Leveson Inquiry: Local media 'balanced' over reporting Suffolk murders


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The Independent Online

The local media were more balanced than national newspapers in reporting the "Suffolk Strangler" murders, the Leveson Inquiry heard today.

Terry Hunt, editor of the East Anglian Daily Times, said he felt it was the responsibility of his journalists to put the 2006 killings of five women working as prostitutes in Ipswich into context.

He told the press standards inquiry it was a "very fast-moving and frankly horrifying" story but had to be treated carefully.

"Obviously it was a very significant, unprecedented story for Suffolk, but it was part of our responsibility to put this into some kind of context," he said.

"We had to keep very balanced and very contextual in terms of our reporting. I was aware of how the nationals were reporting it."

Mr Hunt suggested that some of the national media gave a misleading impression about the impact of the murders.

He said: "One or possibly more of the nationals would take a picture of the centre of Ipswich on a Monday night and suggest it was quiet because everyone was frightened, which wasn't the case.

"Obviously people were taking additional precautions, but my perception at the time was not that everyone was going home and locking the doors...

"It probably would have been quiet under normal circumstances, so it wasn't anything exceptional."

The inquiry heard that Suffolk Police's then-chief constable Alistair McWhirter wrote to all newspaper editors after the arrest of suspect Steve Wright amid concerns that the way the case was being reported in national tabloid papers could prejudice his trial.

Wright was handed a whole-life sentence in February 2008 after being convicted of murdering all five women.

Anne Campbell, head of corporate communications for Norfolk and Suffolk Police, said police built up a "positive relationship based on trust" with journalists during the Suffolk Strangler investigation.

"My understanding is that there was no off-the-record guidance. It was all on the record, and lots of it," she told the inquiry.

Colin Adwent, crime reporter for the East Anglian Daily Times and the Ipswich Star, told the inquiry that a new requirement for Suffolk Police officers to record all contacts with journalists was "not overly helpful".

He said some officers were more nervous about speaking to him since the force introduced the system at the end of last year.

"I just feel - and this is a personal view - that it may well inhibit officers from talking to the press in certain cases," he said.

Mr Hunt criticised Suffolk Police for not releasing information to the media quickly enough on occasions, giving the example of the escape of three dangerous inmates from a secure mental health unit in October last year.

He said: "That information didn't get into the public domain for, I believe, 12 hours, which I thought was a matter of significant public concern."

People affected by the killing spree of taxi driver Derrick Bird in Cumbria in June 2010 were distressed by the way the national media reported the incident, the inquiry heard.

Former Cumbria Police chief constable Craig Mackey said: "The overwhelming feeling of the local community and the families is one of anger and dismay at the way they were perceived and they were treated."

Gill Shearer, Cumbria Police's head of marketing and communications, said there were notable differences between the way local and national journalists covered the story.

She said: "(There were) a number of occasions that we had to put out instructions to all the media. The local media adhered to those, whereas the national media didn't."

A regional journalist told the inquiry that the national media tended to "grab whatever they can and then disappear again" during big stories.

Anne Pickles, associate editor at Cumbrian Newspapers, which publishes the Carlisle News and Star and the Cumberland News, said: "It has always been my experience that national media are liable to swoop in, do what they do, and swoop out again into some sort of black hole of anonymity.

"The local press and regional press, we have to live with the people whose lives we are reporting."

She said she had experience of this during the hunt for the Yorkshire Ripper in the 1970s and suggested that the situation has not changed significantly today.

"High-profile incidents more recently in Cumbria have shown a similar drive by the national and international media, both print and broadcasting, to grab whatever they can and then disappear again, pay for it if necessary," she said.

Ms Pickles said her journalists worked "very positively" with police when reporting on Bird's rampage, in which he shot 12 people dead before killing himself.

"We didn't want to spend a lot of time harassing victims' families, knocking on doors, looking for screaming sensational headlines," she told the inquiry.

"For all it was a dreadful, dreadful incident, it was - perversely, I know - an extremely successful police-local media operation."

The inquiry, sitting at the Royal Courts of Justice in London, was adjourned until tomorrow, when it will hear from the chief constables of Durham and Avon and Somerset Police.