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Tuesday, 18 July, 2000, 16:14 GMT 17:14 UK
Sarah Payne: The media's role

Publicity was crucial in the search for schoolgirl Sarah Payne, writes BBC News Online's Jonathan Duffy.

Was there a person in the country who didn't know that an eight-year-old schoolgirl was missing and, as events have proved, in dreadful danger?

Probably, but those who remained unaware of Sarah Payne's disappearance made up a tiny minority.
Sara and Michael Payne embrace
Distraught but driven: Sara Payne, with husband Michael

The search for Sarah dominated the news right from the moment that she was reported missing on 1 July, while visiting her grandparents in West Sussex.

In an investigation where leads were thin on the ground, police pulled out all the stops to secure publicity, with the hope they may have jogged someone's memory.

The distraught parents, Sara and Michael, braved the glare of television lights and flashbulbs for a series of news conferences.

In fact, they went further than most families in the same circumstances. Rather than just attend press conferences, they agreed to everything from pre-recorded interviews and photo opportunities to releasing treasured home videos of their daughter in an effort to keep the story in the media's eye.

At the same time, officers sifted through the results of about 20,000 telephone calls made in response to their release of an e-fit picture of a man they still wanted to question.

Sarah Payne
Sarah, in a video made a week before she disappeared

Fearing the media might "go off" the story at any time, the police organised a variety of headline-grabbing events - and in return, the public and the media displayed great willingness to help.

"There really could not have been a greater public response in British criminal history than this," says David Sapsted, who reported on the story for The Daily Telegraph.

It was not only Sarah's parents who helped keep the campaign alive. Early on, her two brothers, Luke, 11, and Lee, 13, and her sister Charlotte, six, visited the police incident room and presented officers with a thank-you card for their work.

Sarah's grandfather also stepped in front of the cameras and even the pop group Steps joined the appeal.

But it was 31-year-old Sara Payne who emerged as the key figure in the appeal, said Mr Sapsted.

Mother's determination

"A lot of it is that the mother was very focused and she helped drive the campaign forward."
Luke and Carlotte Payne
Luke and Charlotte Payne visit the police

Although both parents were engulfed in anguish, Mrs Payne displayed a steely determination to get the message across.

But even when she feared that this message was to Sarah's abductor, Mrs Payne remained composed and said she knew that whoever was responsible "loves her too".

Keeping media interested

Despite the trauma she was suffering, Mrs Payne showed a strong side to herself, said Mr Sapsted.
Teddy bear presented by the police
Teddy Bear: Police "gift" used in publicity drive

"The police told me that she was been very constructive in coming up with new ideas for what they could do to stay in the spotlight."

For example, although the story dominated national media, Mrs Payne consciously set aside time to brief local journalists.

As the investigation entered its third week, the problem for the family and the police was how to keep it in the media spotlight.

While sceptics suggested that the notoriously fickle media had already started to lose interest, the story took the fateful twist that everyone had feared.

And that tragic development ensured that Sarah Payne would remain on the front pages and in the bulletins.

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