Pressing concerns

The horrendous bombing in Manchester earlier this week has appalled the world and affected so many people, so deeply. And I’m not really qualified to talk about the events in depth other than express my sadness and revulsion.

But what I couldn’t help notice on Twitter in the past few days has been the way that the bombing has led to a lot of discussion about so-called “death knocking” – where newspaper journalists contact friends or family of dead or missing people as part of their research.

It seems that there have been some instances of this since the bombing, and I saw one tweet from a relative of a victim saying that they’d had their address and telephone number somehow reach the hands of journalists keen for a quote. I saw other tweets, too, from people telling their past experiences of “death knocking”, including from one journalist who felt pressed into doing it and hated it.

I’m no expert on this area of the media, and mercifully have no personal experience of it. But for some reason I feel an enormous revulsion about the intrusion into grief and tragedy, and an anger at journalists who think this is an acceptable way to do business.

It’s not all that long since the publication of the report of the Leveson Inquiry (or rather, the report of part 1 of the inquiry, which looked into press standards), which concluded in 2012. That’s five years ago, but the inquiry really captured the attention of the country and conversation around it has lingered, I think precisely because of the horrific nature of the events that led to its establishment. I’ll not repeat all that here – you can read about the inquiry and its background on Wikipedia – but suffice to say that hacking the phones of missing children and destroying the lives of innocent people who have not asked to be in the public eye is about as low as the press can go.

And it seems that Leveson’s lessons – including the need for an independent press regulator – have not been learned, and the extent of collusion between press and political elites has continued with the cancellation of part 2 of the inquiry, into unlawful conduct by the press.

As an aside, Leveson was hugely influential on my media consumption. I was already pretty sceptical about much of it, and the behaviour of the press during the independence referendum certainly didn’t soften my views, but I have a few rules I do my damnedest to stick by:

  1. I never read or buy the Daily Mail.
  2. I never read or buy anything owned by Rupert Murdoch.
  3. I never buy any publication whose editorial line was to oppose Leveson’s recommendations.

Now, that doesn’t leave me with much, I confess. But that’s the media’s fault, not mine. And I think if we all tried to avoid publications that are so inhumane in their practices, then they might change their practices.

However, if the continuation of things like “death knocking” in the aftermath of the Manchester Arena bombing, and the revulsion about it I’ve seen on Twitter, is anything to go by, then it very much seems to be business as usual for our grubby press.

So much so, in fact, that I saw a tweet by the British newspaper industry publication Press Gazette the other day that brazenly attempted to defend “death knocking”.

It’s an extraordinary article, and brazen in its defence of intrusion into private lives irrespective of the tragedy victims of such intrusion might have experienced.

Angered especially by some parts of the article, I tweeted a few responses.

Three points in the article stood out for me, which I quoted and tweeted about in turn.

That first claim was astonishing in its insensitivity. Saying that people have the right to notify the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) to ask not to be approached may be correct (it was certainly news to me) but there are several fundamental flaws:

  1. As I said in my tweet, when overcome by grief, contacting IPSO is hardly going to be top of your agenda. Given press can be on to someone almost instantly, you will inevitably contact them too late – especially if the processing of a request takes some time to filter down to all members.
  2. Like the quote above says, only “most” press are a part of IPSO. That just takes one paper not to be to create a heartbreaking intrusion.
  3. Can the public trust IPSO to call off the dogs? IPSO is the weaker, industry-led body created as a self-regulator, distinct from the independent regulator proposed by Leveson. It is, in short, run by and for the press only to the extent that they allow it to work.

My second issue, above, was in response to the admittedly fair point that sometimes victims of tragedy really do want press attention. Perhaps the tragedy was an injustice, or a failing by an organisation that is important for the public to know about. Or maybe friends and relatives want people to learn about a tragedy for preventative purposes.

But surely in that case, those involved will want to do their awareness raising or lobbying proactively and in their own time? People know how to find the press, or create a storm on social media, if they want to. For the press to merely assume that people will want to talk is a gross liberty.

It was my third and final criticism that was my most passionate, however. In the extract I quoted in the tweet above, the article argued that it was better to get accurate facts than print something wrong or unreliable.

It almost beggars belief that this point needs to be made, but if there is an alternative in such cases to printing inaccuracies, surely it is printing nothing? If a bereaved family don’t offer any public statements, then that there is your story: they have nothing to say right now. That’s an honourable, ethical line to take, and one I wish more press took.

Let me conclude by going back to my rules above, about what press I don’t read or buy.

Because the point is, the press do these things because we buy their papers and as such effectively condone their actions. If we want them to act in a more ethical manner then we need to vote with our feet and boycott them.

And these things have an effect. Take an example of a different problem people see in our press: that of racism. There is a marvellous campaign called Stop Funding Hate, who are attempting to highlight the advertisers who are paying for space in newspapers who print racist articles about religious and ethnic minorities and migrants. They do great work reminding advertisers of their obligations to their customers (many of them minorities themselves, of course), and it’s worth checking them out.

Another form of action I’ve seen from time to time is people who are being approached by the press when at the centre of a story refusing to speak to certain unethical papers. By taking stories to better behaved ones, it sends out a powerful message.

That makes me think further about what I can do.

Yes I can refuse to read nasty papers, but I can also refuse to speak to them, and indeed have done so in the past. As a writer, I’ve from time to time been approached by newspapers about my books, and I do try to think carefully about who I talk to. I’ve often thought about putting up information on my website about which press I will or will not speak to. Maybe I ought to finally do that.

And whoever we are, there’s probably something we can all do. Because surely we can’t let our press carry on like this.

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