Media vultures are homing in on private lives – but at what cost?

Coverage of the most recent developments in the Joanna Yeates case prompts the question: will the me

A new feeding frenzy in the Joanna Yeates murder case has brought more unsettling speculation – and more attention to an otherwise ordinary street in Bristol.

I tend to watch Sky News with the volume muted – it's often the best way to enjoy it. Devoid of commentary, yesterday's pictures from the HD Skycopter, lazily circling the block of flats where Jo Yeates lived, took on an eerie, almost stalker-like quality. The helicopter whirled around and around, almost in the expectation that something was going to happen – but nothing did.

It was just the same few shots, again and again. Some houses, one covered in scaffolding, but not a human form in sight. All so banal, so lacking in any activity, it could have been any street, anywhere. A recently erected tarpaulin – to allow investigators to get on with their job in peace, or possibly to avoid the kind of scrutiny that saw ITN banned from a press conference a couple of weeks back – was the only clue that anything might be in any way unusual.

The Skyvulture didn't wheel around to show us the part of the picture which would have been extraordinary rather than mundane: the persistent cluster of reporters we knew to be standing in Canynge Road, describing what they thought (but couldn't really see) was going on behind them. Yet I suppose it is the ordinariness of the setting for this murder mystery that has captured the interest of the public from day one – along with the photogenic, middle-class victim, the chatter on Twitter and Facebook, and, sadly, the way in which one suspect's life was turned upside down.

Chris Jefferies – who was labelled as "weird", "lewd", "strange", "creepy", "angry", "odd", "disturbing", "eccentric", "a loner" and "unusual" over the course of just one article – faced trial in the papers, on charges of being somewhat unorthodox and having blue hair, of having read poetry, of having been a teacher. But he was released without charge.

The mystery trundled on, and camera crews still popped up in Canynge Road to detail each fresch development, each little twist and turn, each cough and spit of the investigation. And now, after a new arrest, they are back, filming the flat where no one lives, a place where someone used to live, and a possible crime scene. Pictures of nothing, images of no one, footage of a static building. There's something verging on the surreal about it, but we all know why they are there. If the Skycopter had X-ray eyes, we'd be looking through the walls.

Any faint hopes that the papers may have learned their lesson about "innocent-until-proven-guilty" (or even the slightly more obvious "innocent-especially-when-not-yet-charged-with-anything") have disappeared this morning. Police advice to be mindful of the Contempt of Court Act doesn't seem to have worked. It's more of the same, just with a different face for us to inspect, a different person – a foreigner! – held up for us to make knee-jerk judgements about and decide whether he's guilty or not, in the absence of evidence.

The tabloids will not heed the police advice to be cautious; they will publish what they like, when they like. Are they bravely acting in the public interest or shamelessly acting as a pack, regardless of whether it might prejudice a trial or wreck an innocent person's life in the meantime? Whatever the ethics, interest in the case is still strong and many papers have been sold on the back of it. The cameras are still there, in Canynge Road, waiting outside that familiar building, waiting for it to reveal its secrets.

The time when a family can get justice, or move on and grieve in private (and when those who may have been wrongly accused might get justice, too) still seems a long way away. But when this does die down and the Skycopter moves on to a new place, Canynge Road will return to being just another street somewhere. And we will all forget it: the pictures that seemed so important, the place that has dominated our news, the broken lives left behind.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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The economics of outrage: Why you haven't seen the end of Katie Hopkins

Her distasteful tweet may have cost her a job at LBC, but this isn't the last we've seen of Britain's biggest troll. 

Another atrocity, other surge of grief and fear, and there like clockwork was the UK’s biggest troll. Hours after the explosion at the Manchester Arena that killed 22 mostly young and female concert goers, Katie Hopkins weighed in with a very on-brand tweet calling for a “final solution” to the complex issue of terrorism.

She quickly deleted it, replacing the offending phrase with the words “true solution”, but did not tone down the essentially fascist message. Few thought it had been an innocent mistake on the part of someone unaware of the historical connotations of those two words.  And no matter how many urged their fellow web users not to give Hopkins the attention she craved, it still sparked angry tweets, condemnatory news articles and even reports to the police.

Hopkins has lost her presenting job at LBC radio, but she is yet to lose her column at Mail Online, and it’s quite likely she won’t.

Mail Online and its print counterpart The Daily Mail have regularly shown they are prepared to go down the deliberately divisive path Hopkins was signposting. But even if the site's managing editor Martin Clarke was secretly a liberal sandal-wearer, there are also very good economic reasons for Mail Online to stick with her. The extreme and outrageous is great at gaining attention, and attention is what makes money for Mail Online.

It is ironic that Hopkins’s career was initially helped by TV’s attempts to provide balance. Producers could rely on her to provide a counterweight to even the most committed and rational bleeding-heart liberal.

As Patrick Smith, a former media specialist who is currently a senior reporter at BuzzFeed News points out: “It’s very difficult for producers who are legally bound to be balanced, they will sometimes literally have lawyers in the room.”

“That in a way is why some people who are skirting very close or beyond the bounds of taste and decency get on air.”

But while TV may have made Hopkins, it is online where her extreme views perform best.  As digital publishers have learned, the best way to get the shares, clicks and page views that make them money is to provoke an emotional response. And there are few things as good at provoking an emotional response as extreme and outrageous political views.

And in many ways it doesn’t matter whether that response is negative or positive. Those who complain about what Hopkins says are also the ones who draw attention to it – many will read what she writes in order to know exactly why they should hate her.

Of course using outrageous views as a sales tactic is not confined to the web – The Daily Mail prints columns by Sarah Vine for a reason - but the risks of pushing the boundaries of taste and decency are greater in a linear, analogue world. Cancelling a newspaper subscription or changing radio station is a simpler and often longer-lasting act than pledging to never click on a tempting link on Twitter or Facebook. LBC may have had far more to lose from sticking with Hopkins than Mail Online does, and much less to gain. Someone prepared to say what Hopkins says will not be out of work for long. 

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