Can the police solve a murder on Facebook?

The media circus surrounding the Joanna Yeates case reveals what can happen when a murder inquiry gets mixed up with a PR campaign.

Mick Hume

Mick Hume
Columnist

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On Tuesday, the national news headlines reported a major new development in the investigation into the murder of Bristol landscape architect Joanna Yeates. Had there been a breakthrough in the evidence hunt, or had a fresh eye-witness turned up? No, the big news was that the police were setting up a Facebook page to appeal for help in catching her killer. Once the Old Bill dealt in witnesses and suspects. Now it seems the New Bill are searching for Friends.

The previous day, in an extraordinary outburst of corporate spin, the police issued a long list of statistics related to the case for every media outlet to reproduce, presumably in an effort to persuade the public how hard they have been trying to solve Ms Yeates’ murder. Thus we learnt that 1,300 pieces of information had been passed to the incident room in calls and emails, that the public response had generated no fewer than 900 lines of inquiry, that exactly 239 high-priority leads were being worked on around the clock, and that police were searching through 293 tons (not 292 or 294 tons) of rubbish in a bid to find ‘the missing pizza’. Some might think the considerable effort put into compiling and spreading these fascinating facts could have been better spent on investigating, perhaps in the hope of speedily reducing those impressive 900 lines of inquiry to one solid one. But what do we know of modern police work?

Whatever happens in the investigation by the time you read this, the Yeates murder case has already turned into one of those personal tragedies that unwittingly reveals something about the state of public affairs. As with other high-profile murder inquiries of recent times, it has often appeared that there are two parallel cases going on – the actual police work, and the media PR campaign – with most attention seemingly being focused on the latter.

The disappearance of Ms Yeates before Christmas, and the discovery of her body on Christmas Day, dominated the news over the quiet holiday period. Ever since, the media and police have kept the public face of the case progressing with a constant stream of rolling news, even though for almost two weeks there has been little or nothing new to report. The media abhor a vacuum of course, and the absence of hard evidence gives them freedom to indulge in all manner of speculation. Thus the gap where the news ought to be has been filled with expert opinion and rumours, gossip and guesswork.

The media have been exploiting the grisly story in time-honoured fashion, but the PR-conscious police have been playing their full part in the circus, from reading out emotional statements from Joanna Yeates’ loved ones to looking for Friends on Facebook and issuing self-publicising stats as if they were school exam results.

Meanwhile, in the shadows of the booming media circus, the investigation itself appeared to make rather less progress in the weeks following Ms Yeates’ disappearance, either because the police are keeping the real stuff to themselves or because they are at a loss. As the investigation appeared to drag, concerns were raised about slowness and missed opportunities, with the police having launched a murder investigation only when the body was found – a whole week after Ms Yeates went missing in highly suspicious circumstances. The one concrete advance we know about, the arrest and interrogation of landlord Christopher Jefferies in a blaze of publicity, has been shrouded in doubt and confusion since his release on police bail.

Of course it is important for the police to be able to pursue a murder inquiry in confidence, even in our tell-all wiki-age. The trouble is that the PR-conscious police chiefs’ simultaneous concern to connect with the public through the media keeps pulling them in other directions. Thus, in response to questions, the police have declared that they have no evidence Joanna was sexually assaulted, but are not ruling out sex as a motive; that they have no evidence there was more than one assailant, but are not ruling out the possibility; and that they have no evidence of a specific threat to other women in the area, but the public should take care anyway. The inevitable headlines about sex crimes and multiple murderers duly followed. This is what can happen when you try to run a murder case and a PR campaign at the same time, and criminal investigation gets mixed up with the methods of reality TV.

There is a long tradition of sensationalising and selling murder cases in the British media, ever since the birth of mass newspapers. Any fan of Sherlock Holmes will be aware of the part played in the fictional master detective’s cases by the lurid reports of murder and violence in the morning and evening papers sold on the street corners of Victorian London.

However, in recent years we have also witnessed something new: the turning of sensational murder cases into reality theatre in which all want a walk-on part – including the police. During high-profile cases such as the Soham schoolgirl murders in 2002 or the Ipswich prostitute killings in 2006, senior policemen have used the media to tell us how emotionally involved and upset their officers are. It is as if they are trying to compensate for their crisis of public authority and control by making an emotional connection with the public. Those of us who are more interested in seeing Plod feel the murderer’s collar than sharing their feelings have been treated as uncaring dinosaurs. The one time you might actually want a policeman – when there is a killer on the loose – you end up with a therapy case.

After all that, there is one other sense in which the response to the Yeates murder has offered a sign of the times. The media treatment of landlord-turned-suspect Christopher Jefferies, variously described as ‘the blue-rinsed bachelor’, ‘Professor Strange’ and a ‘suspect Peeping Tom’ among many other things, has re-raised concerns about intrusive reporting and vulgar tabloid methods. High-minded liberal newspapers snobbishly observe that Joanna Yeates – a white female professional – was the ‘ideal victim’ for the voyeuristic public to consume (while filling their own pages with lurid stories about the case). And the government’s attorney general warns media outlets that they could be prosecuted for contempt of court if their coverage prejudices the prospect of a fair trial in the future.

This reveals a far bigger problem than tabloid-style journalism: the fact that the alternative offered by illiberal liberals and authoritarian authorities alike is more control and self- or state censorship. These elitists believe that people cannot be trusted to judge what we are told for ourselves, and so must be protected from unapproved information. The UK laws on contempt of court, which restrict what can be reported, are really about contempt for the jury, based as they are on the assumption that if potential jurors read or hear one sensational story they will be rendered incapable of making a reasoned judgement. In fact in a civilised society what we need is more freedom for the press to report cases as it sees fit, whether we like it or not, and more trust in jurors to decide the truth as they see it. In short we need to adopt something more like the American system – a suggestion guaranteed to have the liberal-legal elite over here recoiling in horror.

The best thing the authorities can do now is surely to shut up and find Joanne Yeates’ killer as quickly as possible and give her loved ones some peace – then we should all leave them alone. As a side effect, that might also give the rest of us some respite from the carnival of ghoulish gossip and police PR now passing for news.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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