Public interest versus private grief

Professionalism and pain: in the face of the Dunblane tragedy, have the media got the balance right? Meg Carter looks at how the news organisations treated the story
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The Independent Online
Ask the media how well - how discreetly - they have covered the events of the past week in the Scottish town of Dunblane and they will say: with compassion, sensitivity and co-operation.

To those outside, it's a different story. Take the sheer number of journalists, presenters and crews who have converged on the town since last Wednesday - almost 400; the re-hashing of the day's events; the photographs of devastated mothers; the sore, raw search for heroes (and scapegoats).

These are just some of the criticisms to emerge amidst mounting calls for the media to please, please, leave Dunblane to grieve in peace.

The precedent is clear: first the tragedy, then the circus. To begin with, many were willing, and indeed needed, to talk. But by the weekend, patience was wearing thin. According to Magnus Linklater, former editor of the Scotsman, the relentless search for a "fresh angle" made reporters "desperate for a quote of any kind" - a situation exacerbated by foreign news organisations arriving to cover the aftermath.

Linklater says: "There has been a huge invasion of privacy." Yet he adds: "The media have not behaved badly."

Those sent to Dunblane agree. They claim that they have treated friends and relatives with discretion and sensitivity. As one insists: "It's not a question of persuading people to talk - we kept our distance. Many chose to." This view is echoed by ITN's editor-in-chief, Richard Tate: "I can't think of a situation where staff have been so affected and moved by a story ... We think we got the balance right."

Those who disagree - such as Lord Wakeham, chairman of the Press Complaints Commission, and Superintendent Louis Munn, spokesman for the Central Region Police - accuse deskbound executives of insensitivity. As they point out, TV coverage on the day, for example, showed parents as they waited to hear if their children were among the dead. The mother of the killer, Thomas Hamilton, appeared, dazed and destroyed, that night on News at Ten. And then there were the almost instant TV interviews with the bereaved. Ian Cook, Sky Television head of news, is adamant no approaches were made to families: "Those who appeared came to us." He adds: "No interviews were conducted with family or friends." True - until the following day.

Familiar horror stories of cheque-book journalism are yet to emerge, but these are still early days. Thankfully, even the most hard-nosed state: "No, not this time."

Yet with one distraught family reporting 60 calls from media organisations within just 24 hours, Scottish police and the Press Complaints Commission warned on Sunday night: enough. TV news organisations now confirm they will not cover the funerals of the 16 children and their teacher. Still, the truest test is how fully - and how fast - the media will now withdraw and allow the healing process to begin.



"We've tried to focus our efforts sensitively," says Reuters TV's head of news, Tony Donovan, explaining that rival broadcasters have, for once, pooled resources and shared footage on compassionate grounds. "It doesn't matter who shoots it - one way or another, these pictures go around the world."

Maybe, but Reuters is a commercial news organisation whose business is to sell text, photographs and TV footage. Professionally, being second doesn't count. In fact, Reuters was one of the first to report from Dunblane. Ian Waldie, an Edinburgh-based, Reuters freelance photographer, raced to the scene and filed regular updates to the London newsroom, including the first confirmation of the number dead, at 1.47 pm.

"We put out our first story just before 11am," says Robert Woodward, Reuters' UK news editor, general news. By mid-afternoon, he had flown London-based reporter Maggie Fox to Scotland, and Waldie was joined by a local Reuters stringer. "We were fully manned by 4pm."

Two TV crews were also dispatched, from Glasgow and Edinburgh, but live broadcast coverage had to await the arrival of satellite equipment (it was also delayed by police restrictions on access to the area). Thomas Hamilton's name was not released until later in the day. Even so, reporters on the ground quickly pieced together the events. "The police channelled information astutely," a staffer who was on site recounts. "Parents and others involved were well protected."

For the journalists involved, it has been a harrowing experience on a number of levels. One Reuters reporter had a noisy and hostile reception. As a colleague explains: "People were very, very upset by a report on the BBC the day before."

Woodward says Reuters has already significantly scaled down its presence. Tears and anguish have no part in the Reuters text service. But they are essential for pictures and TV. So Reuters' TV and picture desks are still working to assemble visual images to satisfy a hungry global audience.


The Daily Mirror had 12 journalists in Dunblane within hours of the tragedy (although through co-operation with its Glasgow-based sister paper, the Daily Record, it drew on more than 30).

News broke shortly after the shooting when its Scottish correspondent, Jonathan Russell, called the London newsroom. "We knew immediately it was a shooting - whatever the number dead, it was a big story," says the news editor, Eugene Duffy.

Reporters based in Newcastle and Manchester were at once sent to Dunblane, others were flown from London. Duffy says: "By 2pm we had a mass of troops able to cover every aspect." Some were assigned to chart the day's rapidly unfolding events, others to gather "colour", talk to eye-witnesses and probe Thomas Hamilton's background.

Police urged reporters to respect the bereaved. This was unnecessary, Duffy says: "It's a simple rule: don't blunder in, unless there is some indication that families or friends want to talk.

"There are ways to get stories without barging up to the front door" - which doesn't mean paying for exclusives. "I can't imagine this will become a situation where money changes hands."

Instead, reporters found many willing to talk. Hamilton's neighbours and acquaintances volunteered information. His father was interviewed by almost every paper on Wednesday afternoon; his mother, as noted, appeared on News at Ten.

When, and by how much, to scale down the Mirror's presence is being reviewed day by day according to new developments and other stories. But for the community, the story will never be "old news". Nor for the reporters involved.

"In just a few days, we've become bound together. All of us have shared the horror," one source says. "I can never really understand what these families are going through, but I've got close. It's something none of us will be able to forget."


Sky News' presence in Dunblane has been dictated by the requirements of a 24-hour rolling news station.

Sky Television's head of news, Ian Cook, says: "We need taped reports, live cross-overs and talk down the satellite link with regular live updates."

Cook received the first reports of the shooting from a local news agency at around 10.30am. He immediately moved James Matthews, Sky's Scottish bureau chief, and his assistant, Rona Dougal, from Edinburgh to Dunblane. Camera crews were also dispatched (again, live TV broadcasts had to await the arrival of a satellite transmitter truck, this item being hired from STV).

"As the scale of the event became apparent, I decided to send extra reporters and camera crews. Additional satellite kit was driven up from London," Cook continues.

By the end of the day, there were five reporters and five camera crews present. Sky's first news flash went on air at 10.40am; live blanket coverage began at 1lam and ran, uninterrupted, until 7.30pm.

Matthews and Dougal know the area and were quickly able to get information - including plans of the school - through local contacts. Even before the official press conferences, most of the key facts were known. However, full names of the dead - along with the class photograph - were not released until 9.30pm.

"It was left up to the reporters to decide how close to get," Cook adds. "It was pretty confused - in a situation like that the overriding concern is not to be too intrusive." Even so, one local resident gave Sky a VHS copy of a tape Hamilton had made of young boys exercising. It was transmitted.

Sky, ITN and the BBC have now made a collective decision to leave townspeople to mourn in private. They plan to pull out most of their staff, leaving behind a presence they hope will be "unobtrusive".


How a broadsheet, a middle-market tabloid, a local Scottish paper and the `Sun' tackled Dunblane on the day the news broke


Coverage: four pages. Assigned: 10+

Front page: "They were in the school gym when the gun man opened fire. Three minutes later 16 children lay dying." Photographs tastefully monochrome.

Content: The "disgraced scoutmaster"; a teacher remembered; the two "sick note" child survivors; a community in shock; support services; Hungerford's Michael Ryan and others ; "Heads call for urgent security review"; "Home office considers amnesty for firearms"; video release of Natural Born Killers postponed

Leader comment: "The most serious danger ... is the risk of an absolute loss of hope."

Coverage: eight pages. Assigned: 17 writers, five photographers.

Front-page headline: "Massacred".

Content: Ross Benson: "There was absolutely nothing we could have done"; the "sordid misfit"; call for tougher school security measures; the gun laws; the distressed mothers; the lucky who escaped; the paramedics. Mary Kenny asks: "How do we find courage?" Pictures include distraught mums, a victim arriving at hospital.

Leader comment: "It is the randomness that makes them so hard to bear ... Their loss, and Dunblane's, is ours, too."

Coverage: 18 pages. Assigned: 12+

Front-page headline: "Pray for them"

Content: "The Devil of Dunblane"; Hamilton's letter to a worried mum; graphic accounts of those who survived the carnage; a message from the politicians; the stunned world responds; the Sun Dunblane Fund is launched, plus a personal message from the editor, Stuart Higgins: "This morning, nothing else matters: not Bruno, Diana, Carling, the lottery, Europe."

Leader comment: "No law will deter the deranged"

Coverage: 13 pages. Assigned: 22 reporters, nine photographers

Front-page headline: "Slaughter of the innocents" and extensive pictures of the school, the parents, a picture of the whole school at a retirement presentation, the bereaved, weeping siblings, weeping parents, police officers

Content: Hamilton's letter to the Queen, interview with the first ambulance driver on the scene; interviews with Hamilton's father and the 11-year- old boy who sheltered beneath his school desk; a psychologist's warning, a review of gun law, and an account by the features editor, Allan Rennie, who has three children at the school. Plus the launch of an appeal Helpline.

Leader comment: "Any system that allows weapons to remain in the hands of a man with Hamilton's history is a failure."