Peter Steward's Web Site
This is the text of an article which appeared in the Police Review magazine on 22nd January, 1999.
The faces and voices of grieving relatives taking part in Press Conferences following murders has almost become commonplace in this country.
The demands of the Media for news and features has become so great that victims are no longer left to grieve in private. In high profile murder cases the victims can be turned into “celebrities” with the eyes of the world watching their every move. Television, radio, satellite, newspapers, magazines and computers have an unquenchable thirst for news with output now around the clock 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There isn’t a minute in the day when the public are not being subjected to news in some format.
Some national newspapers have questioned the justification of police forces putting up victims for press conferences, yet one of the reasons that we do this is because of the enormous clamour and demand of the Media and the need to, in some small way, help shield the victim from any unwelcome public glare.
Some have referred to the practice as “voyeurism.” I would refute these claims. Certainly in Norfolk we have never organised a press conference as a means of entertainment or voyeurism, that would be too uncaring to even contemplate.
The decision to take part in Press conferences and undertake Media interviews is always left to the victims themselves. We never put pressure on them although we do make them aware of the intense demands of the Press and the problems they are likely to face if they refuse to take part in interviews.
We must never lose sight of the fact that “victims” are ordinary people suddenly thrust into the limelight through no choice of their own. The “fame” that they receive through Media exposure is not out of choice.
I believe that the Media is the singularly most powerful group in society and that their power will continue to increase until such time as the public’s thirst for information abates and people decide that they no longer wish to read newspapers, listen to the radio, watch television and go on-line on their computers. I further argue that this will never happen. New generations are growing up with access to an “information super highway” providing instant information on just about every subject imaginable.
Following a high profile and newsworthy murder, the Norfolk Constabulary press office will make early contact with the victim’s family usually through family liaison officers or the senior investigating officer. Our service includes advising them on how to deal with the Media and what to expect from them and also supporting them throughout any interviews and press conferences.
Our object is to make the victims as comfortable as possible at a time when they are suffering the kind of heartache that most of us cannot even begin to imagine.
When victims agree to take part in a Press conference we will talk to them about the room to be used, the set-up and who will be present. The seating arrangements on the top table will be left to them, along with decisions about who they will have supporting them and even the number of j journalists they are prepared to have present. We will also organise a set of signals by which they can terminate a press conference at any point if they are feeling unhappy.
We never force victims to answer questions directly and indeed have organised press conferences whereby victims have remained silent whilst a police officer or press officer has read out a statement on their behalf.
The essence of a successful press conference is that the victims feel at the end that it has been of some benefit to them. At all times they must be in control of the event and never made to feel that they are being forced to do anything against their will.
It is our experience over the past six years that relatively few victims refuse to speak to the Press. Many have been happy to deal with the Media and that really was where my research began.
By talking to victims I wanted to find out their reasons for co-operating and why they accepted the limelight. My research surrounded victims who have had close relatives murdered or victims who have suffered serious personal attack. All those I spoke to have been part of high profile crimes in Norfolk over the past six years and I found all were happy to talk about their experiences and reasons.
After many hours of interviews I came up with numerous reasons for co-operating with the Media. Many of these were replicated in more than one case. They included the following. · As a memorial to a loved one · To avoid the perpetrator of the crime gaining notoriety, and publicity in order to turn themselves into a celebrity or gain justification for their crime/ · Anger · Safeguarding others from falling into a similar trap (particularly relevant where sons and daughters have been involved in drugs or prostitution). · Keeping control of the situation · Previous positive feelings about the Media. · To help with the investigative process.
Above all my research has taught me never to second-guess how a victim will react to Media interest and that it is not our function to either talk victims into or out of dealing with the Media. They alone must make that decision and I have found that most make it very quickly.
Only rarely have a I come across victims not prepared to talk to the Press in some form or other. In the few cases I have come across this is due to a previous in-built dislike of the Media or a bad experience at their hands in the past.
I am also convinced from my research that those victims who have either co-operated fully or “put up and dealt with” the attention of the Media have come out considerably less traumatised than those victims who have “turned their backs” and felt then full power of Media intrusion.
Norfolk Constabulary prides itself on its close liaison with victims through its family liaison set-up and also its close working relationship with Victim Support. I am proud to be part of this caring side of policing. We believe that what we do on the Media side can help victims come to terms with the trauma of their situation.
More than anything, however, I feel privileged to have seen at first hand the bravery of these people. I have also found that what little help we have been able to give has been much appreciated and I have kept in touch with a number of the “victims.”
Dealing with victims of murder and serious assaults is a job I would be happy not to have to do. Sadly it is a job that I fear Police Press Officers will be called upon to do with increasing regularity.
One particular victim I am in regular contact with refers to themselves as a member of a very exclusive club, but a club that nobody wants to be a member of.
Likewise I would love to be in a position of not having to be a guest in this mythical club. I would not wish anybody to have to suffer the heartache and trauma that I have seen victims going through.
But the reality is that murders and attacks will continue. More and more victims will be thrust into the limelight. I see it as my duty to help and support victims and hope that on a professional level I can help them to deal with the Media in the way that they wish to.