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  • Iain Donnelly

Why are the British police so bad at sticking up for themselves?

Updated: Apr 13, 2021

For many years, I have thought long and hard about the dramatic contrast between my 'lived experience' of spending thirty years as a police officer, and the negative portrayal of policing by too many politicians and journalists.

This is nothing new, by the way. It was as much a reality when I first joined in 1989 as it is today. There was a stubbornly hostile narrative back in those days. However, the police service was able to shrug it off and ignore it most of the time because the organisation had a great deal more self-confidence than it has today. We knew the value of what we did, and there were enough police officers around to keep the public safe. The operating environment was completely different too. There were no camera phones shoved in officers faces every time they tried to do their job, and there were no social media platforms to amplify a frequently one-sided and distorted version of events.

I'm not against all journalists and politicians!

First of all, I need to make it crystal clear that I'm not against politicians and journalists as a collective, and I made this point during Episode 3 of my new 'Tango Juliet Foxtrot' podcast this week. Many constituency MPs are doing a tremendous job and working very hard on behalf of their constituents out of the limelight. They speak with common sense, and they understand the messiness of life. Equally, many journalists work very hard to report the facts, hold influential people and institutions to account, and often put themselves in harms way to do that. Long may they continue to do that.

However, there are far too many in both professions who act opportunistically, trying to pull the wool over the British public's eyes. They put their selfish agendas before the truth, and very often, those who spend the most time in the limelight are the worst offenders, further skewing public perceptions. I imagine that this must be very frustrating for those who just want to quietly get on with it rather than have their fifteen minutes of fame.

Secondly, do I believe that the UK police service is or ever has been perfect? No, of course not. They get things very wrong from time to time. They sometimes recruit people who definitely shouldn't be police officers. The internal culture generally does not welcome or value independent thinking. However, my experience is that most people are dedicated to doing the right thing, and most of the time, they get things right.

Great at defending others, but terrible at defending themselves

Therefore, why is it that the British police service continually seems to be on the wrong end of unfair criticism by politicians and journalists? I've always found it ironic that as a service, they're so good at asserting themselves in chaotic, conflict situations, yet they seem so flat-footed and feeble in defending themselves.

Every year, IPSOS MORI survey a representative cross-section of British adults and ask the same question "How much do you trust the following professions to tell the truth?" This survey has been repeated in much the same format every year since 1983, and the results completely contradict the standard narrative coming from many journalists and politicians towards the police.

If only 15% of the public trust politicians, and only 23% trust journalists, whilst 71% trust the police, why is the police service so terrible at 'sticking up for itself'?

Interestingly, trust in policing has improved more or less continuously since around 2008. Yet, if you listened to the almost constantly negative media narrative, you would think that the police were in a terrible state.

If you read pretty much anything that I have written recently, you will find that I agree that the police are in a terrible state, but not because the public doesn't trust them. It's because of this government's destructive and reckless behaviour over the last ten years and the micro-management and interference by the previous government under Tony Blair.

Does it matter if headlines are damaging, but overall trust remains high?

Many senior leaders in policing will probably argue that the service just needs to keep calm and carry on doing all the good work that officers do day in and day out whilst ignoring the negativity. They will say that the media will do what they will, and there is absolutely nothing that they can do about that. They can object and give the opposing view, but it probably won't be reported, and if it is, it will be at the bottom of page 23 in size seven font.

However, this weak, fatalistic attitude has become increasingly damaging to policing and thus damaging to public safety, which, after all, is the more critical point. It is also increasingly detrimental to the morale of police officers, who now operate in an environment that makes their job almost impossible. They live in perpetual fear of being humiliated on social media, criticised by the press and then investigated or disciplined. No wonder that over 8500 officers have resigned in the last three years to do something that feels more valued.

Too many senior officers fruitlessly try to appease the critics and show how much they're 'listening' to criticism when actually, the general public feels completely differently, and would dearly love to see them coming out fighting on behalf of their people and their organisation. They need to spend more time talking to and really listening to operational officers, rather than thinking about how they're going to limbo-dance under the bar in the next promotion process.

The bitter truth is that the dynamic between senior police leaders and journalists and politicians has become like a horrible, co-dependent, abusive relationship. One partner continually tries to please the other, hoping for the best, but waiting for the next, inevitable punch in the mouth.

I don't know what the answer is, but I do know that something needs to change, and quoting the IPSOS MORI statistics at every opportunity would be a good start.

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