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Chapter Two

The Media Explosion

2:1 Research Approach


My intention in this chapter is to briefly research the power of the Press and through the use of literature and interviews try and show that without a doubt as we approach the 21st century there is a Media explosion unprecedented in the past. We are all living as part of and accepting this bombardment of information.

This area of my research is divided into three sections. The first section on the Power of the Media is based upon personal interviews with journalists and victims, comments from literature on the subject, a close look at a Victim Support document and personal comments from my own experiences.

The second section features outside documentation of relevance and comments from interviews with victims of serious crime.

The third section looks closely at a particular book “Fiona’s Story” by Irene Ivison.

I have used discourse analysis to take a look at the emotive language used in a short four page section of the book which I have found very relevant to my research.

2:2 The Power of the Media

As we approach the 21st Century, the Media is having a greater bearing on our lives than ever before.

Newspapers, television, radio and electronic Media are all combining to colour our view of not only the world but also our own neighbourhood. The Media can build or destroy reputations, shape entire continents and affect our lifestyles as never before. A number of commentators on Media affairs have highlighted this in their work:

Sarup (1996) states:

Our identities are formed, partly, by what we think of ourselves, and how we relate to everyday life. Of course the role of language and the culture is crucial in all this. Advertising, fashion, popular culture and the Mass Media are also powerful contributions to consider.

I would argue even further that the Mass Media constructs and destroys its own images through the power that it wields.

One of the great Media visionaries Marshall McLuhan writing in 1964 coined the phrase the Medium is the Message.

Sarup (1996) backs this up:

Through the Media we enter a new form of subjectivity in which we become saturated with information, images and events. The Media now provide a simulacra of actual events which themselves become more real than the real which they supposedly represent.

Toffler (1970) states:

Real people magnified and projected by the Mass Media are stored as images in the minds of the millions of people who have never met them, never spoken to them, never seen them in person (page 145).

My own experiences as Press and Public Relations Officer bear these feelings out. In the 10 years of employment I have noticed a huge proliferation in Media outlets. This has gone hand in hand with a huge and voracious quest for instant news prompted by the introduction of new forms of communication such as cable and satellite.

Journalists themselves accept this situation. One senior reporter told me:

Twenty to 30 years ago at a major incident there wouldn’t be that many reporters around. Now we have local, national and international reporters, broadcasters, film crews etc all at the scene.

A reporter with a national news agency backed this up from his/her own experiences:

Sometimes I can be at a scene representing 40 different outlets. There may be another 50 journalists there all representing a variety of organisations. It just illustrates the scope of the Media.

Peak and Fisher (1996) state:

The British appetite for newsprint is voracious, with 60 per cent of people over 15 reading a national daily and 70 per cent reading a Sunday newspaper (page 39).

Peak and Fisher add that in 1996 there were 1,500 paid for and free newspapers in this country and in addition:

Four thousand ‘local newspapers’ are sold in Britain every minute (page 50).

The same source (1995) states the following

Ten years ago there were 45 commercial radio stations; now there are nearly 200 and over the next decade their number will at least double (page 199)

Watching television is Britain’s most popular pastime, with 96 per cent of households having a colour TV set (page 143).

Peak and Fisher (1996) further state that research shows that in 1995 the average British citizen watches 2.84 hours of television per day.

As the number of Media outlets proliferate their thirst for news increases as does the competition between them. Each journalist is looking for that exclusive story or those extra finer details that have eluded their competitors.

In the past exclusivity could take the form of an entire story. Today it is virtually impossible for an individual journalist to keep sole ownership of a story. They fight therefore for that unusual angle, that unusual quote.

This is underlined by Victim Support in their document Media Coverage of Murder and Manslaughter (1998a):

Although the media interest in crime is not new, the proliferation of media with space to fill on crime-related stories is a recent phenomenon.

This document is rich in information regarding the power of the Media. It also suggests that this power stems from what might be called the voyeurism of the public:

Commentators have argued that the public appetite for crime coverage in the Media is based on the fact that we enjoy being shocked or frightened by events which we think really can’t harm us.

The document is in no doubt about the amount of pressure that victims of major crime will be put under and the number of outlets that will be involved.

Any high profile crime is likely to be covered in the UK alone by a number of satellite and terrestrial television channels, hundreds of radio stations and thousands of newspapers. While some news stories are syndicated by press agencies to many different media, most newspapers, radio stations or television channels like to tell the event from their own particular angle. A few crimes get international as well as UK media coverage and journalists may be sent across the world to cover the story.

Victim Support also covers the way that the Media determine the importance of news and how this can affect victims:

The amount of coverage will also be affected by the number of other events which have taken place at the same time and the significance which journalists place upon them. Newspapers are not expanded just because there have been more newsworthy events in the previous 24 hours. This can be hurtful to families who may wonder why someone else’s tragedy is deemed more important by the press than theirs.

I had first hand experience of the above with a murder that I will refer to throughout this work. This particular crime gained huge amounts of publicity in its first week. The second week it gained virtually nothing due to what could be argued to be the biggest international story of the past 20 years - the death of Princess Diana.

On the second week, when we were trying to keep the profile up on our murder, we struggled to gain a few column inches. Virtually nobody was interested, as one senior officer confirmed.

As far as publicity was concerned we might as well have packed our bags and gone home.

By the third and fourth week we were once again able to grab back some publicity. This was certainly one occasion where we had to work extremely hard to achieve what normally would have been given to us as a matter of course. This is a prime example of the Media using its power in deciding news values irrespective of outside influences.

Ironically the behaviour of the Media during this particular and what turned out to be protracted enquiry was exemplary as one senior officer pointed out:

I cannot fault the Media in any way over this murder.

I believe that this was partly due to the open way with which Norfolk Constabulary dealt with the Media throughout the investigation. Senior officers co- operated fully at all times, helping the Media with all the enquiries.

On the anniversary of the murder we launched a second Media campaign and it led to the following comments from the Senior Investigating Officer.

The success of the anniversary campaign can largely be attributed to the Media who clearly kept the enquiry in the public domain throughout the two weeks. I and the investigating team would like to express our appreciation of the assistance received.

Likewise the close relatives of the victim were very much against taking part in Media interviews, but accepted that they needed to do so to help with the police investigation. They took part in an anniversary press conference and were asked how they felt the situation had been dealt with by the Media. Their reply, which appeared in local and some national press was.

Generally very sympathetically and very supportively. In view of how other similar cases have been reported by the Media, we are very happy.

I believe that this short comment is very significant for my research. In speaking personally to the relatives I was left in no doubt that their only reason for co-operating at any level with the Media was to help catch the killer. Without this incentive they would have refused to talk to any journalists. Having made the decision, however, they were pleasantly surprised by the professional ways in which the reporters behaved.

The comments suggest that they were very much aware of how badly others in their situation had been treated by the Media. I would argue that they were treated sympathetically and supportively because firstly they made themselves available, albeit for a limited time and secondly because of the help and support the Media received from the police who, in being open with the Press turned themselves into the main source of information and allowed the family to shield themselves from unwanted attention.

Officers involved with this case were constantly aware of the Media attention.

They (the Media) always seemed to be around for the first month or so, always looking for the different angle, the snippet of news. There was no diminishing in their appetite.

The intense pressure put on us by the Media illustrated the fact that often Media demand outstrips supply. We only had a certain amount of information for them, but they were still hungry for anything we could supply. In this case I believe that media demand out-stripped the supply.

This kind of situation can lead to a quest for the unusual angle or unsavoury tactics from some section of the Media and fear on the part of others as one reporter explained:

You often feel that the standards of our profession are being set by the worst offenders.

Another went even further:

I have to say that at times I am ashamed of the excesses of our industry.

Another factor in this “setting of standards” is the readers, viewers or listeners who have come to expect a staple diet of sensationalism in their news. It is no coincidence that the biggest selling daily British newspaper is the Sun which in 1996 had a circulation of 4,048,815 (source Peak and Fisher: 1997). This is followed by the Daily Mirror. The biggest selling Sunday is the News of the World which in 1996 had a weekly circulation of 4,607,799 It was followed by the Sunday Mirror. All four of these papers are firmly entrenched in what has become described as the “Tabloid” end of the market.

The original definition of the word Tabloid simply indicated the size of the paper. Today it has been adopted as a description of a particularly strong and aggressive style of journalism as well as newspapers specialising in sensational style stories.

Today’s Media are a melting pot of styles, but do they all suffer from the excesses of the worst as the reporter above states. Another reporter said.

Local outlets can withdraw from a situation and say they are not getting involved in anything which might seem to be unprofessional and their readers/listeners or viewers will respect their stance. Others, and particularly the nationals, cannot do this, however, because their readers/listeners or viewers would not understand. They have come to expect an aggressive style of presentation.

This comment suggests that those accessing the news units i.e the public are at times voyeuristic in their news tastes.

This suggests two things to me:

1/ The number of Media outlets is without doubt proliferating and will continue to increase in the future as more and more advanced technology is introduced.

2/ Certain areas of the public demand a tabloid-style journalism which provokes reporters to act in an aggressive way both towards each other and towards the source of their news which often can be victims of crimes. Reporters will respond to what appears to be the public demand for certain tabloid styles of journalism which provokes them to act in an aggressive way. The members of the Press perceive their duty as having to produce a certain style of reportage and if the public continue to support this by continuing to buy the material the journalists will feel that their style and stance is justified.

Together these factors combine to make the Media even more powerful.

My own professional experiences seem to back these points up as I would like to illustrate at this point.

In my role as Press and Public Relations Officer for Norfolk Constabulary I am used to fronting Media interviews of all kinds - both live and recorded.

Ten years ago Norfolk Constabulary rarely organised press conferences and rarely came across national Media outlets at incidents. Today it has become the norm for both to happen.

In the recent murder in a rural part of the county which I have already mentioned, a press conference was attended by over 100 members of the Media. Many of these stayed in or around the area for over a week, living in hotels or guest houses.

At one point the police decided to stage a reconstruction of the period leading up to the murder. This was scheduled to take place from a car park on the Norfolk coast. As lead Press Officer in the case I drove to the venue and got out of my car to be immediately swamped by camera crews, photographers and journalists wanting interviews and information. Although we wanted the Media there (after all that was the reason for the reconstruction) I felt threatened.

A short while after, a colleague arrived in his car and the Media posse left me and swamped him. We both remember the incident well. He told me afterwards:

I felt they were invading my space.

Personally I felt they had used me to grab as much information as they could and then moved on to somebody else they felt could give them information. This prevented myself and my colleague from talking to each other. Throughout the reconstruction our conversation was listened into by journalists.

I was left with a feeling of having been used and discarded. Owing to a torrential downpour we delayed the reconstruction in the best interests of those taking part. This angered the Media who continually pointed out their deadlines and inquired why the delays were happening.

I use this incident because here was a situation where we were welcoming and even “courting” the Media. We wanted them there and we wanted coverage of the reconstruction. It left me pondering the pressures that would have been put on us if the Media interest was not welcome. If people used to dealing with the Media daily could feel threatened how can people thrust into the Media limelight through no choice of their own ever hope to cope?

2:3 Victims and the Media Explosion


The above question formed the basis of previous research where I looked at victims of serious crime (murder and violent assault) to try to establish how they felt about Media intrusion in their lives.

In this research I used the term “victim” in both its direct and indirect meaning. I focused on direct victims who had been assaulted and “indirect victims” who had lost relatives and loved ones to murder and/or manslaughter.

My research came up with very mixed views. Some victims accepted the limelight as a necessary part of their tragedy, some even welcomed it and embraced the chance to use the Media as a cathartic experience. Those who co-operated fully with the Media gave a number of reasons for doing so. These included the following:

1/ As a memorial to a loved one

2/ To avoid the perpetrator of the crime gaining notoriety, publicity and any justification for his/her crime.

3/ Anger

4/ Safeguarding others from falling into a trap

5/ Keeping control of the situation

6/ Previous positive feelings about the Media.

Victim Support in their document “Media coverage of Murder and Manslaughter” have come up with a very similar list. These include.

1/ To help with the investigative process

2/ As a result of the shock they feel

3/ To pay tribute to their loved ones and to ensure that what is printed is a true record of the victim’s life.

4/ Anger

5/ To increase general understanding of the suffering of families of murder and manslaughter victims and offer comfort to others facing similar tragedies.

Victim Support (n.d) also accepts, and this is borne out by my previous research, that different people react in different ways to the Media interest:

The attitude of bereaved people to the Media is very varied. Most families understand that the media have a duty to report the crime to the public. Indeed, media coverage is one way in which the significance of the death can be marked publicly and bereaved people are sometimes distressed when the death has very little coverage. Some bereaved people build constructive relationships with particular journalists or even seek out Media attention. Others, however, find the media attention unwelcome and intrusive.

The document goes on to explain how Media attention can also produce splits within a family.

Sometimes family members may disagree about the relationship with the media and there can be difficulties if one family member chooses to speak publicly while others prefer privacy.

My focus in that part of my research was on people I knew had agreed to co-operate with the Media. I had worked closely alongside many of them, helping them with Press conferences and interviews.

I also interviewed people, however, who fought against any involvement with the Media. To date they have not featured in any part of my research and I would like to use some of their comments now to illustrate that there are two sides to this particular coin.

One couple told me:

We just didn’t want anything to do with them. What right had they to enter our own personal grief.

Here there is the suggestion of the Media taking control of lives. And the resentment this has brought. It does once again, however, illustrate the vast power that the Media wields.

Another interviewee put it even more strongly:

It was a total intrusion into my life. They (The Media) stood outside my home and even pointed cameras through the windows to try to get shots of the family from photographs on top of the television set. I felt totally trapped for some time and found it very pressured.

Another summed up the power of the Media in the following way.

My relatives in ________ (foreign country named) knew about the death before I had the chance to contact relatives in this country. They had seen the details on television.

Victim Support (n.d) sums up the whole situation admirably.

Some families who suffer a murder feel that they become public property, and that very private aspects of their lives are reported in the Media.

Victim Support (n.d) believes that this can turn into harassment.

In the immediate aftermath of the crime or at the time of the trial, some families experience considerable harassment by the media. Journalists ring constantly on the door-bell, stand outside of the house for hours at a time or follow people down the street, asking questions. In the past families have found journalists intruding on very private moments such as funerals, and refusing to leave when asked.

Peter Whent (1998) suggests that the only way to deal with the Press is to co-operate to some degree with them and this is a thread that I find running through my research. In this case the author is suggesting that not co-operating with the Media can in itself be stressful.

The Media will want - and virtually always get - a photograph of the victim. Best practice may often be to encourage the family to hand over a photograph it considers a good one for publication. Denying the press a photograph does not normally prevent them from finding and publishing one. If this course is taken and the photo is a bad likeness it is usually upsetting to the family.

The same author goes on to take this idea a step further.

The families need to be able to prepare themselves for the subsequent Media interest and coverage and the Family Liaison Officer may be able to help them do this. He or she may even recommend consideration of the drafting of an appropriate press release relatives would like to make after the hearing.

This article is written specifically about Family Liaison Officers. I agree with the sentiments wholeheartedly although I believe that Press Officers and not FLOs should undertake this role. The important thing, however, is that somebody from the police does so.

I have given all the above illustrations in an attempt to convey the power of the Media both for those happy to deal with them and for those who are not. There is no doubt that their work is an intrusion into the lives of victims. The only difference, from the victim’s point of view is that sometimes this intrusion is welcome and sometimes it is not.

This Media explosion has been commented on more and more. There is now a great awareness on the part of many organisations working with victims of crime of the power of the Media.

Many organisations such as police forces throughout the country now employ specialists such as myself in Press and Public Relations. These people are experienced in dealing with the Media and many are former journalists who still have the ability to look at things from a journalist’s point of view.

As far as victims are concerned, many organisations are realising that they cannot work with them in isolation. It is no longer a one to one situation of helping them to grieve and reclaim their lives. The carers have to be aware of the power and intrusive nature of the Media. In other words it is no longer possible to ignore the Media in the hope that they will go away - they will not.

2:4Fiona’s Story

It is my intention at this point to have a close look at a passage from the book “Fiona’s Story - A Tragedy of Our Times” by Irene Ivison. The text I am using is rich in dialogue and aptly sums up the power of the Media by somebody who was suddenly thrust into the limelight through no wish of her own. I believe an analysis of this text once again illustrates the power of the Media and the huge effect they can have on the life of a family and an individual.

Irene’s teenage daughter Fiona was found strangled in a Doncaster car park. Fiona had fallen foul of drug users and pimps in her home city of Sheffield. Her ultimate downward spiral is catalogued in honest and heart-wrenching detail in the book.

There are great parallels between Fiona and a murder enquiry that I have been professionally involved in and I know that the mother of the murdered Norfolk girl has had close contact with Irene Ivison.

Irene paints a dramatic picture of the pitfalls of life for teenagers in our major cities. She holds back on very little and believes that society must take much of the blame for drug abuse and prostitution.

The power of the Press comes out in the book despite only occupying about five of the 260 pages. To me it is one of the most powerful sections of the book and one of the strongest descriptions of the power of the Media I have come across.

Indeed the prologue starts with the fact that Irene’s initial information about her daughter’s death comes from the Media:

The body of a young woman, aged between 15 and 22 years, has been found in a multi-storey car park in Doncaster ... As I read the words in the newspaper, I froze in horror, I knew instantly that it was my daughter Fiona whose battered and strangled body had been found, early on that cold December morning. (Prologue Page i)

At that point the Media had no idea of the identity of the body.

The book then details Fiona’s life and problems before returning to the point begun in the prologue. Over 230 pages later Irene states that after the body has been identified her life began to ‘take on an unreal quality.’

And with Irene and her family at their lowest ebb, the Media power begins to show.

When my mother and I arrived back at Fenwick Road, after I had been to identify Fiona in Doncaster, we were met on the doorstep by a horde of newspaper reporters plus photographers and TV crews all anxious to get a picture of our grief. (Page 230).

This is a complete invasion of Irene’s privacy and even territory. At her lowest ebb even the sanctity of her home has been invaded. She uses the word “horde” which not only suggests great numbers but a degree of unruliness and almost a melee with reporters and camera crews jostling for vantage points.

Irene’s only thought is that these people are not there to help in any way. They are there to “get a picture of the grief.” And this process wasn’t just a one off as Irene goes on to explain:

“They were outside the house again the next morning...... When I went to draw back the curtains there they all were. I quickly pulled them to and realised they would have to stay closed for the rest of the day.” (Page 231)

Again Irene’s chances of grieving on her own have been destroyed by the power of the press. She obviously felt threatened. One must assume that the Media spent the night in the garden awaiting any chance of snapping a photograph.

Irene’s account suggests that there was no way that they were going to leave without something. In the depth of grief Irene and her family were being invaded. Not only could they not face the world because of their tragedy, they were now trapped in their own house and realised that the curtains would have to stay closed.

At this point Irene sought advice from the Police:

Graham arrived and suggested that the best thing to do about them was for the police to arrange a press conference in Doncaster that afternoon. The reporters could then be satisfied and, with any luck, would leave us alone, so I agreed. (Page 233).

Again this is passage rich in powerful language and imagery. Graham is the police officer assigned to family liaison duties and obviously his past experience of such situations has given him the chance to assess that the best way of dealing with the situation is to facilitate the Media and to do this for them as a group rather than as individuals - something I have long come to accept and believe.

In the above passages Irene refers to the Media firstly as “hordes” and secondly as “them.” This would be rather dismissive and possibly comments of no particular importance. We know of Irene’s situation and her anger, however, and this makes these comments sound aggressive and angry and aimed directly at the Media. It also has to be remembered that Irene would be writing these passages long after her daughter's death and interesting to note that she was still dismissive of the Media.

The decision to take part in a press conference follows a long held police belief that the only was to effectively manage and deal with the Media is to "Feed the Beast."

The passage then goes on to describe the "unreal feeling" of the Press conference. This was of particular interest to me because as a Police Press Officer and former journalist, press conferences would be accepted as a matter of course and really in modern parlance "no big deal."

A sense of unreality overwhelmed me as I walked into the room set aside for the purpose. There was a table at which we took our places in front of the microphones. Whenever I see other parents doing the same thing, and there are so many of these occasions these days, I weep for them.

This is an interesting passage that suggests the "unreal" nature of Irene's predicament. Into this situation then comes the unreality and the power of the Media. Most people go through their entire lives without being interviewed by the Media. Here Irene, like so many other victims both before and after, is being subjected to the attention of hundreds of journalists.

It is also interesting to see her feelings for subsequent people placed in a similar situation. This is identified by Victim Support:

While some people find that they become obsessed by media coverage of similar events, others choose to avoid anything which reminds them of it.

Although there is no suggestion that Irene has become obsessive about subsequent situations, she is certainly aware of Media coverage of other's plight - and I would suggest this is something she would not have thought about prior to her daughter's death. In other words she has learnt about the power of the media.

She then goes on to describe how she made vain attempts to control the press conference.

I tried to appeal to the better nature of the reporters. I was thinking of my mum, a thoroughly decent, respectable and proud woman. I couldn't bear the thought of her being hurt further, suffering at the hands of the press. I asked them to treat my family with some humanity. I told them that Fiona was a naive and innocent child, who had been lured into prostitution. I finished by appealing to anybody who had any information to come forward. I then spoke directly to Fiona's killer and asked him to give himself up.

So many victims I have talked to have, in the depths of despair, thought about how their actions would affect others. At this point Irene does seem in control of the situation and decides to speak directly to Fiona's killer and in quite powerful language.

"You are sick," I said. "You need help. Give yourself up before you do it again." (Page 234).

These are strong, emotive words. Irene is in control of the situation, but this is soon taken from her.

There were a few questions, mainly about what Fiona was like, where she had gone to school and how we were coping. Then someone asked "How did you feel, Mrs Ivison when you were told what Fiona had been doing?

I felt like saying "How the bloody hell do you think I felt (Page 235)

This perfectly illustrates the pain that Irene was feeling. To me the journalist's questions were expected and not unreasonable, but they obviously hit a raw nerve. It says much for Irene that she did not say exactly what she was thinking. As she says in the next passage she succeeds in restraining herself.

I managed to restrain myself and at that point John Hope rescued me and asked if I had had enough. I told him I had and Graham escorted me back to John's office. I asked for a brandy and when one was produced gulped it down gratefully (Page 235).

Here the Senior Investigating Officer (Superintendent John Hope) realises that Irene has taken enough and stope the press conference. I would have done exactly the same. Indeed in our Force we have an agreement whereby a victim can stop a press conference at any time by a simple signal to either myself or another colleague. I must say at this point that we have never had to use this device.

Irene goes on to praise her treatment from the Police for ‘their caring attitude over and above the course of duty.’

In stark contrast, however, are her words for the Media and for them she has the following to say:

I wish I could have said the same for the press. The next day’s papers had seized upon the story and did all they could to titillate their readers’ appetites. (Page 235). The book now lists some of the lurid headlines from various papers the following day:

Twilight world of Fiona

Secret sex life Fiona hid from her mum

The girl who acted out the fantasy of Pretty Woman

Rookie Hooker murdered.

And here her total feeling of helplessness comes over.

There was nothing we could do about it. We just had to bear it. (Page 235)

Irene has no doubt that the actions of the Press exacerbated her grief. The Media undoubtedly had power over her feelings and was giving its readers/viewers/listeners what they wanted.

This treatment at the hands of the Press added to our distress, but we were in no position to protest, so we just had to deal with it as best as we could at the time. We really began to find out who our true friends were, and they were many, more than enough to make up for this unkindness.

And perhaps the most damning quote of all:

Thankfully, after the press conference, the newshounds left my doorstep in search of other prey.

Later in this piece of work I will establish that the majority of journalists do have a heart and do think about the way they approach their victims. I do not believe that Irene Ivison’s experience of the Press conference was any different to any other victims. The difference was that Irene felt unable to cope with the situation. Other victims do not have this problem and this fact will be reflected in my end comments.

Of course, when the Media come together in great numbers as they do at any major incident the amount of pressure put on an individual or family, whether welcome or not, can be all consuming.

Back to Index Page
Abstract
Chapter One
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Glossary
Bibliography