Friday, March 20, 2009

Express your Disgust

I've made no secret of how much I detest tabloid journalism. I hate the sensationalism. I hate the outrageous invasion of privacy. I hate their shoddy justifications. I hate their lack of courtesy, professionalism and basic humanity. So when this story broke in the Sunday Express a week ago, I was truly horrified:

The story shocked a lot of other people too; not the content of the story, you understand, but the fact that the Express had run such a terrible, unwarranted and, frankly, disgusting front page. Here's what Father Ted co-creator Graham Linehan wrote on his blog after reading:

'The Dunblane Massacre was an atrocity almost beyond imagining. A man named Thomas Hamilton walked into a school in a small Scottish town in March 1996, and shot dead sixteen children and one teacher. It was not what we’ve since come to think of as a ‘normal’ school shooting as it was a primary school, and all the children were aged between five and six years of age. We were filming an episode of Father Ted that week, and on the night of the recording, no-one, the audience or the cast, felt terribly inclined to have a good time; difficult to throw your head back and laugh when all you could think about were those kids, their parents, the town…but most of all, those kids, those kids, those poor kids …

All those useless thoughts, sent to torture the unwary after a tragedy such as this one, we knew them well. If only someone had sensed how dangerous he was…if only handguns had been banned a year before it happened, rather than a year after… In the days and weeks that followed, we were all endlessly replaying the same fantasy of somehow managing to stop Hamilton before he got to the school gates. But there was nothing we could do, of course, except respect the memory of the kids who died, and thank dumb, blind chance for the survival of the others.That basic human reaction, that powerful urge to protect those children, has always been something I presumed was shared by most other human beings. But a lady named Paula Murray has disabused me of that particular whimsy.

Paula is the journalist who thought it was well past time that the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were given a tabloid punching. To that end, she befriended a group of them on Facebook and collated their photographs and comments. Clearly aware of the legal guidelines in place to protect those under eighteen against invasion of privacy (and the specific instructions that the Press Complaints Commission issued regarding the Dunblane children), she waited until they hit eighteen. Then she wrote this.

'The story continued inside under the headline “SICK MESSAGES SHAME MEMORY OF CLASSMATES”, referring to the normal, teenagery stuff they were saying to each other on their profiles. (I should say thank you to those on Twitter who helped me black out the names and photographs of the kids). As others have pointed out, the gist of the story is that these kids are showing disrespect to their dead classmates by… being alive.

Here’s an example of Paula’s scoop: “For instance, (name deleted), who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died, makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out.”

Rude gestures. Boasting. Drunkenness. Now, I’m coming late to this one… complaints to the PCC have been made by two of the victims of the article, the piece has been pulled from the Express website… so we should probably forget about it, right? I don’t know. I think the line that has been crossed here is different to all the other lines the press routinely cross.

The press likes us to believe they’re a properly regulated body, but they’re anything but. First of all, The PCC seems to be a completely toothless organisation by design. It is made up of representatives of the major publishers, who are obviously not inclined to be too hard on themselves. Also, unlike Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority, who have easy-to-use complaint forms on their websites, the PCC don’t even accept third party complaints - in other words, unless you are the person named in a printed article, they’re not interested in hearing your opinion. So when faced with an affront to our humanity (which is what I believe this Express story is), there is no official channel for us to register our anger. That’s right - if you are offended by something on TV, Radio or in an advert, you can complain; if you’re offended by something in the print press…well, you’re just going to have to walk it off, because literally no-one wants to know.

So, I think it is up to us to take a stand for those kids who had their privacy so ruthlessly invaded. Paula Murray set out to do a hit job on those kids– character assassination (of the most pathetic, intelligence-insulting kind) was the aim, and the weapons were a Facebook account and an editor with a moral centre as atrophied as her own. If there is a line beyond that one that the press can cross, I think we should make it harder for them to do so. So! What can we do?'

There then followed an on-line petition that has gathered over 6000 signatures so far and is growing more fulsome by the day. Apparently there will be an apology in this week’s Sunday Express about the Dunblane story ... but you can be pretty sure that it won't be front page. However, even if the Express does apologise, we should not let up on the pressure. We need to know what safeguards they are putting in place to ensure that nothing like this happens again, and how the journalist (Paula Murray) and the editor (Derek Lambie) will be punished for their appalling lack of moral judgement.

So if you feel as I do, dear visitors, please sign the petition. And please feel free to pass this on.


Jon M said...

Guess it says more about the media's attitude towards youth in general. I do worry that, as a nation, we show our children nothing but contempt. we yesy them to destrcution, then tell them their results are crap, we judge them all by impossible standards that we never adhered to ourselves as teenagers. I'd better stop there. I signed the petition. All that was reported was the exuberance of youth and these kids should live life to the full.

Persephone said...

I see another blogger has taken aim at Ms Murray with a bit of Swiftian satire.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Jon - It sickens me to my guts. I may not particularly like some aspects of youth culture - I'm not meant to as I'm 47 - but I do know for certain that most kids are decent kids underneath all the bling and bluster. This constant demonising them for doing what we all did is unhealthy and just plain wrong.

Persephone - Hmm. I saw this a few days ago and while I couldn't help smiling inwardly at the irony of it, the 'eye for an eye' approach just isn't right. What's needed here is for Murray et al to realise that what they've done is wholly unacceptable. You can't justifiably make that point while emulating her actions. That's why I'm behind the petition rather than the tit-for-tat.

Blog Princess G said...

I didn't know about this article... I do now - thanks Steve - and will sign the petition. What a bunch of jackals.

Stevyn Colgan said...

Princess G - Thanks. They did apologise today. However, the apology is actually a rambling tract about how the Express is 'pretty good' and that 'evetyone involved in producing this newspaper takes pride in what we publish'. That said, they acknowledge the offence and distress they have caused to the familiies. Naturally, however, no one will be punished. Sadly, this is the state of the UK gutter press; the same press that published an obituary edition of Jade Goody in OK! magazine a week ago, despite the fact that she only died this morning. Marina Hyde - a proper journalist - had this to say yesterday. I agree with every word.

Blog Princess G said...

Wow, I've been seriously out of the loop, but am almost happy to be so. I fear that nothing will change. The hoards love the Christians-and-lions shows and the same ones who slow down to look at road accidents will continue to buy OK and the rest of the rags. Thus has it always been, and I feel like a bit of a twit for occasionally hoping it wouldn't be this way.

Stevyn Colgan said...

G - We all hope for better, dear. We all hope. x