The Express wins the race to the bottomMarch 18, 2009
The Dunblane Massacre was an atrocity almost beyond imagining. A man named Thomas Hamilton walked into a school in a small Scottish town in March 1996, and shot dead sixteen children and one teacher. It was not what we’ve since come to think of as a ‘normal’ school shooting as it was a primary school, and all the children were between five and six years of age. We were filming an episode of ‘Father Ted’ that week, and on the night of the recording, no-one, the audience or the cast, felt terribly inclined to have a good time; difficult to throw your head back and laugh when all you could think about were those kids, their parents, the town…but most of all, those kids, those kids, those poor kids…
All those useless thoughts, sent to torture the unwary after a tragedy such as this one, we knew them well. If only someone had sensed how dangerous he was…if only handguns had been banned a year before it happened, rather than a year after… In the days and weeks that followed, we were all endlessly replaying the same fantasy of somehow managing to stop Hamilton before he got to the school gates. But there was nothing we could do, of course, except respect the memory of the kids who died, and thank dumb, blind chance for the survival of the others.
That basic human reaction, that powerful urge to protect those children, has always been something I presumed was shared by most other human beings. But a lady named Paula Murray has disabused me of that particular whimsy.
Paula is the journalist who thought it was well past time that the survivors of the Dunblane massacre were given a tabloid punching. To that end, she befriended a group of them on Facebook and collated their photographs and comments (UPDATE: she didn’t actually befriend them, she just took advantage of their lack of awareness of privacy settings. Still reprehensible, of course). Clearly aware of the legal guidelines in place to protect those under eighteen against invasion of privacy (and the specific instructions that the Press Complaints Commission issued regarding the Dunblane children), she waited until they hit eighteen. Then she wrote this.
The story continued inside under the headline “SICK MESSAGES SHAME MEMORY OF CLASSMATES”, referring to the normal, teenagery stuff they were saying to each other on their profiles. (I should say thank you to those on Twitter who helped me black out the names and photographs of the kids). As others have pointed out, the gist of the story is that these kids are showing disrespect to their dead classmates by… being alive.
Here’s an example of Paula’s scoop: “For instance, (name deleted), who was hit by a single bullet and watched in horror as his classmates died, makes rude gestures in pictures he posted on his Bebo site, and boasts of drunken nights out.”
Rude gestures. Boasting. Drunkenness.
Now, I’m coming late to this one… complaints to the PCC have been made by two of the victims of the article, the piece has been pulled from the Express website… so we should probably forget about it, right?
I don’t know. I think the line that has been crossed here is different to all the other lines the press routinely cross.
The press likes us to believe they’re a properly regulated body, but they’re anything but. First of all, The PCC seems to be a completely toothless organisation by design. It is made up of representatives of the major publishers, who are obviously not inclined to be too hard on themselves. Also, unlike Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority, who have easy-to-use complaint forms on their websites, the PCC don’t even accept third party complaints – in other words, unless you are the person named in a printed article, they’re not interested in hearing your opinion. So when faced with an affront to our humanity (which is what I believe this Express story is), there is no official channel for us to register our anger. That’s right – if you are offended by something on TV, Radio or in an advert, you can complain; if you’re offended by something in the print press…well, you’re just going to have to walk it off, because literally no-one wants to know.
So, I think it is up to us to take a stand for those kids who had their privacy so ruthlessly invaded. Paula Murray set out to do a hit job on those kids– character assassination (of the most pathetic, intelligence-insulting kind) was the aim, and the weapons were a Facebook account and an editor with a moral centre as atrophied as her own. If there is a line beyond that one that the press can cross, I think we should make it harder for them to do so.
So! What can we do? Here are a few suggestions:
1) Stand up and be counted. Matt Nida has started an online petition which you can find here. When he’s got a decent number of names, he’ll be submitting it to the editor responsible for the story, the publishers and managing directors of Express Group Newspapers, the PCC, Downing Street and all media outlets who may be able to help shame the Express Group into action by making public the strength of national feeling about this.
2) Email your personal complaint to the Editorial Director of the Express Group about the conduct of Paula Murray and Scottish Sunday Express, Derek Lambie, who was responsible for placing the piece on the front cover. The Editorial Director is Paul Ashford, and this is his secretary’s email address, so please try to avoid being abusive to her – it’s not her fault! – and preface your email by asking Jo to pass your letter on to Mr Ashford. Jo.firstname.lastname@example.org
3) Write to Express Group publisher Richard Desmond. He keeps his email address well hidden, but you can write to him by snail mail at: Richard Desmond, Northern and Shell building, 10 Lower Thames Street, London EC3R 6EN
4) Tim Ireland of Bloggerheads suggested targeting the advertisers, which seems like a marvellous idea. I’ve written a template letter here. Tim’s blog has a full list of advertisers, but here are a few selected contact details to get you started – and it may be more effective if we all write to the same companies.
(UPDATE: Enough people have expressed discomfort with this idea to make me rethink it. The concensus seems to be that too many innocent people stand to suffer with this avenue of complaint, and it would be better to concentrate on direct complaints and the petition.)
7) If you have a Facebook account and would like to vent with likeminded folks, here’s a group set up to protest the story.
Again, thanks to everyone on Twitter who helped me write this post by providing links and hosting the original story after it was taken down. Sorry if the post goes on a bit…as they say, I didn’t have time to write a shorter piece.
Thanks for listening.