Police chief says sorry to parents for Soham race remark

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The Independent Online

Sir Ian Blair has been forced to make an "unreserved apology" to the parents of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman after claiming the Soham killings received too much media coverage.

But the Metropolitan Police Commissioner refused to withdraw his claim that the reporting of violent death was affected by the "institutional racism" of the media.

He provoked outrage after telling the Metropolitan Police Authority (MPA) that "almost nobody" could understand why the Soham murders in 2002 became the "the biggest story in Britain". He also contrasted the extensive coverage given to the fatal stabbing of the London lawyer Tom ap Rhys Pryce to the coverage of the murder of Balbir Matharu, an Asian man killed while trying to stop thieves stealing his car stereo.

Sir Ian told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that he did not want to "add to any distress of people still grieving from Soham". He said: "I obviously have to unreservedly apologise to anyone connected to the Soham murders, especially the parents of Holly and Jessica, for reigniting the story. It was not intended to diminish the significance of this dreadful crime."

He said his remarks came during a discussion at the MPA over whether more resources were allocated to high-profile murders. But Sir Ian repeated that the murders of Mr Rhys Price and Mr Matharu had been treated "entirely differently" by the media and that race had been a factor in this. "It is difficult to explain to the families who see the differential media coverage as indicative of police interest," he said. "It is really a question of what is it that drives the news agenda."

Sir Ian acknowledged the murders of Stephen Lawrence and Damilola Taylor had been widely reported. But he argued that such cases were rare, with many killings within the black community going virtually unreported. "I think if we look at different cases, they do produce completely different coverage," he said. "One of the dividing lines is race, one of the dividing lines is gender, one of the dividing lines is age."

Dee Edwards, from the campaign group Mothers Against Murder and Aggression, denounced Sir Ian's Soham comments. "It is always big news when a child goes missing and always should be," she said.

Shy Keenan, from the Phoenix Survivors group for abused children, said Soham was a "landmark moment" and that if Sir Ian could not understand that, "he should never have been a policeman".

The Labour peer Lord Harris of Haringey, who chairs the parliamentary group on policing, said: "All murders have appalling consequences for those affected by them. It would be wrong if policing priorities were dictated by the volume of newsprint devoted to some cases rather than others."

Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, said: "There have been murder cases in my constituency, both white and black, who haven't had the high profile that you would have got normally because there were other stories breaking at the time."

Sir Ian received backing yesterday from Ken Livingstone, the Mayor of London. He said: "The situation regarding institutional racism in the popular press has improved, but there is still a considerable way to go. Murders and attacks on black and Asian people simply do not dominate the news agenda in the same way as many of those affecting white people."

The use of the phrase "institutional racism" has a particular resonance for the Met as the same words were chosen to describe the force by the inquiry into its investigation of Stephen Lawrence's murder. Sir Ian has repeatedly attempted to drag the force from its racist past. In 1999, he said: "The police service is still trying to serve a multicultural and modern nation with a homogenous and traditional working culture."

After the July 7 bomb attacks, Sir Ian stressed the need to reach out to ethnic groups. He said: "It's communities that will defeat terrorism, not the police."