Gary Speed and press intrusion in the post-phone hacking era

It's no different from any other "death knock", wizened hacks tell me. Well, I agree.

There they are, illustrating the stories about Gary Speed's death. Photos of his house, after he died -- possibly with grieving relatives still inside, looking out at the lenses trained on their windows. Some are taken through trees, others from the front gate. It's not a particularly lovely thing to see.

This is no different from any other "death knock", wizened hacks will tell me with a shake of their jowls.

Well, I agree. And that's because during my brief and unsuccessful journalism career, I never agreed with the idea of sending some fresh-faced young hack down to try and negotiate a frontpage splash with a grief-stricken family, all the time telling ourselves that it might be doing some good. It might help the family, we lied to ourselves. It might be therapeutic, or cathartic, we pretended.

Yes, perhaps there are some families whose moment of awfulness has been eased somehow by chatting to a reporter over a cup of tea and handing over treasured photos of the people they've just lost.

But it's never been about that: that's always been the fig leaf. It's simply a means to flog some newspapers by exploiting vulnerable people's misery. Deep down, we know that, and we always did know it.

"Please leave the family alone," says a commenter under the Daily Mail's story about the former Leeds star and Wales football manager, who died at the weekend. "That photo of the cameras camped outside his house chills me. His poor family will be mobbed everywhere they go now. For once do the decent thing and leave well alone."

It's probably a vain hope, but perhaps this kind of sentiment is going to surface more and more in a post-phone hacking world, where we're reassessing our relationship with the printed press and other media, and asking whether such a level of intrusion is really justified. As I wrote the other day, we as punters are in part responsible, by buying the filth in the first place or contributing to a culture in which it's seen as somehow justified.

But there's a sense in which the intrusions into the private lives of the families of Milly Dowler, terrorist atrocity victims and the parents of Madeleine McCann, among many others, marked a time when we couldn't ignore how our news arrived anymore. We'd happily eaten the sausages without wondering what had happened in the factory before they'd arrived on our plate -- but now we were being shown the rather unsavoury truth.

You can try to make a case for some celebrities giving away a sliver of privacy when they choose to live in the public eye, by taking up a career as a marketable film star and so on. But there are other people, ordinary people like you and me, whose lives have been wrecked through no choice of their own, because they happened to be victims of an unimaginably awful event or were related to someone famous who did. What choice have they had? Why must they be pursued in the same way?

We can hope that Gary Speed's family are left alone to deal with this terrible tragedy. But I fear they won't be.

Patrolling the murkier waters of the mainstream media
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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain