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Weekly paper shows human side in face of Soham tragedy

The Ely Standard is the local paper for Soham, scene of the murders of Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, and it has been closely involved with the case right from the start. Deputy editor Debbie Davies tells how the paper has covered the story…

Soham will take many years to forget the weeks in 2002 when the town was at the centre of national and international media attention.

For weeks, the fate of Holly and Jessica was never far from the front pages of the national press. Naturally, it was the most important story for the Standard, too, as the town’s local paper we did what we could to help in the search for the missing 10-year-olds.

On August 8, we first reported fears that Holly and Jessica had been abducted, while Soham prayed for their safe return.

The same day, I distributed hundreds of posters, specially printed by the Standard, to homes, shops and other businesses in the town in the hope that someone’s memory would be jogged.

Editor John Ison and myself did around 50 media interview from right around the world on the story. This week the same demands were again made from national and regional TV and radio.

As the insatiable media frenzy continued, we reported a week later how Holly and Jessica’s families’ were clinging to hope that the girls would be returned, optimism that was not sustained by what turned out to be unfounded reports of possible graves in a Newmarket wood.

By the following Thursday, August 22, the worst was known, and the world wept with townsfolk as e-mailed messages of sympathy flooded into the Standard’s computers to be passed on to the grieving families.

At the same time, we reported the arrests of Ian Huntley, who was “sectioned” under the Mental Health Act 1983 provisions, and Maxine Carr. It was this issue of the Standard that contained Helen South’s photograph of Ian Huntley in his newly-tyred car – a picture that was to prove vital to his conviction for the girls’ deaths.

A week later, the town had taken all it could stomach of the world’s media, and the vicar, the Rev Tim Alban Jones appealed to them to let the families and the town grieve in peace.

Expressions of sympathy had already filled 12 books of condolence in the church, with as many as 2,500 candles being lit there in a single day.

When the case finally came to trial at the Old Bailey, apart from that first week, we took the decision to keep our coverage of the trial off the front page.

There are times, of course, when we are as fearless as, if more accurate than, any national newspaper. But we don’t believe that ramming the awful details of the trial down readers’ throats does anything other than cause unnecessary distress to the families and the town.

All journalists who interviewed Huntley and Carr were asked to make statements to police. Both myself and Standard photographer Helen South made statements that, in the end, formed part of the prosecution and defence agreed evidence.

South East Cambridgeshire MP Jim Paice said: “I know I am not alone in feeling that the Standard has been right not to feature the trial on the front page and in all its detail. I am sorry that other papers, including local ones, decided that public interest was being served by publishing page after page of stories throughout the trial.”

On Wednesday (December 17) the verdict came just as we were on deadline.

We had an eight-page wrap and a late print slot on stand-by and produced it during the afternoon with the headline: “Why? The questions that have to be answered.”

  • A picture taken by Ely Standard photographer Helen South has been described by police as “the clincher” in helping to convict Ian Huntley. The photograph of Huntley sat in his car, showed the car had four new tyres on it days after Holly and Jessica disappeared and led police to conclude that he had tried to cover his tracks – literally.

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