spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).
How do you feel about the abduction and murder of those two ten-year-old girls? Come on, how do you really feel? Yes, you’re right, it’s a crassly stupid, pointless and insensitive question. So why have much of the media spent the past fortnight demanding answers to that and similar questions from everybody in Soham and beyond?
Why have the haunted parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman been paraded before the media at press conferences, the last one staged even as police were preparing to question the two suspects? What precise purpose did shoving microphones into their faces and demanding that they tell the world about their terrible ordeal serve?
From the beginning, it has seemed there were two cases being conducted. There was the confidential police inquiry, which focused on Soham and must always have had the school caretaker, Ian Huntley, as a suspect, since he was apparently the last man to see Holly and Jessica.
And then there has been the public face of the police-media campaign, with its national appeals, press conferences, rewards and wild goose chases. At times this has looked less like an aid to policing than a cross between a PR exercise and a therapy session.
Some reporters and policemen seemed to put their own emotions at the centre of the story, substituting feelings for facts. One ITV news correspondent sobbed in a Soham street when relaying news of the ‘graves’ that turned out to be badger setts. He insists that he was not alone, since Detective Superintendent David Beck also wept while trying to record his televised ‘personal appeal’ to the abductor. That melodramatic spectacle of a senior policeman attempting to make eye-to eye contact through the TV cameras, while setting a meaningless midnight deadline for the abductor to call him, looked like something copied straight out of a cheap crime soap.
And why, in the face of all common sense and crime statistics, did the police keep insisting to the media that the girls were still alive – which can only have made worse the eventual confirmation of their murder. Mr Beck said last week: ‘I have to have that belief because the families have that belief.’ But surely the police are not supposed to think like traumatised parents. Their job is to stand back and try to be objective, however hard that might be.
That is also meant to be a job of journalists. Yet, as is the fashion, we have witnessed instead some self-indulgent reporters telling us how they have been affected by a tragedy in which they had no part. One article published yesterday revealed how ‘as I write this I find my hands shaking, I am hot and cold, I want to be sick’. After reading too much similarly mawkish stuff, that author is not the only nauseous one.
The tragic deaths of Holly and Jessica tell us little about our society. Such child murders remain thankfully very rare – which is why they are so shocking. Our reactions to the case, however, are revealing. The ‘nowhere is safe’ response underlines the strength of the damaging culture of fear that surrounds our children. The public outpouring of emotionalism also signals the triumph of the therapy industry’s teachings over any vestiges of British reserve. At the special church service in Soham yesterday (televised live, like everything else in that little town), even the vicar’s sermon was couched in the 12-steps-to-self-help language of ‘taking one day at a time’.
Who benefits from all this? Some may claim it is therapeutic for the girls’ parents to express their grief through the media. But who knows how they will come out of that emotional wringer. The danger is that they will be trapped for ever as victims in the public eye. Sarah Payne’s parents are now brought back to relive their horrors every time a child goes missing. The mother of one of the Moors murderers’ victims made her customary appearance in the papers over the weekend – almost 40 years after her son’s death.
The scars of the people of Soham are likely to heal more quickly if they are not continually reopened by reporters asking them if the town can ever recover. As for the rest of us, it is hard to see how our emotional wellbeing has benefited from prolonged, voyeuristic exposure to other people’s misery.
‘I don’t think there’s anything else we can say,’ concluded one of the dignified parents at Friday’s press conference. Let us leave them alone to try to cope with their families and friends. Contrary to the claims of the counsellors, we cannot feel their dreadful pain. In yesterday’s papers, articles on the ‘how do you feel?’ theme quoted various people saying that ‘there are no words’ to express their feelings. In which case, surely it is time for us to shut up and let life try to begin again.
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