The Soham story
Starstruck police and a narcissistic media turned this rare tragedy into a sordid circus.
The conviction of Ian Huntley for the murder of two Cambridgeshire schoolgirls in August 2002 will bring some relief to parents nationwide, who can breathe easier knowing he can harm no more children. For that, we can be thankful.
But the reaction to the Soham trial, like the reaction to the tragedy itself, highlights something troubling about the way today’s society deals with things like this. From the moment the two children went missing, the Soham story has been a sordid mix of media circus and moral fable, often with scant regard to the facts or the feelings of those directly involved, or the broader consequences for society.
The basics of the story are now well-known. On Sunday 4 August 2002, two 10-year-old friends Jessica Chapman and Holly Wells left a family barbecue in their home-town of Soham. Within a few hours, their parents raised the alarm; within a day, the girls’ disappearance made national news, and stayed there. There followed a string of false sightings and hopeful headlines, of high-profile appeals by the police to the girls’ abductor and badgers’ setts mistaken as shallow graves. After some days, the girls’ clothing was found on the premises of the local school, and their decomposed bodies were found in a ditch in Suffolk.
On 17 August, police arrested Ian Huntley, caretaker of the local school and the last person to have seen the girls, and his girlfriend Maxine Carr. Huntley was charged with the girls’ murder on 20 August 2002, and convicted on 17 December 2003 after a six-week trial, in which he admitted that the girls died in his house, but claimed that their deaths were an accident. Carr, having originally provided a false alibi for her boyfriend, was convicted of conspiracy to pervert the course of justice, and acquitted of assisting an offender (1).
From the moment the two girls disappeared, this was a horrific case. How could the violent ending of two short lives be anything else? But, as the writer Blake Morrison points out, there is little reason to see it as ‘a landmark case’ – something that had never happened before, and from which some general lessons can be learned. What was the story of Soham, says Morrison, but ‘the oldest story of all – evil violating innocence?’ (2).
And while the jury clearly had to consider every terrible little detail of the case, what should compel the rest of us to do so? Morrison claims that it was intrigue over the role played by Maxine Carr that held the public’s interest. But more than this, the Soham story was hijacked, from the outset, by starstruck police and a narcissistic media peddling their own dubious agendas. It was this that made Soham a landmark case, in showing the depths to which the current cultural obsession with child abuse can sink.
Take the police investigation. It doesn’t require the benefit of hindsight to think it bizarre that Huntley, as the last person to see the girls, took so long to become the prime suspect, while the police were chasing false sightings and dead ends all over the Cambridgeshire countryside. Much has been made of the incompetence of the Cambridgeshire and Humberside police forces, in failing to keep their files correctly, or to share information regarding (unproven) allegations of rape and indecent assault previously levelled at Huntley, or the fact that he had previously been charged (but not convicted) with burglary.
But these failings on the part of the police seem like minor indiscretions compared with the apparent collapse of police work in the face of a massive PR campaign. What was supposed to be achieved by setting up press conferences with the haunted parents to encourage the story on to national news – apart from the predictable false sightings of the girls that this encouraged? What was the meaning behind detective superintendent David Beck’s convoluted TV appeal, in which he sent a ‘personal’ text to the girls’ abductor via Jessica’s mobile phone (which was turned off) together with an arbitrary deadline for the abductor to get in touch? (3) How could the police mistake a badger’s sett for a shallow grave – and fail to prevent the media from reporting it as such?
A cynic might say that this was more about the Cambridgeshire police force finding themselves seduced by their high-profile new role, than conducting what should have been a text-book investigation. They set in motion a national hunt for Holly and Jessica, while missing that this was the most local of cases – the girls’ killer was not only their neighbour, but they died in his house. With a bit of help from their accomplices in the media, the police immediately turned this tragedy into a drama – with chilling effects upon the speed at which they solved the crime.
From the start, Soham was bound to be a big media story. Two pretty little girls from a rural town go missing bang in the middle of the summer silly-season – like the murder of eight-year-old Sarah Payne in 2000, it was a human-interest real-life tragedy to fill empty pages and airtime. But from the moment when 200 journalists descended on the 9000-strong town of Soham, it has been clear that this case was somehow different. Within a matter of days, the mass media had made itself central to the story and to the criminal investigation, exhibiting a degree of vanity that has hitherto been suppressed – if not entirely unknown.
By the time of the trial, journalists’ films of Huntley and Carr were used as courtroom evidence against them, even while the judge hectored the jury to disregard any bias that the media coverage might create. On 17 December, the day the trial ended, police video evidence was being played on national TV news. In this case, the line between media reportage and law enforcement has become blurred beyond recognition.
The red-tops wasted little time in offering cash rewards for anybody who found the girls. The ‘quality’ press wasted reams of paper in columns and commentaries by parent-hacks desperate to feel the pain of the girls’ families. TV reporters, as they now tell the story, would come out of an interview with Huntley to run straight to the police with stories about how he seemed suspicious (for what little good that seemed to do the investigation), and have testified in the trial to this effect. A BBC ‘special’ shown the night of Huntley’s conviction seemed to have little function other than to showcase journalists’ central helpful role in marking him out as a bit strange, while the bumper coverage in the newspapers after the trial is a clear statement of the extent to which the press made this story its own.
There have, of course, been some clashes between the media and the law. While Huntley’s media trial found him guilty by implication on day one, those local radio stations and tabloids that spelt it out just that bit further look to receive a rap on the knuckles. And at the end of the 2002 Soham frenzy, some media outlets even became uncomfortable with themselves, producing anguished commentary about whether they should be writing so much anguished commentary. (Not that this has stopped them one year on.)
In general, however, the media has been remarkable in the intimacy of its relationship with the law – uncritically repeating the view from the press conferences, questioning nothing, producing what can be better described as pornography for ghouls than news. It’s been a pretty sick state of affairs.
And the net effect of it all, for those of us outside of Soham and the mainstream press corps? To fuel the existing obsession with paedophilia and child murder, despite the fact that cases such as Soham are notorious because they are rare. And blithely to usher forth a string of recommendations, from tighter vetting of those who work with children to compulsory filing and sharing of allegations and rumours between government agencies, that will restrict all kinds of liberties without being even workable – let alone doing anything to prevent future Huntleys harming children.
So, there, the story ends. If only.
Turning tragedy into trivia, by Jennie Bristow
(1) See Timeline of events, BBC News, 18 August 2002; Soham trial timeline, BBC News, 3 November 2003
(2) The Maxine question, Guardian, 18 December 2003
(3) No contact from girls’ ‘abductor’, BBC News, 16 August 2002
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