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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The decline of the north's sporting powerhouse

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Now, things are different.

On a drive between Sheffield and Barnsley, I spotted a striking painting of the Kes poster. Billy Casper’s two-fingered salute covered the wall of a once-popular pub that is now boarded up.

It is almost 50 years since the late Barry Hines wrote A Kestrel for a Knave, the novel that inspired Ken Loach’s 1969 film, and it seems that the defiant, us-against-the-world, stick-it-to-the-man Yorkshireness he commemorated still resonates here. Almost two-thirds of the people of south Yorkshire voted to leave the EU, flicking two fingers up at what they saw as a London-based establishment, detached from life beyond the capital.

But whatever happened to Billy the unlikely lad, and the myriad other northern characters who were once the stars of stage and screen? Like the pitheads that dominated Casper’s tightly knit neighbourhood, they have disappeared from the landscape. The rot set in during the 1980s, when industries were destroyed and communities collapsed, a point eloquently made in Melvyn Bragg’s excellent radio series The Matter of the North.

Yorkshire historically acted as a counterweight to the dominance of southern elites, in sport as in politics and culture. Yet today, we rarely get to hear the voices of Barnsley, Sheffield, Doncaster and Rotherham. And the Yorkshire sporting powerhouse is no more – at least, not as we once knew it.

This should be a matter of national concern. The White Rose county is, after all, the home of the world’s oldest registered football club – Sheffield FC, formed in 1857 – and the first English team to win three successive League titles, Huddersfield Town, in the mid-1920s. Hull City are now Yorkshire’s lone representative in the Premier League.

Howard Wilkinson, the manager of Leeds United when they were crowned champions in 1992, the season before the Premier League was founded, lamented the passing of a less money-obsessed era. “My dad worked at Orgreave,” he said, “the scene of Mrs Thatcher’s greatest hour, bless her. You paid for putting an axe through what is a very strong culture of community and joint responsibility.”

The best-known scene in Loach’s film shows a football match in which Mr Sugden, the PE teacher, played by Brian Glover, comically assumes the role of Bobby Charlton. It was played out on the muddy school fields of Barnsley’s run-down Athersley estate. On a visit to his alma mater a few years ago, David Bradley, who played the scrawny 15-year-old Billy, showed me the goalposts that he had swung from as a reluctant goalkeeper. “You can still see the dint in the crossbar,” he said. When I spoke to him recently, Bradley enthused about his lifelong support for Barnsley FC. “But I’ve not been to the ground over the last season and a half,” he said. “I can’t afford it.”

Bradley is not alone. Many long-standing fans have been priced out. Barnsley is only a Championship side, but for their home encounter with Newcastle last October, their fans had to pay £30 for a ticket.

The English game is rooted in the northern, working-class communities that have borne the brunt of austerity over the past six years. The top leagues – like the EU – are perceived to be out of touch and skewed in favour of the moneyed elites.

Bradley, an ardent Remainer, despaired after the Brexit vote. “They did not know what they were doing. But I can understand why. There’s still a lot of neglect, a lot of deprivation in parts of Barnsley. They feel left behind because they have been left behind.”

It is true that there has been a feel-good factor in Yorkshire following the Rio Olympics; if the county were a country, it would have finished 17th in the international medals table. Yet while millions have been invested in “podium-level athletes”, in the team games that are most relevant to the lives of most Yorkshire folk – football, cricket and rugby league – there is a clear division between sport’s elites and its grass roots. While lucrative TV deals have enriched ruling bodies and top clubs, there has been a large decrease in the number of adults playing any sport in the four years since London staged the Games.

According to figures from Sport England, there are now 67,000 fewer people in Yorkshire involved in sport than there were in 2012. In Doncaster, to take a typical post-industrial White Rose town, there has been a 13 per cent drop in participation – compared with a 0.4 per cent decline nationally.

Attendances at rugby league, the region’s “national sport”, are falling. But cricket, in theory, is thriving, with Yorkshire winning the County Championship in 2014 and 2015. Yet Joe Root, the batsman and poster boy for this renaissance, plays far more games for his country than for his county and was rested from Yorkshire’s 2016 title decider against Middlesex.

“Root’s almost not a Yorkshire player nowadays,” said Stuart Rayner, whose book The War of the White Roses chronicles the club’s fortunes between 1968 and 1986. As a fan back then, I frequently watched Geoffrey Boycott and other local stars at Headingley. My favourite was the England bowler Chris Old, a gritty, defiant, unsung anti-hero in the Billy Casper mould.

When Old made his debut, 13 of the 17-strong Yorkshire squad were registered as working-class professionals. Half a century later, three of the five Yorkshiremen selec­ted for the last Ashes series – Root, Jonny Bairstow and Gary Ballance – were privately educated. “The game of cricket now is played in public schools,” Old told me. “Top players are getting huge amounts of money, but the grass-roots game doesn’t seem to have benefited in any way.”

“In ten years’ time you won’t get a Joe Root,” Rayner said. “If you haven’t seen these top Yorkshire cricketers playing in your backyard and you haven’t got Sky, it will be difficult to get the whole cricket bug. So where is the next generation of Roots going to come from?” Or the next generation of Jessica Ennis-Hills? Three years ago, the Sheffield stadium where she trained and first discovered athletics was closed after cuts to local services.

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era