The Honest Marketer

Friday, 8 July 2011

Media madness – but who’s to blame?

Nobody could fail to be anything but horrified at the latest claims that the phones of Milly Dowler, Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman and a number of servicemen were hacked by private investigators working for the media. It’s quite rightly been dubbed as “one of the biggest scandals in public life for decades” and everyone is – naturally – quick to criticise the media concerned, which has ultimately led to the closure of the paper this Sunday.
But as we happily pointed the finger, I do think we need to take a closer look at our own consumption of media and whether we share any part in the blame.

Having started out my career working as a journalist, I do feel some sympathy with the media – not that I in any way condone the recent events. The traditional print media faces a very challenging climate where news and information is much more freely available. To continue to make a profit journalists are being driven to find every angle in a story – ideally different to that of their competitors – because it’s what sells papers. The News of the World appears to have been the extreme point of a continuum in which most other media also sit when it comes to the means justifying the end.

When you consider it, the practice of interfering to find intimate news is one that is well established – though admittedly ‘doorstepping’ is legal. This accepted practice is driven purely by the public’s desire to want to know more when something horrific, tragic or criminal occurs. Some people will quite happily open up their lives for publicity and some journalists enjoy the thrill of persuading individuals to do this. It was never for me. One of the reasons I chose to take my career in a different direction was because of the increasing desire to probe into the most tragic moments of everyday life. I particularly recall the accidental death of a young boy by strangulation, which occurred one Sunday. As the only reporter on duty, it was up to me to find the name of the victim – as the police don’t reveal these details – by whatever means possible. In the end I discovered the identity from a group of schoolchildren who had known the youngster and my next step was to approach the parents. I actually never did. On arriving at the house and seeing a group of people clearly extremely distressed and agitated, the photographer and I took the decision to leave them to their grief. I did get the story – or ‘tribute’ – from a neighbour, but I felt extremely uncomfortable and I don’t regret my decision (though my old Editor would not be best pleased).

As a journalist I felt that I should not approach others unless I would be prepared to provide an interview in a similar situation. As a parent, I’m just not convinced that giving an interview after the death of one of my children (God forbid) – even if it was intended to be a tribute piece – would be my top priority. Yet, if I’m honest, I remain as curious as the next when tragedy and misfortune touches someone else’s life.

The hard truth is that ‘we’, the public, demand the ins and outs of these stories and we’ll happily read the headlines that no doubt arose from some of this phone hacking. Just look at how many gossip magazines have been created in the last decade. We want to know every aspect of a celebrity’s, politician’s, criminal’s or victim’s life and it doesn’t really bother us (at the time) who the ‘close source’ who reveals the information is.

The wakeup call for me into how low human behaviour can sink when it comes to curiosity (or sheer nosiness) is the shocking trial of Florida’s Casey Anthony, who was cleared this week of murdering her two-year-old daughter Caylee. The trial became a media circus which was fuelled by the press and led to tourists queuing from 5am to get seats in the gallery. I may be being cynical, but I somehow doubt their motivation was a genuine concern for the tragic death of a beautiful little girl.
The News of the World may now be doomed, but I don’t think that entirely solves the problem (and worse still, this decision penalises dozens of innocent individuals who had nothing to do with the behaviour being criticised). The demand for that type of news clearly still exists and we’ll seek it out. The root cause of the problem is being pushed underground and potentially we are just transferring the pressure (or the temptation) to meet this demand to another media source.

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