Cops and journalists have a cosy relationship in Australia

by jermainealvarado

Reporting on crime is unique from other genres of reporting, mostly because for journalists, it often involves the ingratiation of sources within one organisation: the police force. 

Last week the Victorian Supreme Court heard that police secretly recorded accused murderer Gregory Lynn and his wife watching a November 2021 episode of 60 Minutes, where a dark-coloured Nissan Patrol was identified as the “strongest lead” in the case — Lynn’s wife remarked it “really looked like” his own car and trailer.

The Age reports just days later, Lynn was captured on CCTV removing an awning from his dark-coloured Nissan Patrol. He is currently on trial and has pleaded not guilty.

Detective Senior Constable Brett Florence told the court that 60 Minutes was used “as part of our media strategies, and in trying to elicit information … just like many other programs that are used”. 

Police in prime time

It is not uncommon for police to draw on their close relationship with the media. As part of Operation Amarok, a recent blitz of arrests of alleged domestic violence offenders, not only did New South Wales Police distribute significant amounts of footage to be used in newsreels and on social media, but it also invited crime reporters along for the ride to detail how they were cracking down on domestic violence. 

Indeed, police have often utilised primetime programming in their media strategies. Dr Alyce McGovern is an associate professor in criminology at the University of New South Wales, and has researched police media strategies. 

McGovern said that some elements of the police’s relationship with the media have been particularly fruitful and sometimes even involve police having a hands-on approach to the production of content involving police. 

“When we interviewed police communications people, they were always talking about the success of different things — for example, television shows like Recruits have actually seen spikes in people going to the police recruitment website after seeing the show and signing up to the police,” she told Crikey.

Recent times have also seen police-approved media in fiction that strays outside the observational documentary style that has dominated Australian television screens for decades, such as NCIS: Sydney, which had assistance from the Australian Federal Police in its production.

Rubber stamps

McGovern said that police media units saw the press as a “kind of strategic tool — and that can be a range of different forms of media.” 

“The police think carefully about the media activities and media work they engage with, and certain activities go to meet certain purposes,” she said.

Indeed, McGovern herself has undertaken research that shows major daily newspapers historically have had a very close working relationship with police. In a month-long sample taken during the mid-2000s, The Daily Telegraph and The Sydney Morning Herald took 35% and 33%, respectively, of their crime and police-related stories almost word-for-word from New South Wales Police media releases. These were articles deemed by the researchers as “paraphrased” — that is, articles that had “no original journalistic input” involved in their production.

Indeed, at the crime-dominated local News Corp mastheads, reporters are encouraged as part of their training to develop strong relationships with local police in the hope that information will be disseminated more readily. This is not necessarily unusual — police often play a significant role in the daily news cycle that is often not seen by readers. Every single day, state and federal police send out hundreds of media releases on crimes, arrests and charges as they happen, setting reporters’ phones buzzing at all hours.

In some cases, such as drug busts or missing persons, police will often rely on media outlets to disseminate photos and footage associated with the media release, with media outlets simultaneously relying on police as the only source of imagery. It’s why when you hear about a missing person or a health alert about contaminated recreational drugs the wording and images are often so similar between outlets.

It’s not all roses

However, while police and media might be regular bedfellows, it is not always a happy relationship. The Australian Federal Police infamously raided then News Corp journalist Annika Smethurst’s home in 2019, as well as the Sydney headquarters of the ABC, following a number of bombshell investigative reports about government agencies and the military. A planned third raid on News Corp’s Sydney headquarters was cancelled following public backlash to the first two raids.

While the High Court would eventually rule that the raids on Smethurst’s home were unlawful, the police were able to retain the material they seized, although they said the material had been destroyed and Smethurst didn’t face any charges.

Smethurst is not the only journalist to face the wrath of police following work on sensitive matters. Last year, Ngaarda Media journalist Eliza Kloser had her home raided by WA Police and was subject to traffic stops after taking photos of relocated Indigenous artefacts at the site of a chemical plant in the Pilbara.

Are you concerned about the close relationship between journalists and the police? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication. We reserve the right to edit for length and clarity.

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