More than 20 years ago, when I was a junior reporter, my news editor told me something that had happened to him perhaps 20 years before that. The story has always haunted me a little.
He took a phone call from a politely spoken man. This man had appeared in court that morning, and was concerned that his relatively minor misdemeanour – perhaps it was drink driving, although I can’t remember – would appear in the paper, which he would find terribly embarrassing. The news editor explained that the paper, which was a respectable local broadsheet, felt it had a duty to the public to cover every case that came in front of it.
The man politely thanked him for his time and hung up. And killed himself.
Over the years, I’ve thought about this a lot.
My news editor’s reasoning then was that an important part of the local justice system was that it was seen to be done. And you couldn’t pick and choose who you did and didn’t write about based on whether they rang you up or not.
I must confess that in my five years or so of regularly covering court, I wasn’t quite as strong minded as my boss. I remember once deliberately not writing about an elderly man who was done for shoplifting because I started to think about how his family would feel.
And in another case a (then) senior BBC executive was prosecuted over a consensual incident in a men’s toilets. I wrote the story but left out his job and luckily for him, the nationals didn’t pick it up. I still worry I was unprofessional in doing so though.
Over the years, I’ve tried to work on the principle that your job as a journalist is to try to tell it as you see it to the reader. Even if that means angering a contact or upsetting somebody who wishes they weren’t the subject of your coverage.
For journalists, I’m not sure there’s any other principle that works.
Of course, the reason I’m talking about this is the tragic news from the UK that a nurse involved in the Today Network Royal phone call prank has killed herself.
My first reaction of course is horror. It’s awful.
And in terms of cause and event, then it’s hard to get past the thought that if the poor woman had not been unlucky enough to pick up the telephone then she might not now be dead.
And that’s something that presenters Michael Christian – on his very first day with the show – and Mel Greig will always have to live with.
But let’s also remember that it was pre-recorded and a production team, lawyers and managers all gave the go ahead before this was broadcast.
By the way, I wasn’t a fan of the stunt. Not because of the prank itself which was mildly amusing, but because it unnecessarily included personal treatment information about the Princess. It was minor, unembarrassing information, but when it comes to medical history, that’s not for anyone to say.
So I was surprised when earlier this week I checked the radio codes of practice, and found that the rules around privacy only cover news broadcasts. If a music presenter want to read out a pop star’s medical notes on air without their permission then as far as I can see, there’s nothing in the radio codes to stop them.
These radio codes are drawn up by the radio industry itself in a co-regulatory regime with the Australian Communications and Media Authority. The rules tend to only get amended each time something happens. The Kyle Sandilands lie detector incident is an example of that.
I’ve always thought of it as something of a cosy arrangement for the radio industry. But in this case, tighter rules would have saved the Today Network from the situation it now finds itself in. As I write, the calls for an advertiser boycott have already begun.
And after the power of the boycott against Alan Jones – I initially thought it would have little impact; I was wrong – I think there’s likely to be a significant public backlash and commercial impact.
It comes just as the network was getting back on the front foot from Kyle Sandilands’ attack on the News Limited journo. As I write this, I’ve had 2Day FM on in the background to see how their news bulletins handle the tragedy. Before they mentioned it at all, I’d heard them running the same trailer painting Kyle Sandilands as a saint who helps the abused and the homeless four times.
It will be interesting to see how much backing Greig and Christian get from SCA. Unlike Kyle Sandilands, who has a market leading share of the breakfast market, they have much less commercial value for the network.
But all of this bad behaviour, does not mean that the network – or the presenters – are guilty of killing the nurse. The level of global coverage it generated, could not have been foreseen at the start of the week.
The subject came up in a post on Gawker a few days ago about suicide and the media. This came after the Tampa Bay Times wrote – entirely with her cooperation – a story about a woman’s embarrassing medical condition. She killed herself a day after publication.
As the writer of the Gawker piece Hamilton Nolan put it:
“Suicides can have many contributing factors—depression, drugs, hopelessness, grief, etc. Rendering a one-dimensional portrait of a suicide’s cause is simplistic and inaccurate, and unfair to those upon whom the blame is laid. If a troubled teenager commits suicide because she “hates her parents,” should we hound those parents into their own grave with guilt? No. We recognize that the victim’s troubles ran deeper. Likewise, the media has a job to do, and it does it. This particular case was far from sensational tabloid journalism. But even sensational tabloid journalism is not, on its own, enough to “force” anyone to suicide.”
And he adds: “The second problem is in the ethical implications of assuming that media coverage can cause suicides. Were that true, it would follow that the media has a responsibility to do everything it can to avoid causing suicides. After all, a human life is more important than any particular news story. That would mean that journalists would need to consider the possible (unforeseeable, unknowable, theoretical) effects of their reporting on anyone they wrote about. Would this story send its subject over the edge? Would exposing a politician’s malfeasance make him take his own life?”
I can certainly think of plenty of Australian politicians under that sort of pressure because of the legal issues in which they are entangled. But letting them off the hook because we worry for their potential mental health, would be good for nobody.
Clearly when all of this is only the name of light entertainment, the justification is harder to make.
Change is needed. Australian radio’s rules around privacy need to be extended beyond news bulletins.
This has now got serious enough for ACMA to step in, rather than wait for the Today Network to deal with the complaints first.
But, tempting as it is, let’s not slaughter Mike Christian and Mel Greig. They will now always have to live the fact that while they didn’t kill this woman, they set a chain of events in motion that had a terrible ending. Surely that’s enough to deal with.