Why 'Britain's top cop' needs to get out more

On The Press: He may be a good detective, but Sir Ian is wrong to charge us on race
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In galumphs the Met Commissioner again. This time Sir Ian Blair is talking about the media, and mentions coverage of the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman in Soham in 2002. "Almost nobody," he says, "could understand why that dreadful story became the biggest story in Britain." In fact, almost everybody could, apart it would seem from the man the tabloids refer to as "Britain's top cop". He should get out more.

As relaxed a media performer as you will find, Sir Ian has many of the television-friendly attributes of his namesake at No 10. He needs a few more. Often he tries so hard to say the right thing he ends up saying the wrong thing. He is the embodiment of the dangers of mixing media training with political correctness. You run the risk of falling into institutional putting your foot in it.

Sir Ian accused the media of the institutional racism the police force he commands was accused of by the Stephen Lawrence inquiry. The form it took in the media was differential coverage of murders, and Sir Ian suggested that murders of white victims received more coverage than murders of black or Asian victims. He cited the recent high-profile murder in north London of the young lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce on the same day as the killing of the Asian builder Balbir Matharu. The implication is that the media view white deaths as more newsworthy or interesting than non-white deaths, or, worse, more serious.

Sir Ian was relating this to the efforts his police force put into catching the killers. That was always equal, he maintained, but the amount of coverage given by the media could make a big difference to a successful police investigation. One can see that that could well be true, and the media will regularly help police by publishing descriptions of suspects, photofit images, appeals for information. Programmes such as Crimewatch go further in helping police with their inquiries.

Sir Ian was quickly reminded of the coverage given to the murders of Stephen Lawrence, Damilola Taylor, Anthony Walker, Charlene Ellis and Letisha Shakespeare. It was pointed out by The Guardian that the national press had provided 5,525 words on the Rhys Pryce murder, 4,443 on Matharu.

But Sir Ian is a determined detective. He may lack evidence but he still believes the press is guilty. Dismissing these cases as "one or two exceptions" he maintained that "the reporting of murders in ethnic minority communities appears not to interest the mainstream media".

The next morning on the Today programme the commissioner was unreservedly apologising over the Soham gaffe but sticking to his guns on the central thesis. This time he was into his media studies. "What drives a news agenda?" he asked. "What drives a news story?"

What makes news is what is unusual or extreme. So murders among criminals are less interesting to the public than murders outside the criminal community. The reporting may be limited, or non-existent, or in local rather than national media. Because, essentially, we are not terribly concerned about what nasty people do to each other.

We are much more interested when the individuals affected are from a world where attack is unusual. The press overplays the "innocent" victim - as though some victims were guilty - and the child victim is at the extreme end of the spectrum (Soham, Damilola, Anthony Walker). The killing of the very rich will be a story, because the very rich are a story anyway. We are interested in the killing of the helpless or vulnerable. The nature of the crime will make it a story, as with the "Clockwork Orange" killing of David Morley by teenagers, black and white, or that of James Bulger, because children did it.

In this country, unlike America, because murders remain rare, we are always shocked and the press is predisposed to report them. Inevitably, there will be particular features that will determine the extent of the coverage. But I don't think the colour of the victim is a key one.

Peter Cole is professor of journalism at the University of Sheffield