UPDATED: FRIDAY JULY 15TH 2 senior NI/NewsCorp executives have quit within hours today: Rebekah Brooks and Les Hinton. NI’s Legal chief Tom Crone left earlier this week after more than 20 years. And Rupert Murdoch apologised in person to the family of Milly Dowler for the phone hacking. It’s been the poor moral judgement of his staff that’s proved the tipping point and caused shareholder jitters. Remarkable. My post is about the ethical lessons for all journalists.
In my 20 years in journalism, this is only my second major moral outcry against the news media. Remember this after Princess Diana’s death:
The political row about News International and BSkyB is being amply analysed everywhere else. What makes this scandal different is the blatant criminality of phone hacking and paying police officers. But also that it’s finally turned a harsh spotlight on the abuse of ordinary people by the news media; and particularly of victims of crime and their families — sometimes in collusion with individual police officers. There is a sense of Middle England (to use that journalistic invention) realising they, not celebrities, are the ones being exploited on the grandest scale. That what happened to the Dowler family could happen to any one of us.
Many celebrities understand the privacy trade-off with press coverage, or get their lawyers to settle a payoff. Incidentally we should be wary of deifying celebrities, such as Hugh Grant, who have publically defended the principle of rich people taking out superinjunctions to cover up their bad behaviour, when there might be a legitimate public interest. But I’ve met ordinary people over the years whose suffering has been deeply compounded by salacious press intrusion.
Fifteen year old Rochelle Holness was murdered in October 2005 by a convicted paedophile, John McGrady (now serving a whole life tariff for murder) who lived in a block of flats round the corner in Catford, Southeast London. He had killed her and then was caught on CCTV buying a saw and black bags to dismember her body. Rochelle’s remains were found in bin bags dumped nearby. Her mother, Jennifer Bennett kept all the press coverage in a scrap book. I realised it can mean a lot to bereaved relatives, to know their child’s life got reported; that she mattered.
However The Sun ran an untrue story claiming Rochelle had been alive and cut up on the kitchen table. It began: SCHOOLGIRL Rochelle Holness was cut up with an electric saw while she was STILL ALIVE, it was revealed last night. Blood splattered ceilings and walls in the kitchen of the flat where she was butchered indicate the 15-year-old was strapped to a table and dismembered as her heart was still beating.”
I reported on her case twice: First in January 2006 when the then Met Police Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, accused the British news media of being “institutionally racist” (a claim news organisations were rather too quick to dismiss). Then again when McGrady was sentenced in May that year. Jennifer Bennett trusted me enough to give me a long interview which we allowed other broadcasters to use for their newscoverage. (Unfortunately the Channel 4 News website has dumped all links to its pre 2009 archive)
Like the outrage felt by Millie Dowler’s family, or the bereaved military families — many of whom were willing to help the press help them — Rochelle’s family felt they were treated as entertainment; legitimate game for idle speculation. In Jennifer Bennett’s case, there was also the uneasy feeling that the press would not have speculated so casually about torture if Rochelle had been white and middleclass. And in all these cases, the intrusion was so pointless. What did it achieve? I’d be interested to know how many worthwhile exclusives emerged.
I’m wary of the latest mob frenzy. The police and politicians, since the expenses row, all have their own agendas in heaping blame on journalists. There’s a lot of scrambling in reaction to potential bad PR. The advertisers who pulled out of the NOTW precipitating its closure have had sticky ethical moments. (Do you remember when Ford UK doctored a poster photograph to remove all the black workers?). Is advertising in The Sun — possibly a new 7 day a week integrated paper — really any different? We will never get the chance to see if everyone would stop buying the NOTW. The BBC’s media correspondent, Torin Douglas, pointed out that Liverpool’s longterm boycott of The Sun over its Hillsborough coverage was on a much smaller scale.
We don’t want the kind of deferential political press they have in France, or even the US (where paparazzi tabloid nonsense still thrives, by the way). But the British news media, particularly the press, have to acknowledge that too often individual members of the public are picked off and trashed, often when they are most vulnerable. Equally problematic, there can be a London-centric snobbery in highbrow newsrooms about covering murders and violent crime at all. One senior broadcast executive once moaned to me about the high amount of “Northern crime” covered on TV news.
My first day of work experience aged 19 on the Kingston Guardian in South London had proved to me that responsible reporting could and should be a public service. I accompanied a reporter to the home of a father, whose 17 year old son had died in a car crash, shortly after passing his driving test. We’d rung ahead and he opened the door to us with a smile, happy that we would be writing about what his son had achieved, how he had been due to go to York University after his A-levels. We sat on his sofa and he handed us his son’s best photo in its heavy frame so we could use it.
When this frenzy dies down, and if we can separate off the row about News International and its influence on government, it would be good if reporters and editors could take the opportunity to think about how we treat all our interviewees and potential subjects, not just the ones with agents and lawyers.