On The Press: Donald Trelford

It's not always right for the press to put police chiefs under investigation
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The Independent Online

Some years ago I took part in a radio debate about the level of privacy to which public figures were entitled. "None" was the verdict of one of my fellow editors – rather harsh, I thought, since everyone, even an elected MP, should surely be allowed a private life.

The harsher view now seems to have become established, as shown by the massive coverage given to the tragic death of Michael Todd, the chief constable of Greater Manchester Police. There was a time, up to about 30 years ago, when it would have seemed unthinkable for a newspaper to investigate a senior policeman's private life. The first top copper to make big headlines was Sir Robert Mark when he cleaned out corrupt detectives at Scotland Yard and called for reforms of the justice system to secure more convictions.

But the controversies he created were to do with the job, not his living arrangements (which were exemplary, as it happens – I know because he was a relation of mine through marriage. He was 91 last week.) In the period since then the pressures on senior police officers has grown substantially, much of it brought on by exposure to the media.

Resignations attributed to stress have accounted for the Chief Constables of Warwickshire, the Chief Constable of Devon and Cornwall and the Assistant Commissioner in charge of anti-terrorism at Scotland Yard. The Met's Commissioner, Sir Ian Blair, somehow brazened his way through the flak provoked by the shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes (including a Daily Mail front-page headline, "Man Without Honour,") but the pressure he endured is still etched on his features.

In striking contrast is the experience of one of the Commissioner's critics inside the Met, Brian Paddick, now standing as the Liberal Democrat candidate for London Mayor. He suffered much the worst media abuse, not just for being gay, but was accused of criminal drug offences. Having taken a fortune off the Mail on Sunday for libel, he is now taking another for serialisation of his memoirs. Why should he allow his memoirs to appear in the paper that caused him such grief? Was it to restore his image in the place where it had suffered most damage – or, less nobly perhaps, because they were the highest bidder?

In any event, Paddick has emerged from his traumas as a strong and resilient figure, in contrast to Todd, whose apparently robust personality seems to have disintegrated at remarkable speed. (One can't help wondering, though, if a bizarre episode when he had himself painfully shot with a Taser gun may have hinted obliquely at a suicidal tendency.)

Whatever verdict the coroner records about his death, the media will be widely perceived, rightly or wrongly, to have played some part in it. As soon as his alleged love affairs were revealed, the general assumption was that he had killed himself to avoid the shame and embarrassment of a tabloid scandal. But is there any firm evidence of a pending Sunday newspaper exposé, apart from one mysterious and unexplained telephone call to Max Clifford? A senior source at the News of the World told me: "We didn't know about his love life. Maybe we should have done. But we're glad now that we didn't, because we would have been blamed for his death."

Even if Todd's affairs had been outed in the media, would he actually have lost his job (assuming no misuse of police funds was involved)? Sir Hugh Orde, Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, has survived, despite having fathered a child with a detective who wasn't his wife.

It has been a sobering time for the press. Even if it turns out that they did not contribute to this particular death, it is a reminder that even the most apparently solid of public figures has a breaking point and that the cruelty of the media can be lethal.

Donald Trelford is a professor of Journalism Studies at the University of Sheffield and was editor of the 'Observer' between 1975-1993

Why good writing can still be a job for life

Young people I talk to on newspapers, and students looking forward to joining them, don't appear to think of journalism as a job for life, as my generation did, but as a short-term berth until the digital revolution moves on, leaving them stranded.

They should look at a couple of oldies who are being currently feted: Katharine Whitehorn for reaching the age of 80 in full harness (formerly with the Observer, now agony aunt for Saga magazine) and David Miller for 50 years as a football writer, half of them on The Daily Telegraph.

Many journalists get bored after about 20 years in the job, seeing the same old routines coming round and round again, and often end up drunk, sacked or in PR (possibly all three). Others, of whom Whitehorn and Miller are classic examples, realise that their own past experience is a rich resource and learn to draw upon it to illuminate the present.

Youngsters, please note: writing talent, curiosity and a good memory can make for a long career in this business, whatever format the words appear in.

No fury like a red top spurned

It's the awards season – and trouble has already broken out. The News of the World, in high dudgeon at its failure even to be shortlisted in any of the 20-odd categories in the British Press Awards, is boycotting next month's awards dinner and may pull out altogether.

When I was chairman of the BPA, I had to persuade Rebekah Wade to rejoin after she had withdrawn The Sun for the same reason. There is a serious point here, for which I have some sympathy. If The Sun and the News of the World are the most popular papers with readers, why do the glittering prizes tend to go to papers with a fraction of their circulations? The problem is judging between what we used to call broadsheets and the red-tops, between the Financial Times and the Daily Star.

They inhabit different universes. How can a tabloid writer compete with one from The Guardian or The Sunday Times who may publish a feature that runs to several thousand words?

In the London Press Club awards (of which I am currently chairman) we meet this problem, in part, by having separate categories for daily and Sunday newspapers. The News of the World won the Sunday award for three years running, which may account for its fury at being shunned completely by the BPA.

The whole awards system needs a rethink, with the question of how to judge the tabloids fairly at the top of the agenda. It would be a shame if the awards collapsed altogether, as some editors favour, for they are a public way of reminding people that, for all its faults, the British press does publish some cracking journalism we should be proud of.

Stephen Glover is away