23 May 2008
Shortly after the formation of the Serious Organised Crime Agency (Soca) in 2006, its chairman, Sir Stephen Lander, a former head of MI5, gathered together the crime correspondents of all the major national newspapers in one room.
The hacks were encouraged – no press officer attended the meeting.
But Lander – a man diminutive in stature but apparently overwhelming in personality when he wants to be– proceeded to tell them Soca would essentially be a zero-press organisation.
That meant no briefings – off the record or otherwise – from the top, no press releases, nothing. Just an annual report, and a press conference to accompany it.
Lander – secretive by both nature and nurture – wanted to run the proverbial tight ship.
The result was, for the first year or so of its operation, that the organisation went about its business without much being noticed.
But as any government press officer will tell you, if you adhere too strictly to a polished line then those who know the reality will start to become increasingly angry at what they see as hypocrisy from senior management.
Soca officers first approached Computing in July last year with their grumbles, and some went to the national newspapers too.
The tighter Soca squeezed on maintaining press silence, the more disgruntled staff started to slip through its fingers.
Last week’s story in The Times was the culmination of months of discontent.
Soca management hate it. After the Computing story last July (and this could be my sources flattering themselves - and me) Soca bigwigs were charging round their HQ waving copies of the magazine and demanding answers.
I hate to think how they reacted to The Times story.
Actually we know - this letter from Soca's director general to the editor of The Times leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth, and that's the watered-down version.
It's an old story.
As malcontent and political pressure mount on the organisation, those people briefing journalists will no longer be junior officers. They will increasingly be senior members of staff as everyone tries to blame each other for the mistakes and cover their own behinds.
And the story will get bigger and bigger – precisely because it's all happening behind closed doors.
Zero-press policies by government organisations simply don't work – pay cheques are too small and the potential for things to go wrong are too big.