Ian Monk: Police need to use media shrewdly

Who needs good old-fashioned Morse-style police dramas when real crime stories are so grippingly played out for the news media?

The handling of the Joanna Yeates murder case appears driven by the belief that the medium is not only the message but also the main method of nailing a killer.

PR and media strategy sit alongside, or even ahead of, forensics and good old-fashioned cops' instincts.

There is no doubt Avon and Somerset Police's media handling has been slick. Detectives appear hourly on screen smartly dressed, obviously media-trained and striking a simpatico if platitudinous note. News hooks are created and milked for maximum drama.

A missing sock featured in days of media coverage, as did a newspaper's reward for catching the killer - even though history shows that such circulation-boosting gestures virtually never solve a crime.

Facebook appeals are launched and become the next story. No-one in the UK misses a beat - apart from ITN viewers following a hasty and unwise police ban of the broadcaster after it appeared to question police tactics.

The unfolding drama inevitably maintains awareness of the crime, but at what cost? Are the police not placing a circulation-hungry media too close to the centre of the operations room? Then it is a short step to trial by media, as the one suspect arrested and subsequently released discovered.

Various newspapers scandalously played judge and jury with retired public schoolteacher Chris Jefferies, implying that his single status, long hair and love of obscure poetry somehow indicated guilt.

How much of a part did police play in generating this coverage, one wonders?

Doubtless, if innocent, Jefferies will properly seek and achieve substantial financial redress for defamation. However, his reputation may never fully recover, suspicion having been wantonly translated to guilt without a scintilla of due process.

Somehow, police media strategists need to learn to harness the powers of the media without letting them usurp their own and those of the courts.

Ian Monk is founder of Ian Monk Associates and a former executive at the Daily Mail and The Sun

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