And so to bed for The Sun’s Brown-baiting, as it turns out that it’s quite easy to make a spelling mistake – even when you’re using a keyboard and have a newsroom full of eyes. Any suggestion that, by mis-spelling Ms Janes’ name, The Sun has displayed shocking insensitivity to a grieving mother and a brutal disregard for her dead son would, of course, be mistaken.
The Janes family weren’t the only ones to be exposed by The Sun’s attacks on the PM. Gordon Brown was the unwilling subject of an especially unpleasant kind of scrutiny – including having his phone call recorded and republished by The Sun. At the Currybet blog, Martin Belam thinks this is a likely contravention of clause 10 of the PCC code, which forbids the interception of private communications:
I’ve no doubt that the contents of the call were of interest to the public, but it seems to me that one side of the phone call is someone attempting to make an apology for their visual disability causing them to have poor handwriting, in a phone call they had every expectation at the time of being private. It would have been possible for The Sun to report on the conversation without publishing a transcript, and it would certainly have been possible to report on the story without publishing a recording of the call in full on the paper’s website.
Belam has taken his concerns to the PCC, and predictably been told that, as he isn’t the prime minister, there’s nothing the PCC can do. I suspect that in any case, as the phone call to Mrs Janes was made in the course of Brown’s public duties as head of government, The Sun could argue that the expectation of privacy doesn’t apply – in the same way it was argued that Alan Duncan’s “on rations” comments were fair game for Heydon Prowse to record and distribute.
But intercepting a phone call to entrap one (sincerely apologetic) party in the conversation is in pretty bad taste – and besides, isn’t it a practice that News International has put behind it? After Nick Davies’ reports for The Guardian earlier this year on the pervasive use of the black arts on the NOTW and Sun, the PCC produced a report this week which assured the public that:
Despite the manner in which the Guardian’s allegations were treated in some quarters – as if they related to current or recent activity – there is no evidence that the practice of phone message tapping is ongoing. The Commission is satisfied that – so far as it is possible to tell – its work aimed at improving the integrity of undercover journalism has played its part in raising standards in this area.
Improving its integrity. Raising its standards. By running a personal apology from one bereaved parent to another on the front page. Well done, The Sun.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009
The PCC code warns that “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.” But in some cases, the distressed and bereaved will have reasons for actively welcoming publicity – and Jacqui Janes appears to be one such case. The mother of a guardsman killed on duty in Afghanistan, she is grieving and angry over her son’s death, and those feelings have been compounded by what she feels to be the offensively illiterate way in which Gordon Brown wrote to express his condolences.
Up until this, I didn’t know that Brown was handwriting letters to the families of fallen soldiers. And personally –despite many misgivings I have about the way the government has managed the war in Afghanistan – this makes me think better of Brown. He appears to experience his responsibility to bereaved families deeply. But I understand why Ms Janes would feel differently on receiving what she considers a deeply inadequate letter.
What I don’t understand is how Dominic Mohan can justify making a spectacle of one family’s grief. Loss of a child is a dreadful, crushing thing – and however cathartic it might be to attack the government responsible for that death, grieving in public can be a cruel process. In the worst cases, people can become fixed as professional mourners, and the process of recovery is made horribly protracted. That’s why the PCC’s guidelines on intrusion into shock and grief are there, and every publicity approach from a bereaved family ought to be handled with huge tact and discretion. It doesn’t work like that, but it should.
It seems unpleasantly likely that The Sun has consciously recruited the Janes to the paper’s anti-Brown cause at a time when the family is deeply distressed. Publicising the reaction to the letter is one thing; encouraging Ms Janes to act the reporter and challenge Brown when he rang to apologise is something else. I hope that the Janes family do not feel exploited. But watching The Sun rack up the politicised covers, making a shattered family the front for its partisan campaign, it looks like something awfully close to exploitation.
Text © Sarah Ditum, 2009
When Rebekah Wade gave her Cudlipp lecture this January, her description of the journalistic process was breathless excitement with a few throwaway suggestions of democratic principle:
Our ancient craft is to tell many people what few people know. The sheer thrill of disclosure motivates the best journalists. And as an industry, we should use our collective power to campaign for the freedom to do so. […]
One efficient, if immoral, way of telling many people what few people know is to hack mobile phone inboxes while fishing for stories – a practice for which Wade’s employer News International has had to pay £1m in compensation. And the Guardian’s front page story on the News Of The World’s surveillance habits (by Nick Davies, who has been following the use of dark arts in newsrooms for some years now) is also a great example of telling many what few people know. Except that, according to Wade’s lecture, scrutiny of the media is a special case where disclosure ought to be avoided:
Sometimes I suspect most of the media commentariat are suffering from Munchausen syndrome. They are certainly making us suffer unnecessarily! Only journalism allows us to exist. Yet they often decry its existence. And it’s the epitome of self-flagellation when The Guardian publishes Max Mosley’s views on press freedom. The relentless negativity, this almost morbid fascination with our own demise, must stop. […] You would understand if the public were interested in our navel-gazing. But they are not.
News International papers are currently avoiding navel gazing with admirable consistency: the Sun and the News Of The World aren’t running the story at all, while the Times has tucked the story away in their “More News” section. This is a story with many angles – privacy, self-regulation, the role of the police, the relationship between media corporations and parliament. It just happens that all these angles conflict with the mission statement that Wade lay out at the end of her lecture:
We need to ask ourselves: Can we unite to fight against a privacy law that has no place in a democracy ? Can we agree that self-regulation is the best way to deal with the occasional excesses of a free press? Can we have a press that has the courage and commitment to listen to and fight for its readers? Can we survive this economic climate if we keep investment in journalism at the heart of what we do? I suggest to you tonight: in the words of Bob The Builder, plagiarised by Barak Obama. Yes. We. Can.
Wade’s employers have been “investing in journalism” by invading privacy and then paying off the victims with huge compensation. Self-regulation has failed to deal with that practice. And she proposes that the newspaper industry “listen to and fight for” their readers by hiding their own workings from the people who consume their product. The real excitement in this story is that it offers to throw wide open all those things that Wade would rather nobody talked about.
© Sarah Ditum 2009
I’ve got a new post up at Liberal Conspiracy, where I ramble speculatively about the way Mr Justice Eady’s decisions on media law seem to be acting in combination against scrutiny at all levels of reporting: the sex scandal, science coverage, and anonymous whistle-blowing:
It’s not unusual for public figures to experience severe reversals of reputation, and the distance between “nation’s sweetheart” and “national disgrace” can be as short as a few column inches. But Mr Justice Eady’s recent rehabilitation in the eyes of the press is a remarkable one – for the swiftness with which some editors have shifted position, and for what it suggests about the future possibilities for scrutiny in the media.
Edit: I accidentally gave Eady a peerage, so I’ve fixed that here.