our soldiers, were professional. We have no idea what the bigger picture is here – is there more intelligence around this incident? Is there information to be gained from the men responsible? Two meetings of COBRA in a 24-hour period suggest something else is going on here that we, the public, are unable to see and may well never know.

We should therefore take heart in all the courageous people around this incident who reacted in split seconds to an unspeakable horror. Many acted with dignity and caring towards complete strangers. Now is the time for the police to do their jobs, and for us to consider the pain of the family involved.

Has the murder of Stephen Lawrence made you reflect? Are you rascist?

Stephen Lawrence was a young man murdered by rascists. We’ve known this for 18 years. Many of us have looked at the Lawrence family and been inspired by their dignity in the face of such horror – again and again and again.

It seems that we should reflect on rascism as a result of the court case and  the conviction of two of up to six people responsible for Stephen’s murder.

Thanks to the dedication of his mother and his father, Stephen’s death has impacted upon the Metropolitan Police (and rightly so) and it’s certainly made me think about how rascism can creep up on you. Watching the BBC’s Panorama revealed a little of that in the behaviour of investigating officers immediately following Stephen’s death. What initial actions would have been taken if a white youth had been stabbed to death?

I, for one, am very glad that some members of that awful gang have been convicted and I hope a situation arises when others can face the same justice. However, let’s face it, their lives have been haunted by Stephen and his family these past 18 years. And that’s not going to end any time soon. Good.

But are we really any less rascist today? Or is it simply more hidden? Or simply directed elsewhere?

As a journalist, I’ve encountered rascism on numerous occasions. Often I’ve been shocked and saddened. But equally I’ve encountered such sentiments from acquaintances and that’s equally shocking. I try so hard not to be rascist – but it would be naive of me to think that I’m totally free of it.

I have many friends whose skin colour is different than mine, whose nationality is different to mine and whose culture and belief system is different. I adore all of those friends and feel enriched by them. A good friend of mine who is French recently reminded me how good our care system for the elderly is here compared with France – it was a sobering reminder of how we stack up against other countries.

But there are a few incidents I recall which I have found shameful. One was many years ago when a friend of mine (I won’t be too specific) lived in the East End of London. On visits, if you went out into the garden there was a delicious smell of curry cooking, of spices and exotic aromas. Many people living in that area were (or their parents, grandparents) from Asia. I also remember going on a bus with that friend and we were the only white faces on board and I did find it strange. It gave me a brief insight into what it must be like to be ‘the only black in the white village’.

But the most shocking thing about this was that this friend’s brother was so rascist as to be unbelievable. Always using rude words about people of colour and talking about what he’d like to do to them. Soon after my  friendship ended, this brother became (yes you’ve guessed it) an officer in the Met. I’ve often worried about someone who was so meek on the outside but so rascist on the inside, could get into a police force. This all took place a couple of years after Stephen Lawrence’s death. So when the Met was found to be institutionally rascist – I wasn’t surprised.

More recently though, another friend went through a bad time which meant he had to claim benefits for a while. He had real trouble getting it sorted, while at the same time having a family to feed. He shouted out loud about it and I understood. It was a difficult financial time.

And then he went on to say something about ‘if his skin had been a different colour, he’d wouldn’t have had this trouble’ and ‘if he’d come from Eastern Europe, he’d have been given money hand over fist’. He lost me at these comments, I’m afraid. All of my sympathy drained away. Because these broad sweeping statements are simply not true, apart from being offensive to me.

In Swindon we do have an influx of people from Eastern Europe at the moment – often from Poland. They’ve come into the more middle class area of West Swindon. But the reality is that a large number of people from Poland have come here for many, many years – they’ve just lived in different areas of the town. We also have people coming from Afghanistan, Iran and many other places. Welcome, I say. All of these people enrich our town, hardly any of them are lazy, unwilling to work – in fact often the opposite.

The lesson of Stephen Lawrence for me is that rascism is still there – just below the surface and we must destroy it, one tiny drop at a time.

 

Fighting the drip, drip, drip of rascism....

Appropriate adult – appropriate story? Fred met Janet.

The serial killings of Fred and Rose West was a case that dominated the early part of my career in newspapers.
I didn’t cover the story on a day-to-day basis but I knew several journalists who did – and working down the road in Swindon, it was close enough to be both macabre and fascinating.

Knowing some journalists who covered the case day in and day out, I do know that many details of Fred & Rose West’s perversions were never made public. Many journalists formed a pact not to reveal some of the more awful details. 

I was therefore very interested in the ITV drama Appropriate Adult. I found it quite difficult to watch and difficult to understand the odd relationship between West and Janet Leach. However, having looked a murderer in the eye myself, it can be hard to relate that person to their actions.
Today I’ve listened to the main police officer being critical of the programme and its makers.

 

Janet’s role in the case was grossly exaggerated, they didn’t stick to the facts.

Such a reaction was predictable – but let’s not forget that this was a drama. It was not a documentary or a drama documentary – nor was it billed as such.

 

It was also very specific in that it looked at one very particular aspect of this gruesome and awful case. It was a relationship based in fact – Janet Leach is a real person, she did sit with Fred West during police interviews and she did lie about her involvement with a national newspaper.

 
But should history be harsh on her for that? During the Fred & Rose West trial, many, many people made money out of this case. There were even rumours at the time that T-shirts were even being sold in the street where it happened.

 

Also many journalists paid money to nearby properties in order to erect scaffoldings etc from which to film activity around the home occupied by the murderers.

 
Detectives who worked on the case are, understandingly are very passionate about the role they played.

 

But it remains true that this couple practised their perversions almost in plain sight for many, many years. Was there joined up information around this couple? Who knows? It seems unbelievable that no one at any time raised any concerns about them, about children who were there and then were not…

 
The drama did two things for me which were powerful – it showed the delusion that the murderer Fred West could have hidden behind.

 

I’ve experienced it once myself when I visited a convicted killer in prison. Even after ten years inside he still talked about the offence as if the victim was somehow to blame – her behaviour was such that it brought about a fatal chain of events.

 

The fact that his response to her behaviour was to shoot her dead – he just couldn’t see that that wasn’t a normal response. I felt, sadly, that this man would never be able to see the horror of what he’d done, the pain he’d caused.

 

The dramatisation of Fred West demonstrated that self-delusion – talking about dead victims with love and compassion while ignoring the elephant in the room – the fact that he or his awful wife had killed that victim.

The other powerful thing for me was the representation of Rose West. As the trial progressed with Rose West in real life, I began to see her as a mastermind rather tha

The web spun by Fred & Rose West - prepare for more dramas around this story

n a deluded follower of her husband’s perversions.
There’s another thing that rings true from the drama. People like the two Wests don’t just stop such awful acts – paedophiles don’t suddenly stop and start. I believe, as perhaps Janet Leach does, that there are more victims out there. We will never know the full extent of their actions.
My thoughts go out to the relatives of those individuals – a stain on that family that could leak down through the generations.

WHAT ABOUT THE RIOTS?

Watching the news tonight and I listened to the mum of 13-year-old boy justifying why her son went to the riots with a hammer strapped to his leg.

He wasn’t rioting, but he was there. The hammer was for his own protection. She was lamenting the injustice of it all.

Police worry about some children who are out of control

 

Would you let your son out with a hammer strapped to his leg? Would you even let him out with friends where he felt the need to carry a weapon?

I just don’t get that at all.

I don’t have the answers when it comes to preventing riots. More intelligent minds than mine will look for reasons for the unrest.

 

I do feel very uncomfortable when politicians talk about our society being broken, families being without responsibility, gang culture is rife and we have to stop it. All of these reasons may be true – but let’s see in time just who was rioting. It just feels too easy to blame those on low income, from poor backgrounds, social housing, living on benefits, no jobs.
Lots of people in our country have poor starts, bad parenting, terrible experiences – and they’ve used that positively for the greater good.
What I can say, as a mum, that my teenage children would not be out with a hammer strapped to his/her leg. At age 13, they would not be out roaming around with friends, especially if I knew that there was trouble.
While peer pressure is a powerful thing – it is not more powerful than having good parents. If I had to sit down with my child all day to prevent them doing wrong, then I would do it.
I’m no perfect mum but there are some basic things that I can control. I can control whether or not my child has a mobile phone, access to the internet, access to money.
These are all privileges which are removed in my home if rules are broken. These are punishments that older children really get – oh, the horror of having no access to a computer, or even worse, a mobile phone.

And I’m unmoved by protests – I grew up without any of those things and I survived!
Of course, I know as a journalist that’s it’s easy to pick those alleged rioters who are very young – when many more may have gone through the courts who are over 18, might be in work, or, in one case, received looted items but were not part of the actual riots.

Equally I know that police officers often show concern about the behaviour of certain children. It takes just a few individuals in a town who come from extremely troubled backgrounds to cause huge amounts of anti-social behaviour.

Here in Swindon, I’ve been told of so-called ‘feral’ children whose parents aren’t concerned about their whereabouts, their safety, their criminality. They often sleep rough, and move around the town. Their movements can often be tracked by the amount of low level crime that is being carried out.

If that’s true, and I’ve no reason to doubt it, how can you connect or engage with young people who have been abandoned so badly by their parents. Their boundaries are simply not the same as ours. What a sad,sad situation.

 

Have you ever looked into the eyes of a child with no hope? I have – and it will stop you in your tracks. There’s no answer to it, there are no platitudes that they will hear or respond to.

For parents of those children, they should be brought to book, they should face up to their dereliction. I’m not saying the children who commit crimes should not be punished – but they should also know that those who let them down, must also face justice.

WHAT ABOUT THE RIOTS?

Riots - have you seen mob mentality up close and personal?

I’m listening to Question Time talking about riots as I’m writing this.

Here in Swindon, for three evenings in a row there has been rumour and counter-rumour about trouble in the town centre. To my knowledge, nothing’s happened.

 

Shops closed early, the police officer numbers were out in force. There was just a feeling of fear, of flames being fanned. Even my kids picked up on it. It’s been ridiculous, it almost feels like we are tempting fate by creating fear of something that’s just not there – thankfully.

 
Clearly other places have had terrible scenes and there has been much loss. My heart goes out to the families of the three men killed for trying to defend their street in the Manchester area.

But who or what can we blame? Is there anyone to blame? Is it our social ills?

And now there’s something else to blame now – social media.

 

I’ve just listened to someone say that the speed of social media made the police’s jobs impossible. What? Social media is for everyone and is used by millions, including police officers. Social media is simply a tool that anyone can use and the police need to get to grips with it along with everyone else.

 
Let’s get real here.

 

People were behind this trouble – not the police, not social media, not the business people and individuals who were under threat, or who had businesses wrecked.

Individuals decided to break the law and others piled in and took opportunities to thieve and be destructive. The same happened with the student demonstrations. The same happened in the demos in the 1980s etc, etc.

A young black man died – was shot by police. We don’t know the circumstances for sure. But what part of the riots will make his family feel better? What part of the riots will cure the problems in which he may have been involved?

The police have come in for considerable flack and that will continue. I know many police officers and not one of them is incompetent, or ridiculous, or violent or lacking in dedication to my knowledge. All of them are men or women with families and the same hopes and fears as all of us.

Even with the best clothing, shields, helmets, truncheons etc facing a screaming mob is absolutely terrifying. This is something I do know about – because it’s happened to me.
Years ago, in a small Somerset town, I was out with the police as a newspaper journalist when we attended a disturbance outside a pub where there had been lots of trouble.
When we arrived, there were a group of about 50 people, many had been drinking heavily, and they were wound up. When the police arrived, I was told to stay in the car. The noise was so loud, bottles were thrown at the car. Believe me, I didn’t need to be told twice.
Some of these people I’d been to school with – I saw the mob mentality in action, some knew me and it made no difference. At one point a group grabbed the car and started rocking it up and down with me in the back. I’ve rarely been so terrified.
The whole thing probably only lasted moments, but it was all in slow motion – I can’t remember how we got out of it. I suppose they were dispersed.
I’ve often been told that individuals are reasonable but mobs are without reason – and I think that must be part of it. That night, in a sleepy backwater town, I saw the mob in action very briefly.
And it’s that memory that stays with me when I see what’s happened. I don’t know the answers but I do know what it feels like to face violence without reason.

High drama outside bedroom window!

As I was quietly contemplating today’s first new blog post, one literally popped into my head. Well, ‘pop’ is not quite the right word, more like ‘screeched’.

I’m not joking. On the little housing estate where I live, it is quite sedate so loud noises really ring out. I heard the screeching of tyres, twice. Rushing to the window, like the neighbour from hell, I thought ‘right, I’ll clock who that was and talk to them or their parents’. I’m afraid I thought it was a young person going far too fast in a residential area.

As I live on a corner, I do get a lot of kids playing football outside as it’s very spacious. I don’t mind, makes the place sound lively but cars do need to be careful.

But I was wrong. A blue car shrieked round the corner and stopped at right angles to my home, right across the road and a guy opened the door and ran off, a second shimmied over from the driver’s side and ran after him. I thought ‘bloody hell, they’re leaving their car in the middle of the road’. Both men were black and, I’m ashamed to say, I thought ‘is it drugs?’ as I realised I was witnessing the aftermath of a crime of some sort.

Then I heard more shrieking brakes and two police cars came and a police community support officer came belting round the corner shouting. I could hear other voices so I assume that another police car had come the other way – a classic pincer movement on my doorstep.

A few seconds later, the running police officer came back with a man in handcuffs – the other one was nowhere in sight, worryingly. Then followed a long time of talking, sitting, on the radio, gathering and chatting, back slapping by police officers and PCSOs. I watched them do a cursory search of the car but nothing was found as far as I could see.

Now as a journalist, did I take pictures! You bet I did, as soon as I realised this was a little bit of drama. Then I thought can I use them? I itch to use them. They’re not that exciting, I have to say as the two men had run off before I had time to even think ‘camera’.

Should I use them?

Let’s think about it. These two men could be innocent of any crime. Unlikely as innocent people don’t shriek away from police cars, abandon their ‘own’ car in the middle of a street and run off. But they could be. Is there likely to be a court case? Who knows? Would my showing the pictures prejudice that case? Possibly if one defendant’s case was that he wasn’t there I suppose? Or that the car wasn’t his? Or he wasn’t in the car?

The pictures clearly identify the car, and one of the men, so should I use them? They do show that this is a nice street and give the impression that such an event is highly unusual and quite exciting. But then that would be the case for most of us. They show that the police acted quickly to deal with it, with the minimum of fuss although there was quite a bit of hanging around afterwards.

On balance, I’ve decided not to publish some of the pictures in case the police decide to knock on my door, or the suspect (or his mate) does the same! But what I’m telling you is true, even if slightly pointless!

police car parked across road

high drama on a Wiltshire street - well for a Thursday afternoon

Motorhome story – a pr dilemma?

Last week I described a scenario to you where a police officer had almost come to blows with a company over the purchase of a very expensive motorhome.

 

To re-cap, the £40,000 vehicle was a lemon and the company was refusing to replace it, blaming everyone under the sun, especially the manufacturer of the vehicle.

 

Under the Sale of Goods Act, it’s the retailer who is responsible for providing a product that’s fit for purpose – not the manufacturer. This is especially true if faults occur during the first six months of ownership. But this police officer was getting nowhere.

 

That’s where the journalist comes into the mix (me) as the police officer contacts the programme I’m working on at the time. After said police officer guarantees that nothing will stand in his way of taking part in any filming – I get to work. This involves collating and verifying paperwork against story, contacting the relevant company.

 

After much to-ing and fro-ing, the company says it will back down and replace the vehicle.

 

Result! Happy police officer.

 

I contact him to arrange filming but he doesn’t answer. And he doesn’t answer, and he doesn’t answer. No e-mails are answered either.

 

Eventually after some days, I get hold of him when he rather sheepishly admits that he knows he’s going to get a new vehicle. But the catch is that he will only get it, if he pulls out of any filming.

I ask him if he is going to pull out – and despite all of his earlier protestations of ‘I’m my own man’ and ‘no one will manipulate me’ – he’s well and truly manipulated.

 

He refuses to cooperate further, while acknowledging that he wouldn’t have had this offer if it hadn’t been for my intervention.

 

 

I asked you what you would do if you were the police officer? Would you feel any commitment to me, the journalist, who brought about this offer? Or not? Would you give in to, what is effectively, blackmail?

I’m not sure what I would do – I would want to say no and go ahead with the story. After all, there’d been months of anguish and I would be entitled to a replacement or my money back if I’d gone to court. But who knows what pressure I’d be under to give in?

 

What could I as the journalist do about this man’s decision? The truth is very little.

 

I’d not filmed a shot so I was stuffed for a tv story about him – though we had looked at other complaints about the same company. This had been the strongest of the lot. I could (as he’d willingly given me his paperwork to back up his story) have written an article for the local newspaper, naming him and the company and there would have been little he could have done about it. If it’s true, it’s true. I didn’t do this.

 

For the company, they’d had a lucky escape from bad publicity, though if that company had had any gumption they might have seen it as a chance to get their brand on air, with an apology and shots of ‘here you are Mr Police Officer, let me hand over the keys to your new vehicle’.

 

Even though it is, on the face of it a bad news story, it’s precious air-time which you might not otherwise get. You could have put a spin on it of ‘ here’s company that puts rights its mistakes’ etc. But few company bosses are that courageous.


As a viewer, how do you feel about companies which actually turn up to

row of caravans in woodland setting

would you throw away your principles for a new motorhome?

put their side on programmes like the BBC’s Watchdog for example. I always think ‘well at least they’ve had the courage to stand up and be counted’. To me it always looks as if you’ve got something to hide if you are super defensive.

 

Regardless, this is a very common if frustrating problem when you work in consumer journalism – and I suppose us journalists will never totally overcome it.

The Media Giving Out The Wrong Message?

I went on a course last week about ‘safe recruitment’ in my role as chair of a local pre-school.
Even as volunteers, we’re expected to develop a knowledge of safeguarding children – a sentiment I applaud.
The course on the whole was good and highlighted to me the importance of working hard to keep paedophiles away from children. It’s all about reducing risk – not eliminating it, as that’s impossible.
All of this in the light of the Panorama about the mis-treatment of vulnerable adults in a setting in South Gloucestershire.
During the course though, one of the speakers put up images of two newspaper articles about court cases involving paedophiles. The headlines used words like ‘predator’ etc with pictures of two men staring madly.

 

The speaker said that the media had got it wrong when it came to dealing with paedophiles, their language was wrong and articles such as these don’t give the real truth.

 

The real truth being that paedophiles don’t look like monsters, are rarely strangers and often look like the nice guy who lives next door, the helpful guy round the corner or the lovely lady who always helps you out.

Unfortunately for the speaker, this was not something I could just leave without comment. It’s such a yawn to hear that well worn phrase ‘the media has got it wrong’ as if that excuse covers all ills.

Over coffee, I tackled her. She said that I must agree with her and I said I completely disagreed.
This is why.

 

The law around reporting sexual offences is very strict, so the only cases the media can report in any detail are those few (often the most terrible, and the most lurid) which reach the courts.

Most journalists know that there are far more sexual offenders out there than the public realize and often they are very close to home.

Also one of the biggest barriers to reporting these disturbing facts are social services departments.

 

These departments often run scared of the press and, even when given lots of assurances, won’t trust a journalist to protect the identity of vulnerable victims or witnesses (even though the law says we must).

 

But when these professionals allow quality journalism to take place – things can be changed, sometimes very quickly.
I’ve overcome this media fear a couple of times in my career and produced films which I’m deeply proud of – where police officers, professionals have all cooperated in order to tell a story which would not have seen the light of day otherwise.
Last year, I tried to get permissions in place to tell the story of the lives of a small number of dysfunctional families in Swindon and the massive investment that was being made to help them. The police were all for it – given that the then head of Swindon police knew I would honour my promise to protect those who needed protecting. But social services said no – and that was the end.

 

small spider hanging by thread with bright blue background

paedophiles are closer than you think....

So when told last week by someone from social services (who does a wonderful job each day I’m sure) that it’s the media getting it wrong, sending out the wrong message  – I did feel a little smug in pointing out that actually her profession was part of the very problem she was complaining about.

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