This is by far the harder of today’s two planned posts: harder to write and harder because, for reasons that will become apparent, I have passed it across the desk of a media lawyer who knows about this sort of thing.
Because this post is about the press response so far, not only to Lucy’s story, but also to other stories with a trans dimension (though, as always, there’s a caveat: they don’t just treat trans folk this way. They do it to EVERY minority).
Yesterday, as the story unfolded, with a vigil, the issue being raised in parliament and a near unprecedented 200,000 signatures collected in support of Lucy on various petition sites, I thought two things. First, that any sort of near decent press might report on those facts (no chance!).
And that given that they WERE now part of the story, it was worth asking the press for their reaction to this fact.
Sniggering at the Accrington Observer?
Silly me! I phoned the Accrington Observer. I asked to speak to Stuart Pike, who set this whole story in motion. Local MP Graham Jones has a history of issues with the journalists on that paper: he tells me of what he considers to be unfair reporting which subsequently appeared to be an incorrect representation of the true facts.
But, what of Stuart? He is (conveniently) on two weeks holiday. How about the editor? Gareth Tidman. What’s this all about? I explained a little. Am pretty sure I gave my name: though in the heat of the moment I may just not, which would be the only excuse for the “Sir” that the individual I spoke to dropped into the conversation.
What’s this all about? I explained I was a journalist. I’m writing about Lucy. He seemed to be getting impatient. I wanted, I said, to examine the role played in her death by the Accrington Observer. The sound that followed sounded a lot like a snigger. Or at least the noise you make when you’re half-caught in a laugh and know you shouldn’t and so you try not to and your voice just slips sideways off key. “You laughed”, I accused.
No. He denied it. So I must accept this, though my own impression was different.
Then I left my contact details. I rang back again a little later in the day. I also dropped a line to Mr Tidman and guess what: nothing. Nada. No response at all.
The Mail is otherwise engaged
Also yesterday, I put in a call to the Mail. I spoke, in the end, to Alex Bannister, Managing Editor: I explained to him that I would be on his doorstep at 6.30pm. I was writing about Lucy. I would like to speak with him. Or anyone able to put the Mail’s point of view.
He apologised. He couldn’t be there. He’d see if anyone else could. And in the end, when I arrived at the Mail’s reception, I was told that no, they were all busy. Because, of course, they were “on deadline” , which is a reason that I, as a journalist, will always respect.
Still, there’s a point, of sorts, here. Just imagine if the tables were turned. I was, say, an Australian DJ, whose actions had been linked to a suicide. The media view, inevitably, would be that I OWED them/the public an explanation. I would be pursued and doorstepped, perhaps aggressively. And if I refused to talk, then the press would “draw their own conclusion”, with a snidely reported “Jane declined to comment on the allegations”.
We’ve all seen that game played.
And if I were to say something wrong, or inaccurate about the sainted Dacre, I could well expect a libel writ to follow shortly after.
But the press? Oh, no. When it comes to accuracy, I have the example of the Sun, who preferred not to discuss the accuracy of their reporting, but hurried me straight over to the PCC. Or the Express News Editor, who was just “too busy” to discuss what looked like an egregious error on their pages.
And interviews? Comment on their own doings? Is it my imagination – or are the press, by and large, the only major body of people in the UK NOT to run press offices? And while I may occasionally curse the deviousness and news management of same, they do fulfil a useful function.
Whereas in the past couple of days, the Mail has pursued two tactics that I teach to those on the receiving end of press nastiness. First of all, say nothing. Do not engage with the press. And if that fails, seize control of the agenda (which is what they tried with their crass attempt to blame Alastair Campbell at the weekend).
Don’t shoot me: i’m only the journalist!
And you know, it is a shame that no-one is talking to me. Because when it comes to interviews, I am a crap journalist by Fleet St standards. I am more than happy to do a collaborative interview, allowing total readback. Why wouldn’t i? My job, my role, is to communicate the essence of a person and that includes how they see themselves.
If the interviewee is a total shit, then my theory is that their shitness will out in some way. Its not for me to signpost it.
Which is why I’d be a very good person to interview Mr Tidman, Mr Bannister. I’d like to ask whether Stuart Pike’s holiday was booked long ago – or whether it has suddenly come on in the last week or so. I’d like to ask how actively the Accrington Observer sought out dissident parents. Who first contacted whom? And I’d like to ask, as human to human, what the editor feels about Lucy’s death: whether he believes it holds any lessons for him.
As for Mr Bannister: where should I begin? There are so many questions. Where was the public interest in this story? Do you think your coverage of her death was appropriate? Will you now engage with the trans community?
I’m not looking to catch him out. Those are real questions, and I will report, honestly, accurately, how he responds. As I did a year or so back speaking to David Dinsmore, then interim Managing Editor for the Sun.
For now, though, it seems its not to be. They have, as the tabloids might put it, declined to comment. And you, the reader, must draw your own conclusions.
Freedom: whose freedom?
And the press continues to defend its freedom. Freedom to follow and frighten and harass. Freedom to print material whose accuracy has been questioned, without engaging with those questioning – even though it would be so much easier just to employ fact-checkers and quarter them OFF the news desk, where life is inevitably busy.
Freedom not to answer questions, even when there is a very clear public interest in their responding.
Freedom. Twould be nice if the rest of us had even a smattering of such.