When the media circus comes to town

<b>Ian Burrell:</b> On-the-ground reporting can be crucial, but press conduct has been criticised and now the PCC has stepped in.
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You never know when the media circus might come to town.

The people of Dunblane never expected to become the centre of national news before 1996 and neither did residents of Whitehaven ahead of the terrible events of last year. The population of Rothbury, in Northumberland, never imagined they would have journalists tramping through their back gardens at night in search of Raoul Moat, the killer who was hiding out beside River Coquet.

The families and friends of those killed – or those who have lost their lives in other tragedies, such as the wave of youth suicides that swept through Bridgend in 2007 and 2008 – are often under the misapprehension that the media have no right to pry into their grief.

But reporters have a job to do and in the modern media age there are more ways than ever to discover personal details of the victims of tragedy. In an unprecedented move, the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) has issued guidelines advising families of those whose deaths attract media attention to take rapid action to limit access to the way their lives have been documented on social-networking sites.

"Even if you do not wish to speak to the media, the press will still be able to obtain a lot of information about the person who has died from legitimate sources in the public domain; for example: public records such as the electoral roll, council-tax registers and Companies House," the guidelines say. "Journalists may also make use of social-networking sites, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Myspace, Twitter and Bebo, so you may wish to consider what impact the relevant privacy settings will have on who can access this information and consider changing them if necessary."

The PCC also sets out details of restricting access to a dead person's Facebook page so that only "confirmed friends" can use it. "Memorialising an account... sets the account privacy so that the profile can not be located in a public search [but] the wall of the profile remains, so friends and family can leave posts in remembrance," the PCC says.

Such warnings have become necessary because reporters and photographers have repeatedly caused offence in their efforts to bring news of major tragedies to their audiences. "The death of a loved one is obviously a terrible situation for anyone to face and media attention can add to distress," Baroness Buscombe, chairwoman of the PCC, says. "It is important that the PCC is proactive and effective in providing this guidance and help to the general public."

Samantha Parker had just started a new job as a journalist for ITV in the Border region when Derrick Bird, a local taxi driver, shot dead 12 people in June last year, drawing an army of media to Cumbria. "There were a lot of journalists who don't have to come back to the area who made insensitive offers of a lot of money to some of the families at a time when they were trying to come to terms with the loss of their loved ones," she said. "They found that offer of cash and name your price very insensitive. Families told stories of finding photographers in their back gardens with the long white lenses. I have heard tales of journalists dressing up as police officers to get into the hospital to try and interview [victims]."

Parker – who worked on a national ITV documentary called Cumbria, One Year On, which was broadcast this month – is not certain such rumours are true. But they echo tales from a generation ago, when press photographers covering Michael Ryan's rampage through the town of Hungerford, where he killed 16 people, are said to have posed as police officers and bereavement counsellors to gain access to the homes of victims. Cumbria was no more ready for the media circus than Hungerford was in 1987.

"I don't think any of the families were prepared for the level of intrusion they felt," Parker says. "They were aware people were going to knock on their doors but not go into their neighbours' gardens or offer people in the local pub money for stories. A number of them have made complaints to the PCC."

More encouragingly, she says there was also "a lot of good journalism going on at the same time" and that some reporters benefited from building ties with families by attending memorial events and talking to them with the cameras and voice recorders switched off. "Relationships just blossom when people see you being respectful."

Despite the suggestion that local media outlets are able to show greater sensitivity in dealing with tragedies than some of their bigger counterparts, the PCC warns that the media ecology is such that exposure in the former can bring wider exposure.

"Be aware that stories originally published in a local paper could well be featured in a national newspaper or magazine, if the circumstances were such that they were interested in it," the PCC says. "So, before speaking to a journalist at length, it is always wise to consider the possible implications of putting information into the public domain in this way."

To minimise the risk of losing treasured photographs, families of victims are advised not to hand over original prints because they "can be copied there and then by a photographer".

Alas, many of the families of Bridgend suicide victims still live in fear of the telephone ringing with an interview request from a "real life" magazine. Madeleine Moon, the Bridgend MP, says the national press has "moved on tremendously" in its coverage of suicide cases since she accused it of being "part of the problem" in prompting young people to take their lives. She acknowledges that some relatives of victims find it helpful to speak out about a tragedy. This much is acknowledged in the new PCC guidelines, which suggest that families nominate a press spokesman to deal with the media.

"Some people may find it easier to appoint a relative or friend (or a representative such as a religious leader, solicitor, police family liaison officer etc) as the person to co-ordinate media interest," it says. "That individual could pass on comments from those who wish to speak, field calls from journalists and generally take pressure away from those most affected by the death."

According to Moon, much of the public still has little understanding of how journalists should act in reporting deaths and how the PCC can influence that behaviour.

"The big issue is always getting the information out," Moon says. "There's a blindness because nobody thinks it's going to happen to them."