When “The Wire,” the Baltimore-based TV drama series, became popular in Great Britain, Mark Hughes, a crime reporter with London's The Independent newspaper, proposed a job swap with the Baltimore Sun. Hughes wondered whether Baltimore’s real-life cops and criminals bore any resemblance to The Wire's version. The Sun's police reporter, Justin Fenton, went to London for a view from the other side of the Atlantic. Their stories can be seen here.
No sooner had The Baltimore Sun’s Justin Fenton and I been introduced at the city train station, on my very first day in Baltimore, than we were hotfooting across town to the scene of a shooting.
In Justin's car, my suitcases still in the trunk, he passed me his Blackberry and explained that he had been alerted to the crime via Twitter. Browsing the Baltimore Police Department’s Twitter feed, it became clear that the police force uses the social-networking site to inform the media of all murders and most non-fatal shootings.
It was a shock to me.
In the UK, every police force (there are 43) has a press office. Some are more able and helpful than others, but all are consistent regarding when they put out information: they release it when it suits them. If the public’s help is needed to catch a criminal, the police will appeal for information. But if the police have a suspect in mind they will volunteer nothing to the press unless specifically asked.
I can recount numerous scenarios in which official information suddenly dried up as I was receiving guidance about a crime or a suspect. The terse explanation: once an arrest has been made or a suspect has been identified, the cops don't need our help any more.
The second thing that struck me about the US media was the freedom reporters have when it comes to reporting cases that have yet to come to court. The day I arrived, The Baltimore Sun carried a wonderfully-researched article about a driver charged with a hit-and-run accident that killed a Johns Hopkins University student. The piece told readers about the man’s many previous convictions for driving while drunk.
If those details had been published in the UK, the editor and the reporter would have been brought to court on a charge of contempt of court. Revealing defendants’ previous convictions ahead of a verdict is deemed prejudicial to the case and, it is argued, could cause the jury to judge the defendant on his history rather than the facts of the case he is currently charged with.
These examples made me envious of my US crime reporting counterparts. But that is not to say that all I experienced in Baltimore in terms of media reception was positive.
I made no apologies for the fact that the reason I decided to visit Baltimore was because “The Wire” had been referenced by various UK police chiefs and politicians when discussing our own country’s ills. I wanted to see if the Baltimore crime problem was really as bad as it was portrayed.
To do this I tried to get as many viewpoints as possible. With the help of Justin and his Sun colleague Peter Hermann, I spoke with drug dealers, drug users, former gangsters, police officers, prosecutors, community groups, and ordinary citizens during the week I spent in Baltimore. I wanted to find out what people thought about their city and its much-publicized battle against homicide.
But two of the city’s most senior figures rejected my requests for interviews. Mayor Sheila Dixon and Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld would not talk with me.
The official reason was scheduling issues: they did not have time. Considering Justin and I had planned this trip months in advance, I found that hard to believe. Unofficially, I was told that the city administration wanted to distance itself from The Wire. Because my trip was inspired by the show, I would not be accommodated in any official capacity.
During our exchange Justin and I wrote a blog. Many of the commentators online also expressed their disappointment that the mayor would not speak with me. Although one or two raised the point that, just because I wanted one, I was not automatically entitled to an audience with the mayor.
One commentator wondered whether a non-Londoner could easily get similar access to officials in my city. In fact, our police commissioner , Sir Paul Stephenson, did agree to be interviewed by Justin and, while London Mayor Boris Johnson, could not spare the time, our deputy mayor, Kit Malthouse, (the man in charge of policing) also met our visitor from Baltimore.
Eventually I was forced to attend one of Ms Dixon’s public events to try and speak to her. Admittedly a tree-planting ceremony was not the best place to engage her in a discussion about crime; but by that point I had exhausted all of my options and it was a last resort. As expected, she again refused to speak.
Thankfully, the hostility did not extend to Baltimore’s residents and frontline cops. Every Baltimorean I spoke to was, without fail, happy to chat with me. Community groups seemed genuinely pleased that someone from another country had taken the time to visit their city and discuss its issues with them.
And the cops I met spoke openly and honestly about the problems they faced. (All were fearful of having their comments attributed to their names in print, a position I understood and respected.) Despite the refusal of the city leaders to speak with me, I found myself surprised at the relative freedom in which a reporter can operate in Baltimore. Reporting restrictions are almost non-existent and, compared with the hostility shown towards the press by citizens of the UK, people seem happy to speak with reporters. It’s something I have missed greatly since my return to Britain, where the press is treated with distrust and disdain by the majority of the general public.
Mark Hughes is a police reporter for The Independent, one of London’s nationwide- circulation dailies.
Mark welcomes comments and questions from US colleagues , particularly anyone who wants to pursue the story line of comparing crime-fighting in US cities with the UK. He’s reachable by email at: M.Hughes@independent.co.uk
Photo Credit: Marc Vallee