With Raoul Moat surrounded and negotiating with police after a full seven days of evading capture for the attempted murder of ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and an unarmed police officer, and the murder of Stobbart’s new boyfriend, there are undoubtedly lessons to be learned for press, police and public alike.
Perhaps most worryingly is the fact that when it came down to a stand-off situation, Northumbria Police lost all control over the press gang that were camped in and around Rothbury. By half 9 the police force released a statement via Twitter (showing just how policing has changed not just over the years but in the past few weeks and months):
Urgent message to the media: Your presence is affecting the ongoing operation. 10 mile exclusion is being put in place. Please respect this.
This was entirely ignored, beyond the press mentioning it as part of their rolling news coverage then promptly ignoring the fact that it applied to them. The notion that the press are willing and able to ignore a police directive in such a situation sets a worrying precedent: while, as was argued by Matt Rudd (“Could the media please bugger off while we do some nasty shit”) and ITV’s Keir Simmons (“Northumbria Police claiming media are ‘compromising’ their Moat operation, are they just worried cameras will get pictures?”) it is eminently possible that the police were concerned about a possibly suicide-by-cop being captured on camera and beamed across the nation and the world via a 24-hour news channel, I’d prefer to take a less pessimistic view.
If you’re negotiating with a man who has penned a crudely-written manifesto in which he claims that his acts of shooting people are justified, will not hurt the public then goes back on that promise, then you don’t take risks. A madman with a gun is a madman with a gun, and the sight of his every move being trailed by flashbulbs and TV cameras and boom mics isn’t going to help his stress levels in a series of negotiations where the police’s aim is to cool his temprament to the point that he’s willing to relinquish his arms. That takes precedence, pure and simple. Some things are more important than being the first to air the picture of him in the stand-off.
Connected to press intrusion is the strain that has been put on a tiny Northumberland village in the past few days; villagers brought it up in the town hall meeting with police they had last night, and ITV Tyne Tees’ Ian Payne eloquently (but without a microphone, making it hard to hear on the news channels) defended the role of the press in Rothbury. It is in the public interest to track such a story, and they did do a public service. However, as one resident pointedly said, it’s not really necessary to film everyone’s children arriving at school: they didn’t ask for this to be brought upon them.
Seven days is an awfully long time to find someone in a place like Rothbury – especially with the news that Moat may well have been hiding in a storm drain near the centre of the village for days. Questions will be asked why police from 11 forces couldn’t find Raoul Moat quicker; questions will be asked why only one in ten of the country’s armed police were in the area when unarmed police would be powerless to engage Moat if they came across him.
There have been PR blunders too. The latest, calling Moat “a nutter” by quoting a child’s message in a good luck card, seems ridiculous. The public don’t need to be won onside: when someone is threatening their safety they run with open arms into the police. That was catastrophic, and could have – if someone had passed messages to Moat today – set back the ongoing negotiations.
There has been an awful lot of good reporting throughout this saga, from all three main news channels (Jon Sopel being the best of the bunch on the final day), national newspapers and regional radio, TV and papers. However, of concern was the fact that Sky News reported – despite police protestations to Moat otherwise – that he was surrounded on all sides.
Not only that, they also proceded to give away the positions of the police snipers on live television. Obviously Moat doesn’t have access to a Freeview box – but as has been proven by the trail of telephones and the arrests made for abetting a criminal, Moat had contact with those who were likely watching television news. It’s not beyond thinking that they could have called him up and informed him of their locations, again setting back negotiations.
As a northeasterner, I hope that you’ve seen some of the positive spirit of the region (even if it is in Paul Gascgoine’s peace offering of a cooked chicken, can of lager and some sheets). What you won’t have seen is that beyond the news channels interviews with those perilously close to the killer, we’ve got on with our lives in a fairly innocuous way. Things like this can be terrifying when they’re in very close proximity: friends from Fawdon and Fenham, from Birtley and Whickham have been worried at different stages as the focus of the investigation hovered over their area. But as a region, we’ve banded together and got on with it. Hopefully despite the horrific circumstances, the funny-looking acting police chief and her sidekick that talks too slowly, that is the message you’ve taken away from the spotlight being flung in sharp relief on the region.