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
Show Hide image

For the first time in my life I have a sworn enemy – and I don’t even know her name

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

Last month, I made an enemy. I do not say this lightly, and I certainly don’t say it with pride, as a more aggressive male might. Throughout my life I have avoided confrontation with a scrupulousness that an unkind observer would call out-and-out cowardice. A waiter could bring the wrong order, cold and crawling with maggots, and in response to “How is everything?” I’d still manage a grin and a “lovely, thanks”.

On the Underground, I’m so wary of being a bad citizen that I often give up my seat to people who aren’t pregnant, aren’t significantly older than me, and in some cases are far better equipped to stand than I am. If there’s one thing I am not, it’s any sort of provocateur. And yet now this: a feud.

And I don’t even know my enemy’s name.

She was on a bike when I accidentally entered her life. I was pushing a buggy and I wandered – rashly, in her view – into her path. There’s little doubt that I was to blame: walking on the road while in charge of a minor is not something encouraged by the Highway Code. In my defence, it was a quiet, suburban street; the cyclist was the only vehicle of any kind; and I was half a street’s length away from physically colliding with her. It was the misjudgment of a sleep-deprived parent rather than an act of malice.

The cyclist, though, was enraged. “THAT’S CLEVER, ISN’T IT?” she yelled. “WALKING IN THE ROAD!”

I was stung by what someone on The Apprentice might refer to as her negative feedback, and walked on with a redoubled sense of the parental inadequacy that is my default state even at the best of times.

A sad little incident, but a one-off, you would think. Only a week later, though, I was walking in a different part of town, this time without the toddler and engrossed in my phone. Again, I accept my culpability in crossing the road without paying due attention; again, I have to point out that it was only a “close shave” in the sense that meteorites are sometimes reported to have “narrowly missed crashing into the Earth” by 50,000 miles. It might have merited, at worst, a reproving ting of the bell. Instead came a familiar voice. “IT’S YOU AGAIN!” she yelled, wrathfully.

This time the shock brought a retort out of me, probably the harshest thing I have ever shouted at a stranger: “WHY ARE YOU SO UNPLEASANT?”

None of this is X-rated stuff, but it adds up to what I can only call a vendetta – something I never expected to pick up on the way to Waitrose. So I am writing this, as much as anything, in the spirit of rapprochement. I really believe that our third meeting, whenever it comes, can be a much happier affair. People can change. Who knows: maybe I’ll even be walking on the pavement

Mark Watson is a stand-up comedian and novelist. His most recent book, Crap at the Environment, follows his own efforts to halve his carbon footprint over one year.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood