Every month, four million adult Scots turn to a newspaper for information; whether on a mobile phone, a desktop or a hard copy it represents a vote of confidence in services those with a vested interest are quick to dismiss.
The Scottish newspaper industry does not diminish the challenges it faces in continuing to produce popular, profitable and probing publications in the digital age, but the audiences delivered every week by long-established, reputable independent companies remain crucial to the way public and private organisations communicate with communities.
This particularly applies to policing, where day after day people turn to their newspapers and their websites for reliable information about incidents in their area, information to which they have a right.
In my experience the police have a very strange approach to communication, often denying crimes have been committed when asked by journalists, but meanwhile community officers are happily sharing information about break-ins and deceptions with neighbourhood watch groups.
On one occasion our car was one of over 20 hit by vandals on our Edinburgh street, information I dutifully reported to my old paper, the Edinburgh Evening News, only for the paper to be told no such incident had been reported. Even though I’d been interviewed by an officer! Why?
Sometimes its lack of time, sometimes the information hasn’t reached the Press team, sometimes it’s laziness – the official response is always to blame cock-up rather than conspiracy – but the eight old forces and now Police Scotland have rarely struck the right balance between genuine operational concern and the public right to know.
Offically, good media relations are a vital part of police strategy, but the practical reality has become something different. In communication terms, top priority for Police Scotland seems to be reinforcing public confidence – hence the witch-hunt for those supplying embarrassing information to papers like the Sunday Mail about failing investigations — and a political concern about what they see as creating unnecessary fear of crime.
But it is not the job of the police to manage fear of crime, but to prevent crime and catch crooks; good media relations and management are not the same thing.
As for the suggestion that Police should consider withdrawing resources from external media management in favour of their own social media channels, I’d repeat the old warning about being careful what you wish for.
Mainstream media isn’t going anywhere and four million Scottish adults aren’t stopping reading newspapers, so go on then, see if your public image improves if you disengage with us.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the Sunday Mail on January 3.