A JOURNALIST colleague thought he’d won the lottery when he joined The Sun as a crime reporter.
On his first day, the then editor, Kelvin MacKenzie, said: “Welcome, what’s tomorrow’s splash?” My friend spluttered that he had a few things in his notebook but nothing ready yet.
Kelvin repeated the question next day, and then on the third day became rather irate when there was no crime exclusive. My friend’s time at The Sun was short-lived, even although his dad was a senior figure in the Metropolitan Police in London.
The reason I mention this is that the unofficial relationship between the police and the tabloid media has always been close – ever since the days of the Penny Dreadful news sheets that revelled in murder and gory. News coverage has always played a central part in catching and punishing those who commit crime.
But the worthy intensions of the Leveson Inquiry, which has rightly shone a light on illegal phone-tapping and celebrity intrusion, has simply added to the gulf between the modern media and the reporting of crime.
In the serious nationals and the regional press, there was no suggestion that police would be paid for tip-offs about crime stories. Uncovering a scoop, was all about having your nose to the ground, keeping up with contacts and doing the research.
The issue for today is that too many of the rogues, rascals and recidivists are operating with impunity in our society. The pub chat between off-duty policeman and interested reporter is now strictly out of bounds. And at a time when the resources of most traditional media groups is stretched, the easiest thing to cut is investigative reporting which requires time, patience and often yields very little.
Yet we need media investigations now more than ever before. Last year, the Daily Record reported that “police analysts have tracked 274 gangs who ‘employ’ 3663 people in an industry with a £1billion-a-year turnover”, adding that the “Mafia-style network deal in everything from drugs and human trafficking to tanning parlours and security firms”.
But one of my contacts, who will remain anonymous but has the authority to comment on such matters, talks about how stretched the Scottish justice system is: a system that is in denial about the extent of the damage being done in so many communities. He says not only are the rogues and rascals so smart these days they are able to run rings around the law but there are more serious issues that a single police force for Scotland will have to contend with. We face infiltration from Russian and Eastern European gangs who are upping the ante in terms of violence and extortion.
A generation ago, the hard-bitten journalist felt the backing of his paper and the support of his colleagues when he wrote about such matters. Thankfully, the Daily Record, Sunday Mail, The Scottish Sun and The Herald, etc continue to fight the cause, but the resources for investigative crime reporting in Scotland are wafer-thin.
It’s disappointing that BBC Scotland devoted so much of its investigative reporting resources to the Rangers story, rather than tackling Scotland’s crime gangs. It is harder to convince editors to go with the stories, when it takes time and money to get them legalled, watertight and 100 per cent accurate.
But the Scottish media needs to keep trying. It is time for a fresh generation of crime reporters to pick up the challenge. Time for a fresh generation to go digging into Companies House reports to be seeking out the ‘respectable fronts’ to the questionable practices and challenging the tax authorities to see if they are doing enough to catch Scotland’s Al Capones.
And when the press awards are all given out for fancy design and flowery feature writing, we need to reward the rougher edge of journalism and those who are taking serious risks to find out the truth of what is going on our communities.
Kenny Kemp is a freelance journalist and writer. He also edits BQ Scotland, a quarterly business magazine.