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Thursday, 15 August, 2002, 09:37 GMT 10:37 UK
Publicity warning for missing girls police
DCI Andy Hebb
Facing the music: DCI Hebb speaks to reporters
The harrowing hunt for Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman has dominated the domestic news for nearly two weeks.

The man who headed the Sarah Payne investigation warns that this intense publicity could adversely influence the police.

The small Cambridgeshire town of Soham is swarming with hundreds of journalists and police officers.

Reporters are battling for new angles on a story which is saturating the news.

But amid signs that sections of the media are turning on the police, questions are being asked if the investigation could become media-led.

Paul Whitehouse, who was Chief Constable for Sussex Police during the Sarah Payne investigation, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Media pressure could lead to some peculiar decisions being made by the officers in the case, because the media don't have the whole picture.
Nicola and Matt Wells
The parents' despair has been public

"They hear the stories that come to their attention and as a result, the officer in charge may be tempted to do things which aren't necessary very sensible.

"Such as diverting to a particular line of inquiry which the press think is very interesting, when in fact, intelligence in the system may suggest something else."

Mr Whitehouse said he did not know if this applied to the Holly and Jessica investigation.

There are examples of "leads" which have made headlines but ultimately proved to be fruitless, such as the internet chatroom abductor and the green car.

Strained relations

BBC media correspondent Torin Douglas said: "The police are very aware of needing to work with the media because they are so powerful in the way people respond to these events and the impression that people get of how the police are doing their job.

"So if the media are taking one particular line, they may well believe they need to answer that criticism."

News management techniques used by Mr Whitehouse's former force and by police searching for missing Surrey teenager Amanda Dowler have been repeated in Soham to keep the story in the media day-to-day.

As a result, there have been 12,000 calls to the police, although most are offering false leads.
Holly Wells (left) and Jessica Chapman
Holly and Jessica have been missing for 11 days

And direct appeals to a potential abductor are more likely to succeed with the story so high on the news agenda.

In return, the press and broadcasters have a heart-rending story with a new angle each day, during the notoriously slow summer months.

So the police and journalists need each other, and in the case of Holly and Jessica, the relationship between the two has on the whole been good.

But recently it has been showing some strain.

The first cracks appeared when newspapers offering rewards of up to 1m for information were warned it could prompt false leads.

Then it emerged a taxi driver, who was at one point a key witness, had not been questioned for several days.

These first suggestions that the police investigation could have been better conducted stung senior officers and prompted them to hold an off-the-record briefing to say as much.

On Thursday, further criticism of the police was reported in the Daily Mail, which claimed the officer in charge of the case, Detective Superintendent David Beck, had not visited the crime scene for 10 days.

This flak was not lost on Mr Whitehouse, who said it easy to forget many officers are also parents who are sensitive to the grief which has touched the nation.

He added: "We will reach a point when really good people won't want to do this job because all they get is the criticisms and brickbats."

Mr Whitehouse would know this only too well, having resigned last year after criticism of his handling of the shooting of an unarmed man.

People's thoughts remain focused on the Wells and Chapman families.

As if the nightmare of a missing child was not enough to endure, they have been forced to suffer the ordeal under the cameras.

Wednesday morning must have been particularly harrowing, not helped by The Sun's dramatic but misleading front page: 'Police dig up 'graves'.



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13 Aug 02 | England
14 Aug 02 | England
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