Do appeals by families of murder victims merely feed our hunger for raw emotion? Polly Toynbee investigates
The sad sight of 15-year-old Emma Jones describing to a press conference the discovery of her best friend Naomi Smith's mutilated body in a playground made good television, and good newspaper copy, including a story in the Independent. "I saw what that evil person did to her. I don't think I will ever forget what I found," she said. "This evil person does not deserve to be on this earth after what he has done to Naomi."

It's part of the ritual of murder cases, particularly cases involving children, that parents and friends make televised appeals for people to help the police to bring the perpetrators to justice. But the police and criminologists are deeply divided about whether these appeals do any good or merely feed the greedy public appetite for raw emotion.

Warwickshire police defend using Emma's appeal by pointing out that she asked to make it. "We never put pressure on her," says the Warwickshire police spokeswoman. "She wrote her statement herself, though, of course, we approved it. I think she feels a lot brighter now she's done it. We did brief her very carefully about how to face so many cameras, with all that clicking and flashing. We told her to keep her face up and speak out. It was very, very effective to hear such an emotional appeal from a 15-year-old who had actually found the body."

Effective for what purpose, though? It is certainly effective as a media event. The police have taken on the language of the newsroom: "We need to keep a case in the public eye. We always need a new peg to hang a story on, and Emma gave us that. We're always looking for a fresh angle to a story."

Warwickshire's enthusiasm for tragedy spectaculars is shared by Assistant Chief Constable Don Dovaston, chairman of the Association of Chief Police Officers' Working Group on Criminal Investigation. Like so many police methods, there are no statistics to back his view, but he says his experience is that these appeals often bring in fresh evidence. "A parent making an appeal can be very beneficial. I can name many, many cases where a good appeal has been decisive. If the police do it themselves, it doesn't have that edge. I've done it hundreds of times, but I just haven't got any emotion left to give."

Women, he says, make the best appeals; stage management is vital. "A female can inject genuine emotion. A man doesn't work as well. He may be very genuine, but if he's got tattoos up to the neck, it can turn the public off, so you have to select the right image. It mustn't be over the top, with so much weeping they can't speak, but a mother is usually best."

Not all the police agree. Detective Inspector Gary Copson of the Metropolitan Police says: "I think it's distasteful. I would never put relatives or close friends up to make appeals of that kind unless there was some tangible benefit, but as far as I am aware there has been no research to demonstrate any advantage. I hate to see grieving families abasing themselves."

Mary Tuck, former head of the Home Office Research Department, regards Emma Jones's appeal with equal distaste. "I'm afraid I think that one broke new frontiers in our civilisation. I think it is outrageous to put up a child, and quite wrong to let a child say this evil monster does not deserve to live."

Everyone says the family should decide whether to make a public appeal. However, it is becoming difficult for families to refuse, for a number of unpleasant reasons.

When a child or young girl is murdered suspicion falls upon men in the family, especially stepfathers, since so many murders are committed within families. Local gossip can become poisonous within hours. If the family does not appear, the local press and neighbours can draw the conclusion that something is amiss. The press demand to know from the police why the family is not speaking out; gross innuendos pepper reporting of the story.

Even if a distraught family appears at a press conference, they have to get the tone right. If they don't weep enough, people may say they look suspiciously calm. Many families would not want to weep in public on television, turning themselves into an emotional peepshow but, increasingly, they may feel obliged to do so.

In a catastrophic news conference Gordon Rimer, the father of 13-year- old Lindsey Rimer, who vanished one night in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, appeared too relaxed. The result was a ferocious whispering campaign against him, which the police finally quelled to protect him. It was not only a press conference, it was almost trial by television.

It's doubtful that these appeals have much effect upon the murderers, according to Dr Gisli Gudjonsson, forensic psychologist at the Institute of Psychiatry. "He's never going to give himself up as a result of hearing a mother weeping. If anything, it will enhance his sense of his own importance."

There is another serious problem. In some cases the person weeping for the cameras turns out to be the murderer, to the rage and embarrassment of all. Assistant Chief Constable Dovaston admits that he has been made a fool of several times. He recalls a case where a man was battered to death and his wife made a very effective appeal: "She was screaming her head off, under sedation, seemed very genuine. The mayor had a collection for her, prayers were said in church. Later it turned out she'd hired a contract killer and there were a lot of insurance policies no one knew about." Few will forget John Tanner, who murdered the Oxford student Rachel McLean and made many public appeals before he finally confessed.

Most of the members of Samm (Support after Murder and Manslaughter), have made public appeals. One volunteer manning the telephone, Simon Phillips, whose sister was murdered, says it is often felt necessary in order to keep a case in the public eye. "The IRA ceasefire and the Squidgy tapes knocked my sister's case off the news. I felt I had to get it back in the news."

Helen Reeves, director of Victims Support, says many families are grateful for the press attention while the case remains unsolved. "It makes them feel the whole world supports them for a few days, but then they often feel very bitter when the spotlight turns to some new murder."

At a time when a family may be beyond rational thought, they require a high level of sophistication about the media. It puts a heavy responsibility on the police not to ill-use them in their distress. But it has now become the usual thing to do: is there any way to return to a more decorous age, when people were allowed to grieve in private without suspicion?