Media relationship in public's interest

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 25 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 25 February, 2012, 12:00am


For many years, internal guidelines have not required the Fire Services Department to tell the media - meaning the public - about ambulance calls unless at least eight people are injured or ill. The department offers no explanation why cases involving seven or six people did not warrant disclosure. In a meeting with the Journalists Association, an FSD officer said the department took legal advice 'and found that cases of personal illness and injury do not involve the public interest'.

Disclosure of ambulance activity did not matter so much before the department fully adopted a digital communications system on February 1, because the media could independently monitor ambulance call-outs. Alas, since then, an association study has found that the department has released an average of only one out of 10 incident reports involving ambulances. The department would have been better advised to consult its own common sense rather than consult lawyers. Of course personal injuries and illness need not involve the public interest - but a call-out for multiple cases could do. Until another solution is found, the question is better left to media professionals than determined by an arbitrary number.

Concerns about the free flow of information have not been confined to the ambulance service. The digitalisation of police communications has given rise to similar problems. The issue came to a head with the failure of police to tell the public promptly about serial knife attacks and sexual molestation cases.

There may, of course, be operational reasons for not making information public, although they must be balanced against public safety. Happily the police incidents have resulted in a trend towards a more sensible disclosure policy. Hopefully the FSD's undertaking to consider releasing information on injury cases involving fewer than eight people will lead in the same direction. It is in the public interest for the relationship between the media, the police and emergency services to be nurtured by trust and communication.