Opinion: Westwood should take responsibility

When the Bichard Inquiry into the Soham murders reported last week, no one predicted that the outcome would be a pitched PR battle waged by an entire police authority on behalf of a beleaguered police chief constable against the Home Secretary who called for his resignation.

The Bichard Inquiry was supposed to be some kind of way forward for a society faced with the realisation, after Ian Huntley's conviction for the murder of Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells, that a combination of police forces, social service and Home Office failure to fully 'join up' allowed their murderer to become their school caretaker in the first place.

Public inquiries are expensive and exhaustive and called on only in extreme cases. This inevitably involves some kind of blame. Bichard blamed all parties but in particular the lack of procedure at Humberside - police chief David Westwood's personal responsibility.

When blame is not taken, the public is quick to anger. Jarvis has not recovered its corporate reputation after the Potters Bar Rail crash and arguably Steve Norris's Conservative Mayoral hopes suffered as a result of his remaining chair of Jarvis.

Former Home Office minister Beverley Hughes resigned when it became clear that she gave misleading evidence to the Commons over immigration procedure, as highlighted by The Sunday Times.

It is a vital part of the democratic process that elected or employed officials who have direct involvement in a case or who are ambassadors for a failing organisation where something hideous has happened have to take some kind of personal responsibility. Yet Westwood, who presided over errors which come under heavy and direct criticism has refused to resign despite David Blunkett asking the police authority to suspend him.

Moreover, he has mounted a strong rebuttal.

Within hours of the call for his resignation, Westwood was on air putting out a line about 'I'm just an honest copper doing a job'. He scored two PR coups, the first being to secure the support of the Humberside police authority who backed him against Blunkett in a defiant vote last Friday.

The second was - with help from the Mail on Sunday - to enlist the support of Kevin Wells, Holly's father.

Westwood may feel he is a scapegoat. But he stands at the helm of the police force most criticised for its role in letting Huntley through the net. Effective PR does not mean it's deserving.

Julia Hobsbawm is professor of public relations at the London College of Communication, julia@hmclondon.co.uk. Kate Nicholas is on maternity leave.

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