The media will never change, not so long as the dual pressures of vanishing advertising revenues and 24 hour rolling news schedules to fill are in place. Leveson can invite as many ex-Prime Ministers and newspaper editors as he wants to spend an afternoon raising their profile and discussing their past ‘hurts’ at the hands of the media, but unless he can find another way to give them enough income to pay for sufficient hamsters to keep the rolling news going, nothing will change.
Right in the middle of the Leveson inquiry, we have had a classic example of the pain they cause to ordinary individuals, and the misinformation they manage to convey with a clever use of words, merely to keep the hits coming on their web sites.
Let’s see how good a ‘rolling news’ digital editor you could be. Here’s your tip off for a story, actually it came from a disreputable local paper in a far off country:
A middle-aged man travels halfway round the world, breaks into the garden of an elderly widow during the night and takes some pictures of her flower beds. Those, and the names of the parties involved, are your facts, nothing more. Worse, you can only mention one of the names, on account of having already been sued for ‘undisclosed damages’ for your previously defamatory allegations. Tough eh? What angle are you going to take? How about:
Elderly widow in far off country traumatised by dawn break-in? Not too many hits forthcoming with that one.
Obsessive amateur nobody has ever heard of from African continent travels to Europe pursuing crack-pot theory? Don’t see any ‘keywords’ there, do we?
Perpetrator of intercontinental trespass skedaddles back to own country before local police can nick him? Nah, don’t give up the day job, you don’t have the thick skin and thin morals necessary to justify the high wages paid for a highly trained ‘investigative journalist’.
Try: Police Probe Madeleine ‘Grave’ Theory. Now that is good, excellent in fact. ‘Probe’ was just the right choice, could imply digging, or probing with a sharp instrument – but if challenged, you can truthfully say you just meant that they were probing, or looking into, the ‘theory’. Well done, and you managed to get in the keyword of the century – Madeleine! No need to bother with surnames, keep it snappy. That mention of the police gives it authority, makes it look as though there really is ‘something’ in this mention of a grave – you are good at this, my boy. I note that you carefully left out the name of the person who once lived at that house, who sued you over your previous claims. Good, good, the Legal department will be pleased with you. Voila! Now you have a zillion hits on your web site, your boss is pleased with you, and you can go off for a drink.
Don’t give a thought to the parents of Madeleine, who are still trying to keep the world aware of the fact that there is no evidence whatsoever that she is dead, merely bucket loads of Internet time given to a hundred thousand ‘opinions’. That doesn’t matter as much as your job.
Before you know it, the story has ‘legs’ as they say in the trade. Headlines like this zoom around the world:
There is quite a different tale trailing in your wake. One that deserves the re-telling, since it only occurred as a result of your pursuit of headlines.
The Daily Express editor became “obsessed” with the Madeleine McCann story and put it on its front page repeatedly just to sell newspapers, the Leveson inquiry has heard.
Back in Portugal, a 76 year old woman who lives alone, woke to find that she was the centre of world attention once again, for it was her garden that had been illegally entered in the middle of the night by a group of men. Possibly, for it is not even certain that they entered the right garden – for she keeps a pair of professional guard dogs roaming her grounds at night to deal with such intruders, on account of the attention you drew to her before. I would too, if every newspaper in the world was publishing a map showing how to get to my garden and suggesting that the quest of the century might be found there.
Why would they be doing that? Well, Mrs Murat had a bi-lingual son who was brought up in Portugal, the Police used him sometimes to help translate when English speakers came to their attention. Not surprisingly, having translated the statements of some of the people who were with the McCann’s on holiday when Madeleine vanished in the night, he hung around watching the Police activity, nothing that dramatic had happened in Pria da Luz for centuries. One of the army of British newspapermen and women garnered some headlines when they pointed out to the Police that ‘it reminded them of the recent Soham murders’, where the perpetrator, Huntley, had hung around the police lines. Robert Murat was brought in for questioning, he became an ‘arguido‘.
A single man, blind in one eye, or to quote the Sun – ‘Dodgy-eyed Robert Murat’ – definitely a paedo, case cracked, game set and match for the media. It was to cost them £600,000 in damages. NO EVIDENCE was ever found against Robert Murat – hence the reluctance of the media to mention the site of their latest ‘exclusive’ – Maddie’s Grave!
The flood of worldwide speculation did more than just ruin Murat’s reputation, it set off an army of armchair detectives engaged in ‘McCluedo’. Fair comment, opinion, even speculation, is one thing; amongst their number there were darker creatures, true obsessives. Some became so convinced of their own sleuthing skills, based on part information, false newspaper stories, and downright misinformation, that they were utterly convinced that they knew the answer. Sadly amongst those who ‘knew the answer’ there were some who were prepared to take physical action to prove themselves right.
Prepared to invest £50,000, the price of a small house, in geo-thermal mapping equipment. Prepared to travel from South Africa to Portugal. Accompanied by three of four, the accounts vary, other men. Prepared to climb into the private garden of a house which may or may not belong to Murat’s 76 year old Mother; and take pictures of the terrain. Pictures which they allege show signs of earth disturbance, and what may be bones. Or may not be. Or may be animal bones. Or may be a sewage pipe.
They then send these pictures to the police – and call a press conference announcing that they are disappointed with the police response, and demand that ‘Maddie’s grave be dug up’.
That in itself is a sad enough situation; Murat’s garden, if the trespassers even had the right garden, had already been dug over extensively in 2007. The entire area had been extensively scanned and searched – even revealing the so called ‘secret room’ that Murat had. In fact an area of the basement of the house to which there was no access, had never had access since his Father built the house, so secret was it! The Portuguese investigation had many faults, but lack of attention to the Murat’s garden was not one of them.
What is truly sad, is that the British media know all this; yet are still prepared to go for a cheap headline. Even in the midst of the Leveson inquiry.
In their wake they have left a traumatised elderly widow, who will no doubt have to now take extra precautions for her security. Worse, the headlines around the world appear (carefully worded!) to confirm that Madeleine is dead. One and a half million results already on Google for ‘Madeleine McCann’s Grave Found’. Millions of people will read that and not bother to report the suspicious goings on in the house next door to them. Wouldn’t bother to report the little girl who might be Madeline, wouldn’t even bother to report what might sadly be Madeline’s grave.
For haven’t the trustworthy British media already reported that Madeline’s Grave has been found?
I am utterly shocked that they would do this before Leveson has pronounced judgment on their ethics – he doesn’t need to for me now. I’ll prejudge it. They don’t have any.
The headline’s more important than the lives of innocent people.