ANALYSIS: Police/media join forces in Soham

Amid the tragic disappearance and deaths of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, the police's media operation has been praised for balancing a need for public information with respecting the wishes of the families.

Press cynicism was seemingly suspended this week as the country's media, the police and the population of a small Cambridgeshire town united in grief following the tragic abduction and deaths of ten-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman.

And as the terrible events in Soham unfolded, the media played a crucial role in the initial hunt for the two missing girls, and for whoever was responsible. Throughout, the force was faced with the need to balance the public's yearning for news on the fate of the girls and the need to maintain confidentiality around important leads as they were investigated.

In order to do this, Cambridgeshire police needed the co-operation of around 250 journalists from all over the world who gathered in Soham.

As in all child abduction scenarios, the force was aware the media plays a part in maintaining awareness of the case, and hopefully generating new lines of inquiry, and so were quick to communicate selected facts that might help to prompt public response.

It was only a matter of hours after the girls' disappearance that the story was picked up by the media. And within 24 hours, the parents participated in a press conference in a bid to help locate their children. The reported sightings in Little Thetford; the suspicion the girls may have been using a chatroom; the badly-driven green car - all were re-told in a bid to prompt leads.

The process of communicating developments to the media was co-ordinated by Cambridgeshire police force's press relations team of nine, who had worked almost around the clock fielding non-stop media calls.

Then, on 14 August, they were joined by former head of PR, Matt Tapp, who, during his many years in police public relations, has worked on a number of child abduction cases. He brought in another three press officers from other forces to bolster the effort to help find the girls. At this point they had been missing for ten days.

At that time, coverage was focused on the fact the investigation appeared to have no new leads. The following day's papers reported that the Met had been brought in to review the case. Journalists and commentators started to question whether the police's effort had been rigorous enough.

Some raised doubts over the wisdom of Det Supt Beck's appeal to the abductor, screened by all news channels.

As media interest spread to cover all aspects of the case, the police arranged a press conference with both sets of parents in a bid to help the media focus on the continuing search for the girls.

Although Tapp was not willing to comment on the procedural details of the case, he expressed annoyance at some of the 'ill-informed comment from so-called experts, succeeding in denting the morale of hard-working police officers'.

To some extent, this criticism is the inevitable by-product of the police working closer with the media. But it is a risk the police are willing to take if the media can aid investigations.

Indeed, in abduction cases, journalists have even been known to pick up valuable leads. Chris Oswick, who as head of press and PR for Sussex police, handled the media coverage of Sarah Payne's murder in 2000, says he used to encourage tips from journalists.

'They're interviewing people, and come across things we need to know about. I recall journalists coming up to me with information a number of times during that investigation.'

The involvement of journalists has been especially marked in this case, as many had previously interviewed the school caretaker Ian Huntley, who was charged with two counts of murder on Tuesday night, and Maxine Carr, a classroom assistant at the school, who at the time of going to press had been charged with conspiracy to pevert the cause of justice. The media interviews were, of course, subsequently examined with a finetoothed comb.

But however helpful the massive profile that courting the media provides, there is a danger journalists will chase their own angles, potentially stepping on police toes and diverting resources.

Oswick feels the direction of police media relations in these cases has changed over the years, as increasing numbers of police press officers are professional PROs, not trained police: 'We used to feel the news juggernaut was so mighty that nothing could move it. But I think there is a recognition now that you can manage the flow.'

Sarah MacGregor, who as head of corporate comms for Surrey police continues to lead the media support for the investigation into Amanda 'Milly' Dowler's disappearance earlier this year, also emphasises the need to give guidance to journalists under pressure to come up with new angles.

'Off-the-record briefings, where appropriate, can help get things back on track. We have also been careful to treat all media the same - no exclusives, even if particular journalists were digging around more than others,' says MacGregor.

But no matter how well police and media worked together on this case, nothing managed to prevent the terrible confirmation on Sunday that the children's bodies had been found.

And yet it is testement to the links forged between the police and the media over the past two weeks, that within three hours of the police requesting a media withdrawal on Sunday night, a majority of the press and broadcasters had left Soham to mourn.

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