Soham police review media trawl as opposition mounts

Opposition to journalists handing over their notes and film to Cambridgeshire Police investigating the Soham murders has led to a review of the questionnaire that was sent out trawling for information.

News International lawyers have said the list of questions sent to journalists is too vague and have asked for something more specific before they even consider handing over material without a court order.

The press office for Operation Fincham, the murder investigation team, confirmed to Press Gazette on Wednesday that it was looking at changing the questionnaire and a decision was likely within days.

It is the first time the police have attempted to gain material on a voluntary basis from the media, although the questionnaire does threaten court orders if the information is not forthcoming.

The reaction from newspaper groups to their journalists answering the questions, which include asking if they have "made any contractual arrangements between their company and any third party" – a clear reference to buy-ups – has been slow and very cautious.

Although most companies want to see the conviction of the murderer of the 10-year-olds Holly Wells and Jessica Chapman, they are not prepared to create a precedent by allowing their journalists to hand over material on request. In the past, police have almost always had to go to court if they want to obtain unpublished notes or film of criminal incidents.

The BBC, Sky News and ITN handed over footage filmed during the murder investigation in Soham in response to a court order.

But all three news organisations said they expected police to follow normal procedures if they wanted additional material.

ITN head of compliance John Battle said the decision to send out a broad questionnaire to individual journalists had been "unusual". He added that ITN would "not have a problem" with handing over footage that had already been broadcast, but a court order was required if police wanted material that had not been aired.

A BBC spokeswoman agreed that it was "appropriate at this stage to ask police to follow normal procedure and request material through a court order". She added that while the BBC would want to be as helpful as possible, it would prefer that any requests were sent to the organisation rather than individual journalists.

Sky News said it was considering the matter, but added that to "protect both Sky News’ sources and its reporters" it would not supply notebooks and other information to police without referring the matter to its lawyers.

NUJ general secretary Jeremy Dear has written to branches in newspapers, agencies, TV and radio, pointing out that the NUJ Code of Conduct requires journalists to protect confidential sources and information.

His letter said: "Of course journalists are human beings too and if individuals have information they believe is vital to the investigation then they can act voluntarily, as a matter of conscience. But they cannot be required to give information."

By Jean Morgan and Julie Tomlin

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