MY FREELANCE business has been at the centre this week of a fascinating episode highlighting the way the media works these days.
I received a tip off that a run-of-the-mill assault case at South Lakeland Magistrates court might be of interest as the victim of the alleged attack was Coronation Street actor Simon Gregson, who plays bad boy Steve McDonald in the long-running TV soap.
So I rang one of the tabloids obsessed with this type of celebrity case and they immediately ordered it as an exclusive, which saved me the bother of ringing round the other eight or nine news desks and guaranteed a pretty healthy payment, or so I thought.
Of course this all depended on the tip being true, and on the case going ahead. Amazingly it was and it did.
The only other journalist in court was from the locally-based Westmorland Gazette.
The defendant was a Windermere trainee dry-stone waller, Reece Barnes, aged 18, who admitted the battery of Gregson (also known as Gregory, which made for confusing evidence, as his name changed every few minutes).
It was something of nothing really. The two of them had been drinking separately in Bowness, ended up in the Wheelhouse, argued over seating arrangements, had a quick bundle, during which Barnes got in the first punch.
Gregson ended up with a badly bruised nose, scratches and dignity hurt enough to shout abusively at Barnes as he was evicted and banned from the club for six months.
The whole case was over in little over an hour and the bench gave Barnes a conditional discharge, a severe warning about his future conduct and ordered hime to pay £100 compensation to Gregson, as if he needed it.
Because of the guilty plea Gregson didn’t have to attend. Outside court Barnes’s photograph was taken. He said he didn’t even know that the man he struck was a Corrie actor.
Within another hour the tabloid had the copy. This was Tuesday. For reasons of their own they decided to hold it for 24 hours for use on Thursday.
However on Wednesday morning I got a call from the tabloid’s representative saying that the story was all over the web, had appeared in a rival tabloid, courtesy of a news agency called Northern News, based in Newcastle and with an office in Carlisle.
At first I was bemused as they certainly weren’t represented in court. The inference was that I had ratted on the exclusive and flogged the story, ruining the exclusive deal. This I denied as it wasn’t true. But how had the story got out?
The answer was simple. The Westmorland Gazette has a “web first” policy which means they put everything up on-line. The agency must just have cut and pasted it then put it out on the wire.
The tabloid I had the agreement with never used the story, which was even more infuriating as my own host web-site MSN had it as its most used story in its Editor’s Pick on its home page all day.
This raises several interesting issues: Why does The Westmorland Gazette give away material on the web that can be plundered by the world’s media and used by all and sundry before the newspaper that actually raises its revenues uses it?
How can freelance agencies plunder and sell as their own court cases they didn’t even attend? What would be their defence if The Westmorland Gazette got it wrong (if Mr Gregory was not Mr Gregson after all, for instance?) and someone decided to sue?
The only winners are the internet search engines and site hosts who ruthlessly exploit the absence of any copyright protection on news. It seems that Mr Barnes is not the only one to be flailing in the dark. The punch drunk media routinely behave recklessly these days, too.