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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 20:01 GMT
Soham spotlight turns on media

By Torin Douglas
BBC Media correspondent

At the end of a week in which the Soham murder is still creating headlines - with the Sunday papers still to come - the media are taking stock after one of the highest-profile murder investigations of recent times.

Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells
The Soham case has seen emotive reporting
Despite rival court stories involving Michael Jackson and Diana, Princess of Wales, the Soham case has continued to dominate the front pages.

It is a sad fact that emotive tragedies like the murder of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman are good for the media.

Newspaper circulations and TV and radio audiences have boomed since the verdicts on Wednesday, as readers have lapped up information and pictures relating to Ian Huntley and Maxine Carr that could not be published before.

Audiences to the news channels Sky News and BBC News 24 on the day of the verdict were well above average.

Don't these papers have any legal advisers at all?
Mr Justice Moses
BBC1 and ITV1 both ran special bulletins and programmes at various points during the day, with the ten-minute ITV News at 8pm attracting over 9 million viewers.

BBC News Online had more than a million page-views, one of the highest figures for any news story.

Judge critical

The follow-up coverage seems set to continue. More details are still emerging about Huntley and Carr's previous relationships and about the failures of the police and local authorities to spot the signs that should have alerted them to Huntley's involvement.

Official inquiries have been launched and the spotlight on the failure of the authorities will become, if anything, more intense.

But there's also a spotlight on the media's own behaviour.

Grimsby Evening Telegraph report
A television interview of Huntley jogged viewers' memories of earlier allegations
The girls' parents have thanked the media for their support, and given them credit for helping catch Huntley.

It was a TV interview with the college caretaker that prompted one of his earlier victims to alert police to his record in Grimsby.

And some argue that had the Cambridgeshire police paid more attention to what journalists were telling them, in the early days of the hunt for the girls, they might have caught him more quickly.

'Assumed guilt'

Despite that, the Attorney General is investigating the way the case was reported, particularly by the tabloid press, after strong criticism by the judge in the case, Mr Justice Moses.

There were fears, before the trial started, that it might even have to be abandoned after what the defence claimed had been more prejudicial coverage than in any previous case.

The judge said he had looked through 21 bundles of newspaper cuttings as well as videos of the TV coverage.

They included articles describing Huntley and Carr as "neighbours from hell", mention of paedophiles and suggestions that the killings were sexually motivated.

Do you idiots not understand the principle of sub judice?
Text message to radio station
There were stories about Huntley's alleged relationships with girls aged 13 and 15, Carr's former lovers and "lurid" descriptions of their earlier appearances in court.

"It is clear to me that many of those stories assume the guilt of the defendants," said Mr Justice Moses.

"Moreover the newspapers and the media contain stories calculated to undermine their credibility and blacken their characters. They are written in emotional, sensational and lurid language."

One tabloid journalist was called before the judge to explain himself. At one point Mr Justice Moses asked: "Don't these papers have any legal advisers at all?"

Listeners' views

The Attorney General Lord Goldsmith has made clear his strong concern about some of the reporting, some of which he described as "frankly unacceptable".

His office is investigating two tabloid newspapers to see if there's a case for charging them with contempt of court.

But perhaps the most blatant case was that of a commercial radio station in the Midlands, Beacon FM, which invited listeners to express their views on the credibility of Huntley's case.

One presenter said: "It's almost like the most unbelievably made-up story in the world ever, really, isn't it? Well, I personally think it is. I can't believe any member of the jury is going to believe that story."

Several listeners tried to point out the station's error.

One texted the programme to say: "Do you idiots not understand the principle of sub judice? You can't comment on the trial. It's against the law. You're in a LOT of trouble!"

Quite how much trouble will be decided by the Attorney General.


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