When nutters turn nasty

JUST LAST WEEK I answered a newspaper’s telephone to a woman who insisted I was Peaches Geldof.

Despite my repeated denials, she refused to believe I was not the offspring of Sir Bob.

“Don’t worry,” she told me, “I understand that you have to keep it secret.”

I thanked her and hung up.

Anyone
who has opened a magazine’s mailbag or picked up a newsroom phone will
tell you, from time to time, the media attracts the attentions of the
obsessive and the delusional. Far from being an isolated incident, such
tales are prevalent in the industry.

“I got a series of letters
from a guy in Sussex who believed The Guardian was running a hate
campaign against him using its Word Play quiz in the Weekend magazine,”
reveals our very own Press Gazette editor Ian Reeves.

“His evidence was unimaginably obscure, claiming the clues in the quiz were ‘obviously’ cryptic references to his life history.

“The
logic was impossible to follow, but each week he believed they were
referring to different episodes, such as a bad school report he’d been
given or a hospital visit.

“He also forwarded to me a bundle of
copies of letters on the same subject he had written to the Press
Complaints Commission and the Brighton Argus, together with their
extremely polite replies.

‘As you can see,’ he wrote, ‘The Argus does not know what to make of my predicament.’

“Neither did I.”

So
why does the media solicit such unusual communications? Psychologist Dr
Linda Papadopoulos believes that the birth of internet forums and new
media has created an interactive environment that encourages people
with obsessive personalities to communicate with the press. The press
invites the attention of obsessives through repeated requests for
reader comment and stories.

“The media permeates our lives so much,” she says.

“We
may not have friends coming to our house every day, but we certainly
have the TV on or can pick up a magazine or read a newspaper. I think
that in the last few years the media has become more interactive – with
the internet, and so on – so you have these qualified social
relationships with people, where readers are being given permission to
contact you.”

The media’s interactions with the public and its
access to the world of celebrity can prove a seductive combination for
those with obsessive personalities.

Empire reviews editor Dan Jolin recalls a disturbed young lady, desperate to secure the attention of her favourite actor.

“When
I was reviews editor on Total Film, we regularly received letters from
a girl threatening to starve herself to death if we didn’t arrange for
her to meet the actor Tommy Lee Jones,” he said.

“As evidence of her starvation, she would include computer printouts of her weight loss.

“Eventually
she became threatening and, although I can’t remember the exact
wording, we wrote back to her along the lines that she should ‘please
stop writing to us, as the police had been informed’.”

Contacting
the police may sound like an extreme reaction. All too often, newsroom
bravado determines that this sort of situation should be laughed off
over a post-print pint. But some have felt a more serious course of
action is necessary.

In February 2002, a man was jailed for five
months after sending the South Wales Evening Post’s news editor, Paul
Turner, a series of sexually graphic letters. The same stalker had
previously been jailed for harassing a young female BBC Wales reporter.

“It
was the nature of the letters that prompted me to go to the police,”
says Turner. “Some of them were really quite sinister. There was one
with a set of evil eyes on the page. I just thought it was best to go
to the police, just in case he was doing this to other people as well.

“We
get many letters and phone calls and you tend to accept it as part of
the job. We are a newspaper, a public organisation, and people feel
that they can ring up and say what they like to you sometimes.

But when somebody has taken the time to sit down and write a series of letters, you know it is a bit more serious.”

Former
editor of the Belfast Newsletter, Geoff Martin – now editor of
Archant’s Ham & High series – was threatened for many years by a
man who believed he was being persecuted by the paper.

“Every
time we wrote an editorial giving credit to anyone, whether it be the
Government or whoever, I would be sure to get a letter from a guy who
claimed he was the real architect of the Northern Ireland peace
process,” he recalls.

“They were not nice letters. There were sometimes veiled threats. It was not something you could entirely laugh off.

“Some
of his letters simply accused me of misleading our readers, but he also
accused me of persecuting people, and warned that I should be aware of
what the consequences would be.

“He threatened to report us to the Press Council.

I wish he had, because we would have found out who he was.

“Over a period of time, I must have received 40 or 50 letters from the same person.”

It
is difficult to know what to do when faced with a persistent obsessive
caller. Should you be polite and friendly in a bid to humour them, or
would a rude, off-hand response dissuade the caller from making further
contact?

Martin has borrowed a strategy from former Sun editor
Kelvin MacKenzie. “I always try to deal with people politely – but
there does seem to come a time when that becomes impossible,” he says.

“There
is an old trick of Kelvin MacKenzie’s that I used to use often on the
Newsletter. He would find out as much about the person as he could and
then say he was banning them from ever buying The Sun again. It is a
very clever way to defuse the situation – people do not know how to
respond.”

However, Dr Papadopoulos cautions that extending
contact could play into the obsessive’s hands. “I would not engage with
people,” she says.

“Be as polite as possible and make it clear
you cannot help them. If people are becoming aggressive, there should
be some sort of protocol put in place to make everyone feel safe.

“If
communications become more threatening, they really should be taken to
the police immediately. Just don’t engage. These people need to get a
reaction out of you.

“Generally speaking, the sort of people who contact the media in this way are suffering from some kind of personality disorder.”

The
majority of disturbing communications are laughed off by journalists as
an occupational hazard, a by-product of building relationships with
readers.

We have all enjoyed a snigger courtesy of Angry of
Tunbridge Wells. And while many calls and letters are on the whole
eccentric or amusing, there is a minority that are far from harmless.
Perhaps the industry needs to work together to make sure these are
being addressed.

Comments
No comments to display

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

19 + 1 =

CLOSE
CLOSE