Wednesday 29 June 2011

Spin unspun - Dyfed Powys Police and PR

Dyfed Powys Police have finally responded to criticism of the arrest of fellow Carmarthenshire blogger Jacqui Thompson. The statement, entitled "Putting the Record Straight" can be read here. The statement makes interesting reading, and the one thing it does not do is put the record straight.

In my limited dealings with Dyfed Powys Police, I have to say that I have always found that their response has been very good; the officers have been friendly and reassuring, and problems dealt with efficiently and sensibly. On one occasion, I was so impressed that I wrote a letter of thanks to the Chief Constable.

There may be the odd bad or mediocre apple, but on the whole Dyfed Powys Police is a good police service which understands the area it is responsible for, and in an odd way it is reassuring to see that they are not good at PR. Other police services perhaps, and Carmarthenshire County Council certainly, run slick PR machines which are expert in the dark arts of spin. Not so Dyfed Powys.

The press release itself is badly written, with poor grammar and by someone who clearly has a phobia of punctuation marks. That may sound pedantic, but it is not. If you are in the business of communication these things matter. I would strongly recommend, Dyfed Powys, that you buy a copy of the excellent Eats, shoots and leaves by Lynne Truss. If you haven't already worked it out for yourselves, take out the comma from the title and see what happens to the meaning.

The statement gets off to a bad start by claiming that there has been criticism of the officers involved. I don't think that is the case. The officers were clearly very young, and it is very, very unlikely that they will ever have been asked before to respond to a situation which was all about politics, rather than criminal behaviour, road accidents, etc. Apart from the occasional protest by Cymdeithas yr Iaith, Dyfed Powys does not have to deal with public protesters very often.

No, the criticism has been of the police service's hierarchy for allowing itself to be put into this position in the first place. It is abundantly clear that the junior officers who responded were acting on the instructions of someone further up the chain of command, and that it was somewhere "up there" that mistakes of judgment were made.

The overall tone of the statement is almost a whining plea, and it leaves the distinct impression that Dyfed Powys now wishes that it had not got itself tangled up with the issue of filming a public meeting. They even let the cat out of the bag by pointing out that the council has no prohibition on filming; and of course the police service has no opinion on the ins and outs of that. Nor should they.

All the police were doing, they say, was acting to prevent an escalation. There is no suggestion by the police that Mrs Thompson was violent or in any way posing a threat to the council. So what form might an escalation have taken? A lynch mob of elderly councillors storming the public gallery, perhaps? It's a long way up to the gallery, and there is no chair lift. Or just a sullen stand-off until someone in the chamber found enough common sense to suggest that the meeting should carry on, and the matter be dealt with afterwards.

Where the statement is less than honest is when they refer to "previous incidents". If they checked their records, they would know that there had been one previous incident in which the plaintiff was Mrs Thompson, not the council. That little letter 's' is mendacious, and mendacity is not what we expect from Dyfed Powys Police.

Perhaps the most damning part of the statement, however, is the revelation that Carmarthenshire County Council just wanted Jacqui Thompson removed, no matter whether she continued filming or not. Let's just run that one through.

In common with all councils, Carmarthenshire is legally obliged to hold public meetings and to allow members of the public to attend them. What the police are telling us is that even if Jacqui Thompson had agreed to stop filming, the council wanted her to be ejected from the building. That is both unreasonable and in clear breach of the law. You cannot simply throw people out because you don't like them; but that is what this whole incident boils down to.

So if you are reading this, Dyfed Powys Police, do yourselves a favour and tell the council to sort out its own mess. Tell them that you will only respond to calls in future if there is a real risk of violence or criminal activity. And that if they want to prevent some members of the public from entering County Hall, they should seek redress through the civil courts. But I would not bet the budget for the annual Police Ball on a successful outcome for the council.

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