It already seems a long time ago since we first heard about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone. What has brought down the Murdoch empire is that we finally saw clearly that we were dealing with people who simply do not abide by any normal rules, who saw it as their right to satisfy the interest of the public at any cost.
I would like to suggest that what we saw here is the extreme edge of a spectrum of intrusion and exploitation. Maybe we need to think a little about the way we have become desensitised to the public “ownership” if grief.
Most journalists learn their trade in the local press. What they are trained to look for is something unusual happening to the ordinary people that make up their small world.
Accidents, crime, what the coroner said, and the occasional murder are all occasions when ordinary people become of fleeting interest to the press.
Sometimes it goes further, sometimes there will be an individual prepared to answer the question “how does it feel”, opening up a window into the mind of an ordinary person coping with some big emotion.
When it comes to murder our interest and the interest of the press become much stronger. The families of a high profile murder victim become for a time at least public property.
This is nothing new. The penny dreadful of the Victorian period relied on murders as their stock in trade, but now the reporting of high profile murders, especially of young women or children has acquired its own predictable ritual.
The bereaved know the rules of this. They play their part.
There are the press conferences, with the fraught and tearful appeals to the public for information on missing persons. Here the police and the relatives genuinely need to attract the maximum press interest. It has a purpose.
There is the finding of the body, with helicopter views of the tented area, and statements from representatives of the bereaved family.
There are appeals for information, police press conferences on the progress of the murder hunt, the announcement of the interviews with suspects, arrests, charges. There are opportunities at every turn for the reactions of the bereaved. Often the press are warned off from overt unwanted attention. The editors code gives clear guidelines to protect the bereaved. This is why the hacking of mobile phones was such a powerful tool for the press. At the time when the public were hooked by a story and wanted to know everything then hacking provided a window into the hearts of the bereaved without their knowledge or consent.
And then there are the funerals, with photographers with long lenses, there to capture the mourners and the coffins, interviews with family, friends and anyone else with a story to tell.
Then we have the trial. Different families behave differently. For some they need to be there, to have the opportunity to look at the face of the accused, to understand this person who has impacted upon their lives so cruelly. Others keep a distance, remain away.
The trial is the show piece for the press. This is the opportunity to report some of the worst aspects of human behaviour. It is nothing new. This is the foundation of the tabloid press.
The verdict, is the time when families are expected to give a reaction, to show their response to the “justice” delivered in their case.
For most families, this can if they choose be the end of the ordeal by the press. They are then free to grieve quietly in their own way. How much of all this process is in the “public interest” is difficult to judge, but we do know that it is something that the public will find of consuming interest. It all sells many newspapers.
For some of the bereaved there are special reasons why this is just a beginning of a new phase.
It is a completely natural instinct to feel that if you have suffered something so terrible, especially if it was in some way avoidable, that it is a duty to use the experience, and to try to ensure that no one else has to suffer in the same way. In high profile cases, the bereaved will already have built a close relationship with the press. Often this is a perfectly genuine warm indentification between someone who has suffered something extraordinary and someone who has tried their best to tell the story in the most truthful way. The bereaved will often develop the feeling that the press are the only people who really understand what they have suffered. Prolonging the story, may be something that both the press and the victim actively want. It is a way of converting grief into action, and it is a way of giving the public something they find interesting. In the occasions where there is a campaign which comes out of a tragedy, the families need and actively seek the public response, and the strong outpouring of sympathy will ensure that politicians may well be forced to bow to this emotion.
We have seem Sarah’s Law, which was so strongly advocated by Rebekah Brooks, (but is criticised by many community organisations). We have seen the vetting laws brought in for all people in regular contact with children, following the murders of the two girls in Soham. (but this law is criticised by many people for stifling community involvement and volunteering). We are seeing on the front page of the Sunday Mail today an appeal for Claires law. There must be many more examples.
We saw the Dowler family raising vocal concerns about their exposure to prurient interest by the court and the press, and now we have the extraordinary spectacle of the Dowler family, fighting the shocking exploitation of their grief, becoming the symbolic face of the hacking crisis and the worst possible form of press intrusion. In the process they are accidentally bringing down an empire, that exercised power by corrupt practice, prurient intrusion and fear.
The major changes to the regulation of the press that will follow the hacking scandal would never have happened without the Dowler murder. This is now a once in a lifetime opportunity to understand and rebalance the relationship between the press and the people. It is an opportunity we must take. Finding the right code to protect those in grief from exploitation must form a part of this exercise.