Joan Smith: A young woman is murdered on a beach. Cue the pornographers...

At least one newspaper ran gang-rape claims on page one
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Six days ago, the body of a student from Reading University was found in the sea off the Thai island of Koh Samui. Katherine Horton, 21, had been talking to her mother Elizabeth on a mobile phone the night before, when Mrs Horton is said to have heard a scream before the line went dead. This nightmarish experience would be hard enough for any family, but within days of the murder, British newspapers were claiming that Ms Horton had been raped by as many as four men. Just like 18-year-old Sally Anne Bowman, who was murdered near her home in Croydon last September, Ms Horton's picture was suddenly everywhere, in a context that invited fantasies about sexual violence.

Even if the claim had been a certainty, which wasn't the case in the middle of last week, its most likely effect was to cause unnecessary distress to Ms Horton's relatives. At least one newspaper flagged the gang-rape claim on page one for readers who wanted to read the salacious details inside, where the report was illustrated by a photograph of Ms Horton in a low-necked top and short skirt. There were also unqualified assertions that Thai police had confirmed the gang rape, and they were said to be looking for four local men who assaulted the student near a boat on a beach, where two other British women reported hearing screams at around 10pm on New Year's Day.

By Friday, it had all begun to look very different: Lieutenant-Colonel Thanongsak Aksornsom of Koh Samui police was quoted as saying there was no evidence that Ms Horton had been raped, amid conflicting claims that detectives were looking for a single killer or that DNA samples from two different men had been found on her body. I have no idea which of these reports represents the truth, but they emphasise the need for caution on the part of the press when dealing with sensational allegations about a tragic event in a faraway country.

It's not surprising that Ms Horton's father, Ian, decided to travel to Koh Samui to see what was happening for himself, or that he agreed to make a televised appeal for help in catching her killer or killers. (Hats off to the Daily Mail, which described Mr Horton "opening his heart", instead of "appearing at a press conference".) Even so, I can't help wondering why his appeal was covered at such length in this country, given that none of the people watching here was in a position to help police with their inquiries.

In the old days, grief was regarded as a private matter and the newly bereaved were treated with consideration and sensitivity; now they are expected to perform their grief in public, in front of dozens of journalists. I began to see this happening during the Yorkshire Ripper murders, when I overheard two correspondents analysing the demeanour of the latest victim's boyfriend, whom they judged to have shown insufficient distress. "Think he had anything to do with it?" one asked the other, disregarding the fact that the dead woman was clearly another victim of the notorious serial killer.

One of the problems for relatives of people who have died violently is that their needs - time to grieve and recover from shock - are diametrically opposed to those of crime reporters, who are constantly in search of a new angle. Last week, in a particularly egregious example of speculation being elevated to fact, some newspapers let down themselves and their readers by straying into the territory of sexual fantasy. Isn't it time we recognised that in sections of the British media, the reporting of murders of young women has become a branch of pornography?