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

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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