This week I received a readers complaint regarding facts that circulated everywhere in the media in the UK. It were the names of the occupants of the house in which an alleged slave holding is said to have occurred. Later it was suggested, that it may have had also something to do with one of the occupants former political activities.
When we run my update on the latest revelations and names on Thursday (28/11/13) in the German paper Taz, Die Tageszeitung, the German broadsheet newspaper I write for, the main reason was that the story everybody thought they knew, had changed from merely a trafficked people story to one of people possibly being trapped by a political ideology and the person behind it, and there were also issues coming up, concerning the unresolved death of a woman in 1997, who fell out of a bathroom window subscribed to the supposed political collective.
A reader felt compelled to write and complain, why we published all these names and why with so many question-marks? More to the point why did we publish names and circumstances that have not been confirmed yet, and were just speculative? The “readers-letters editor”highlighted the letter and I answered it for the Saturday edition 30/11/13. In my response I speak of different cultural norms, the fact that the British media was totally full with the names and we had a duty to report, although in the most careful language. I thanked the reader though for raising the issue and showing that for her the pain threshold had been over stepped.
In honesty, I felt she was quite right, but the facts were totally public in the UK for days. The same facts would not as easily have come to light in Germany though. And I felt that the way the UK-press had addressed the story was tasteless and in part immoral too. You have to consider here that right to privacy and anonymity are principles most Germans will defend at all costs (still paradoxically Germans have their private family names on all their letter boxes and bells in Germany, unlike the anonymous door number system here in Britain).
Papers like The Sun and the Daily Express allegedly had paid for information given to them by neighbours, who had been quiet for months and years about what they knew about the circumstances of these people next-door. Why did a person who received over 500 letters, as we read, and lived next door, never raise the issue with any external agency, but then willingly gave much of it or all away to the sensationalist press, allegedly for large sums of money? And why did the mainstream press including The Guardian, The Independent, ITV and even the BBC then build upon that data released by the sensationalists amongst our profession?
Why did British media overall not think that it was wrong to publish the alleged name of the 30-year old on Sunday evening, as well as the names of all the other occupants after that? For sure everybody knew the women were vulnerable and facts were under investigation?
As a matter of fact on Tuesday an e-mail reached me by the Metropolitan Police asking journalists to stop speculating and stating that the revelations interfered with investigations. Still on the very same day and on the day after that more names and facts came out and unlike the photo of the 30-year old published on Sunday with her face hidden – that publication itself a scandal – the same photo was later shown with her full profile visible, giving away any anonymity she may have preferred to keep. That is immoral.
As a correspondent I played a role in carrying these facts forward to Germany, but only after they were common knowledge in Britain by all in the UK who read papers, or listen or watch news, and because these facts changed the facts on the grounds.
But it was hardly ethical by the British press to reveal the possible details of women, who very much were victims and deserve society’s protection. If the women chose to come out and talk to the media it is a different matter, but some of the facts were revealed using private and confidential letters of clearly failed neighbours (in my judgement), who did not alert supporting agencies when they could and should have done, and chose to cash in on the misfortune of their neighbours for personal gain through the hands of journalists or people who call themselves that.
I can not change the way news is made in the UK, and as a correspondent I act often reactive anyway, and have the duty to let people in Germany know what is happening here, but I wonder if in deed I could have done it differently, perhaps not naming any of the people in spite of them being given here? I just wonder though how it would have looked? Most other German media also gave all the facts away.
There is a reason why organisations like the BBC do usually not pay for interviews, and I think that all media should follow suit, unless exceptional circumstances ask for a different approach. Further there must be a more moral and communal accountability in such cases.
So I must agree with my German reader. Still I did put a lot of question marks and words like alleged, presumed, not officially confirmed in my report of the 28th of November, making it clear, the information was others guesswork. But that was what it was at in London at the time, and the papers were full of it.
Part of me wonders if in deed one must approach the British way of reporting in a different and novel way. I will think about this in the months to follow. That’s my job. But what is the job of my UK colleagues?
What is our purpose as journalists? Is it not also to help the world to become better by thinking about the mistakes of others for example?
In my opinion the second biggest headline over the last days has been missed by most of my UK colleagues- not by me:
In my report in the Taz on Monday the 25th I put my fingers clearly on the neighbours, who did not talk and sold their story. Here was scandalous footage, one that could have altered behaviour by other neighbours to continue to be bystanders and silent witnesses to terrible abuse. The papers should have been more full with that, than the names and photos of the victims.
Now that the intoxication of the Lambeth story wears of, it would be very much time to think about the cure for the hang-over, and perhaps get off the bottle of sensationalism in the future all together!?
- Leveson: Britain’s press needs to learn humility – I should know | David Yelland (theguardian.com)
- Post- Leveson: Is British press better? (edition.cnn.com)
- Press industry’s proposed watchdog ‘not up to snuff’, says ex-Sun editor (theguardian.com)