The Week in Radio: How gun-toting heiress Patty Hearst started a media revolution


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

When, 40 years ago, a CCTV image of the US newspaper heiress Patty Hearst dressed in combat gear and waving a machine gun was splashed across the media, the world threw up its hands in horror.

These were the days before extravagantly staged Vanity Fair photo shoots in which "exotic" styling and edgy backdrops became boringly de rigueur. If such an image were distributed today, it would be part of a magazine spread involving at least one Kardashian, a new line of clothing and hefty helpings of side-boob.

The saga of Patty Hearst, the 19-year-old granddaughter of William Randolph Hearst (on whom the film Citizen Kane was based), lasted for two years and gripped America. It began when Hearst, an undergraduate at the University of California, was kidnapped from her apartment by the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), a revolutionary protest group dedicated to the overthrow of the government, and two months later re-surfaced as a gun-toting insurrectionist, having thrown in her lot with her kidnappers.

But Radio 4's Captive Media: the Story of Patty Hearst wasn't merely about whether Hearst was a victim or terrorist. Presented by the journalist Benjamin Ramm, it was a brilliant exploration of a national soap opera, and how the media was transformed from an industry working at a respectable distance from its subjects to a ruthless, round-the-clock operation happy to camp out on front gardens, hospital car parks or, in this case, multi-million dollar mansions in order to get its story.

The phrase "media feeding frenzy" hadn't been invented yet, because this was really the first of its kind. TV news and radio crews, which had set up their own self-styled "press city" in the Hearst's ample front lawn, quickly became the conduit via which the family and the kidnappers communicated (the first tape recording from Patty was left with a radio station). Little thought was given to the ethics of broadcasting these transactions around the world.

Ramm had assembled many of the original players, including police officials, radio DJs, journalists and even a former member of the SLA, and his documentary fizzed with remarkable detail. There was the reporter John Lester who recalled knocking on the door of Hearst Castle the day after the kidnapping and, before he could introduce himself, being welcomed into the home. Patty's father, Randolph, then led the young journalist into his bathroom so he could talk to him while he took a shower.

There was also the DJ from the radio station who had FBI goons sitting in on his show in case the kidnappers called. While he chirped the usual inanities between records, they found themselves fielding listeners' musical requests.

Elsewhere, a radio DJ remembered the shoot-out between the SLA and police in Compton, Los Angeles, which was aired live across the US, as "a shared national experience. It's not like we went to Netflix and watched it at our convenience."

Captive Media wasn't a documentary for conspiracy theorists unhealthily fixated on a young woman in combat fatigues, spouting wild theories about Patty being a covert CIA operative or having been beamed down from the Planet Zorg.

It was, instead, an eye-opening reflection of what was seen by many as one of the media's greatest performances, a time when it awoke to the full extent of its power and set the tone for the saturation reporting of the future. Would it be overstating matters to say that it was also the beginning of a journey that led us to an era in which reporters hack into the private phone messages of murdered school girls? Perhaps not.