Not in front of the children

Cardinal Cormac MurphyO’Connor is worried that, in its portrayal of sex, the media poses a danger to the future health and happiness of children.

He’s not the only one. Passing through the room where our 10-yearold was watching children’s television on ITV1 at around nine o’clock one Saturday morning, I watched sex rear a head so ugly it should have been wearing a brown paper bag.

This full-throttle come-on to rush out and buy was placed by Emap on behalf of one of its new magazines.

No, not Sweet Dreams for Kiddiwinkies, or The Further Adventures of Cuddly Bear – yes, I’ve made those up, but you get the picture. The ad was for the self-proclaimed “World’s best men’s weekly”, a sex-soaked, innuendosodden, smut-charged glossy with its intellect in its Y-fronts.

Zoo Weekly, Press Gazette readers may recall, is the new title that in its first promotional issue featured a photograph of a woman unfortunate enough to have developed a 12-stone tumour. “A 12-stone tumour might be shocking to you, but it won’t be to our blokes,” said editor Paul Merrill.

“Can we get that?” said our 10-yearold as the commercial disappeared from the screen. I nipped out for a copy, resisting the temptation to hide it inside something more respectable – Richard Desmond’s Asian Babes, perhaps – on the way home.

The front page was dominated by a picture of Jordan – who else? – and the cover lines included “Win Jordan’s t*ts!”, “I’m a Celeb – Uncut! The steamy bits they tried to ban”, “Alien porn” and “Duck sex”. Just the thing for impressionable young girls and boys tuning in to watch Tarzan and Recess, which by the time I returned, had charmed the unpleasant TV hard sell from my 10-year-old’s memory.

I mentioned the ad to the new regulator of most things seen and heard, but Ofcom’s spokesperson pointed out that the organisation normally responds to complaints and that there had not been a single one concerning the Zoo Weekly commercial being scheduled during primetime for children. The Roman Catholic archbishop couldn’t have been watching that morning.

A few days later, Cardinal MurphyO’Connor said: “In the marketplace it would appear that sex sells. But in our culture, there is much more at stake than the size of the magazine market, or the health of the advertising industry.”

Merrill had previously told Press Gazette that he didn’t care what “media luvvies” thought about his magazine, because it was aimed at blokes who “enjoy a laugh”.

I know whose side this media luvvie is on and it is not that of a publication, or company, irresponsible enough to chase sales of an adult product practically into the school playground.

A magazine produced by adults with the brains of 10-year-olds, for “blokes” with the brains of 10-yearolds, is one thing. Pitching such a magazine at real 10-year-olds, and younger, is very much another.

Following publication of my centenary history of the Daily Mirror, Read All About It, David Thurlow, a former Mirror and Daily Express reporter, writes to remind me of an intriguing tale the book missed – there were some! – that superficially sounds depressingly the same as the all-too-familiar press-bashing stories of today.

David recalls the savage murder of a Dutch au pair, Mary Kriek, who in January 1958 was found battered to death in a ditch near Colchester, Essex.

Soon afterwards, Roger St Clair Fearon, the employer of Mary’s sister and only friend in England, launched his own savage attack – on the newspapers.

He wrote to The Times: “A week ago a friend of mine was murdered near here. May I now place on record the conduct of the majority of the national papers in connection with this affair?” He went on to recount how “within five minutes of the murdered girl’s family in Holland being told of her death, reporters from well-known British papers had swarmed into their flat, even penetrating to the girl’s bedroom, before being thrown out”.

Fearon also claimed that he and his family were subjected to “an endless stream of journalists all wanting scraps of gossip” and that one reporter “threatened to make up some news if I did not give him any and this he did two days later”.

The letter, which went on to outline more “ghastly behaviour” by the press, prompted an inquiry by the Press Council, the precursor of the Press Complaints Commission. It also provoked a flood of letters to The Times, with readers castigating the press and unreservedly accepting Fearon’s allegations. Over at the Mirror, editor Jack Nener wrote a front-page editorial to assure his readers that an internal inquiry showed that Mirror journalists were not guilty of any of the charges.

Nobody believed the papers’ denials then and not much has changed in the intervening 46 years. Now PressWise would be on the case, of course, and Kilroy would have devoted one of his shows to debating whether members of the press were vicious thugs or just scurrilous nincompoops – had Kilroy not been consigned to the journalistic sidelines over his abhorrent Sunday Express column, that is.

Otherwise, it is the same scenario.

History does not record whether there were cries of “whitewash” when, after an exhaustive inquiry, the Press Council reported that “while Mr Fearon made his complaints in good faith, he nevertheless made several misleading statements”.

But it is unlikely that those writers of angry letters to The Times were convinced by the Press Council’s conclusions: no reporters had penetrated Mary’s bedroom, no British reporters had swarmed into the Krieks’ home in Holland, no reporter had invented information after Mr Fearon supplied none. There were, the council concluded, two “episodes of badgering intrusion” and one serious inaccuracy in a report, all of which were “strongly condemned”.

But the nails – bent, as it turned out – the nation had driven into the coffin it was constructing for the press were not withdrawn. And a lot more, often justified, have been hammered in since.

Roger St Clair Fearon, Cambridge graduate, gentleman farmer and former special constable, later divorced Mrs Fearon and departed for Australia with his new wife, their former and last Dutch au pair, Fritia. And in May 1961 he telephoned the Melbourne police to tell them there was something wrong at his home. When asked what, Fearon replied “Death”. He and Fritia were found dead in each other’s arms, Fearon having shot her before killing himself.

I suspect there are no lessons for the PCC to learn from this riveting story, except that there were doubtless those who still believed Fearon’s assertions of press impropriety in the tragic case of Mary Kriek, whose killer was never apprehended.

The word “tabloid” continues to put the editors of what they consider to be “serious” newspapers in a tizz. Hence the insistence by some to describe their products as “compacts”, even though it is patently obvious that if you chop a broadsheet in half you get a paper the same size and shape as The Sun or the Mirror.

When discussing the broadsheets on BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, presenter Fi Glover referred to “the big papers”. That’s it! Big papers and small papers – congratulations, Fi, on solving a conundrum that has had Fleet Street snobs tossing uneasily in their sleep for years.  Bill Hagerty is editor of British Journalism Review. He’ll be back in four weeks Next week: Alison Hastings

by Bill Hagerty

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