Bereaved should not determine whether a tragedy gets publicity

The PCC clause on grief is tricky and subjective, because one person’s intrusion is not another’s

THE PCC’s recently published adjudication on use of pictures is extremely significant for the regional press.

I am sure many hacks keep up to date through the Press Complaints
Commission’s website, but in case it passed you by it’s worth examining
in a bit more detail.

The case actually involved The Mirror – but it was doing something that local reporters do every day of the week.

It
published a picture of a woman missing after the tsunami – even though
one of its reporters had been expressly told by members of the
immediate family that they would not hand one over and did not want to
see one appearing.

Swap the tsunami disaster for an everyday tragedy and you will see why the PCC’s decision is so significant.

Regional
papers can regularly find themselves having to respond to complaints
under Section 5 of the Code – intrusion into grief and shock.

It’s
a particularly tricky clause because it is subjective: one person’s
intrusion is not another’s, and often the first you know of it is when
the PCC’s letter arrives at the office.

The PCC has tried to help
the situation by making clear over the years that it realises papers
have a right to report on tragedies, and to approach friends and family
to confirm details and get reaction.

It is extremely
unsympathetic where multiple approaches are made to grieving people
once they have said they do not want to speak, where a paper may be
breaking the news of a tragedy to close family – either in person or in
print – or where the report is frivolous.

But I believe this is
the first time it has had to tackle the situation of what you should do
when a family adamantly does not want to see a picture (and possibly
report) appear at all.

Because their wishes were not adhered to,
the family feels it can put forward a strong argument that the paper
has intruded into their grief and shock. I am sure they genuinely
believe that is the case.

But the crux of the matter is whether a
family can decide that a tragic event, which is clearly in the public
domain, should receive no publicity or not be illustrated with a
picture of the victim – in this case taken from the internet where it
could have been accessed by anyone if they so wished.

Matters in
The Mirror’s case were slightly complicated by a communication
breakdown between the reporter and newsdesk on the family’s wishes. For
that The Mirror apologised.

But putting that to one side, the PCC has helpfully clarified the situation.

In
its words it would “not normally consider that the publication of an
innocuous photograph of someone who was subsequently caught up in such
a shocking news event, obtained from a public resource such as the
internet, would breach Clause 5”.

Regional papers have huge
electronic picture libraries so that, even without using the internet,
it is common that they have a picture of someone involved in a tragedy
in their own system. And members of the public can often access that
library through a laptop in reception and either see or buy any of
those pictures.

It is always extremely difficult to decide
whether to use that picture to illustrate a tragic story if a grieving
family is appealing for you not to. But that is an editor’s decision,
and what they get paid for, and it is reassuring that the PCC has
reiterated that.

THE INDEPENDENT’S poster front-page treatments have had the industry divided for many months.

For
the record, and as a home-delivered customer, I think the policy worked
better when it was not used every day – it was always more effective
when you were not necessarily expecting it.

Poster fronts are
something the regional press does extremely well (look at the
awardwinning Lincolnshire Echo as just one example)n but they vary the
diet for readers on a daily or weekly basis.

I have wondered how
The Independent’s policy goes down with the staff (as it must skew
story selection). Political editor Andrew Grice gave a hint when he
described his working week in Press Gazette last month. On the Sunday
after the election he and a colleague discovered that cabinet ministers
wanted Blair to stand down much earlier than the PM did.

Grice
described this as the most significant story he had had for ages (and
who can blame him after that election campaign) and twice pleaded for
it to be the splash.

Instead the editor plumped for a front page
lead on Britain’s vanishing flowers. This certainly raised some
eyebrows in our house, and I’m not averse to the odd flower story.

I
can totally understand the desire to steer clear of politics after the
election, but I was hoping for a great news story to keep Blair et al
off the front page.

Grice, ever the diplomat, describes his
reaction in much understated terms. But as he readily admits to being
at the point of exhaustion, when even the mildest figures can morph
into the Incredible Hulk, I would love to have been a fly on the wall
when he saw the flowery front.

JUST GOT
back from holiday to the astounding news that Piers Morgan has possibly
trumped me once again. Not content with getting his best-selling
diaries into the shops before mine (admittedly I haven’t written mine
yet but I’m sure they can be bashed out double quick once I put my mind
to it) he is now buying the very magazine I write for.

He must
have been aware that I was in very secret negotiations with the north
east’s preeminent PR guru Barrie “Geordie boy” Boil to get a consortium
together to purchase Press Gazette ourselves.

Barrie has
organised many a great bash at several working men’s clubs, and handily
has an (on-off) relationship with Lizzie Trotter, whose dad is a very
wealthy self-made printer.

We already had several thousand pounds
committed to the deal, so I am waiting with bated breath to see if we
can gazump Piers at the last moment (which may be too late by the time
you read this, magazine deadlines being what they are). Obviously if I
am successful I will be a very hands-off proprietor, which I think is
by far the best way to be.

I will only need an office on the
editorial floor to come and go from as I please, a very large expense
account, copy approval and the chance to have a go at all those
bastards who have slagged me off over the years.

For the sake of my readers, you must keep your fingers crossed that I win – if not you may never read a word I write again.

Alison Hastings is a media consultant and former editor of the Evening Chronicle, Newcastle

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