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28 November 2011updated 26 Sep 2015 9:31pm

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.

By Steven Baxter

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.

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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.