Once upon a time, believe it or not, detectives in high-profile cases took journalists into their confidence and privately explained what they were thinking.
It was always strictly off-the-record and not for use, but it helped us understand the difficulties of the investigation and informed our reporting.
During their hunt for the killer of Milly Dowler in 2002, Surrey Police were concerned about inaccurate reports and startling rumours about a particular suspect, so they hired a hotel room and briefed members of the Crime Reporters Association (CRA) on what was going on behind the scenes.
“They promised us that whatever question we wanted to ask would be answered,” recalled retired CRA chairman Jeff Edwards. “And they were.”
The senior detective revealed the complexities of the case and much of the circumstantial evidence his team were building against the suspect.
None of us broke the agreement not to publish, and probably just as well because the suspect was eventually ruled out and serial killer Levi Bellfield was later convicted of Milly’s murder.
The police had enough trust in reporters to show us the focus of their investigation, without having to bat away our questions awkwardly at a live press conference.
In Wiltshire a few years later, Detective Superintendent Steve Fulcher wanted to appeal for help in another murder case. There were some things he didn’t want to reveal publicly, but he thought that knowing them would help us.
So, he held an on-camera press conference, made his appeal, then told us to leave our recording equipment behind, took us into a separate room and gave us a lot more information.
This isn’t a fairy tale. These things really did used to happen.
If Lancashire Police had told reporters at the start that there were welfare concerns about Nicola Bulley, we would have reported her disappearance rather differently and details of her personal problems may have never come out.
We would have understood their thinking much more when they said, a week on, that their main working theory was that Nicola had gone into the river. That revelation simply raised other questions they wouldn’t respond to.
Two weeks later, the police caved into the speculation and answered those questions by detailing her issues with alcohol and menopause. It was a dreadful invasion of Nicola and her family’s privacy.
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Briefing reporters early on might have avoided the widespread criticism the Lancashire force is now facing from the public, the media, and the government.
These days, police don’t trust reporters like they once did. Maybe that’s one factor that has led to another modern truism: the public don’t much trust the police.