Parting Shot: If crimes are secret, do we feel safer?


News comedian John Oliver had an interesting insight into the recent Republican National Convention.

The Brit host of the show Last Week Tonight picked up on a theme that speakers had “feelings” and “beliefs” in certain things, rather than relying on facts.

He pointed to a combative CNN interview in which former speaker Newt Gingrich said: “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.”

At the convention, actor Antonio Sabato Jr firmly said President Barack Obama was a Muslim.

“What is truly revealing,” Oliver says, “is his implication that believing something to be true is the same as it being true.”

Perception, then, appears to be all powerful.

So perhaps it’s the perception of crime which is leading to a retreat by police from media interaction.

Now, it must be said that Queenstown newspapers are privileged to have a regular morning meeting and the cops we meet at accidents and incidents are invariably helpful and professional.

But when the appointed senior sergeant isn’t available on a weekday morning we’re often kicked to a national media team, which has a much higher threshold of what is news.

That’s a polite way of saying we get virtually nothing from them. It’s rare this Wellington-based outfit tells us about new incidents or comments on the ones we know about.

The information is tightly controlled in the way you’d expect from a big corporate rather than a special organisation like the police, which has such an important public role.

In the 1990s, the relationship with local media was so good the Queenstown coppers sometimes asked us to fill in for their rugby team against the fireys.

They were quick to tell us about incidents because they knew it helped them solve crime.

Now we’re made to feel like dirty vultures for pushing for information which used to be handed out routinely.

In the most high-profile blow-up about media-police relations, West Coast inspector Mel Aitken told local journalists they were choosing the crimes they made public.

“I absolutely don’t believe that the community needs to know every time we have a burglary, or that somebody is dealt with and locked up because maybe they did something offensive.”

When a Coaster appeared in court after being twice tasered by police during a neighbour dispute, it was the first the public knew.

Aitken said: “Why do the local community need to know that someone’s been tasered?”

There are local examples of suppression. In October last year, the southern region’s road policing boss told officers not to comment to the media on the “nationality or ethnicity of drivers involved in crashes”.

And in March, southern head honcho superintendent Mike Pannett ordered cops not to make verbal comment by phone to media – “especially print media”.

This is stage-managing and window-dressing by the public’s protectors. And I’m not really sure why.

My guess is that if the public hears more about crime people feel unsafe. There might be a perception – a belief, if you like - that the community’s gone to hell and they need bolts on their windows.

But the long-term stats tell us we’re safer – much safer.

In 1996, there were 477,596 offences recorded by police. But by 2014, that had dropped by more than a quarter to 350,389 offences.

Meanwhile, over the same period, the country’s population surged 21 per cent.

Closer to home, in Otago Lakes Central, reported offences have dropped from 1974 (July 2014 to June 2015) to 1935 (over the latest 12 months.)

Yet the police seem more worried about perceptions than stats.

The line from the national media team is that, where possible, and if the officer in charge feels “comfortable”, they will provide comment for a story.

Otherwise they might provide information – not attributed to a named person - in the interests of serving the press quickly.

Information without names lacks credibility, I reckon. And information gleaned from several sources, perhaps not from the officer in charge, is open to error.

This newspaper and its daily parent still get stories about rescues and crime.

But more often they’re coming from public tips or from court. That’s a worrying development in what appears to be a cultural shift.

There’s an unfortunate perception in the media that police are spinning information, deliberately withholding some incidents and warning frontline staff not to talk to us.

But we’re not going to make the mistake of believing it’s true.