Thursday, 4 February 2010

Rat gnaws quiche tale

REGULAR readers of this blog (that’s both of you) will know that I have previously highlighted the strange news values of the national press and how they feed off each other. See the Taffy Thomas tale in the archive.
Well a similar nonsense has been exposed by the story about a young woman being asked for ID to buy quiche in her local branch of Tesco.
The Leamington Observer story about 24-year-old Christine Cuddihy being forced to show her driving licence to staff languished almost unnoticed on its website for almost a week.
However after an agency repackaged the story after tracking down the woman involved, it quickly became national headline news.
The Daily Mail made it top story on its website on Tuesday with most of the rest of the national media swiftly folllowing suit.
Six days later it had become a top talking-point in BBC radio phone-ins while the Mail's online story had attracted more than 800 reader comments.
The Observer's deputy editor Kevin Unitt, who wrote the original story, told Hold The Front Page: “I knew it was a good story, and hoped it would be picked up by the national press, but none seemed particularly interested at first.
“The Sun ran just three lines on it on page 25 last week and the Daily Mail rejected it altogether because The Sun had already covered it, a bizarre decision given they would lead their own website with the story just a few days later.
“How our story – which had been printed for almost a week and for all that time had been visible to all on our website – finally grew legs nationally was the introduction of a press agency, who tracked down the woman involved, slightly re-packaged the story, and sold it on to their national newspaper contacts.
“On Tuesday, almost a week after we'd ran the piece, the Daily Mail finally screamed it from their website, making it the top story as it generated more than 600 comments from readers across the world in just 12 hours.
Unfortunately a lot of the comments on the HTFP story slag off agencies for picking up and exploiting local journalists’ stories.
“Agencies leech on to the local press, trawl through their websites and do little work and get great rewards,” was typical.
It was ever thus. Besides just try selling stories to the Nationals and you will see what a time-consuming, frustrating and fairly unrewarding exercise it is.
But I was more interested in why this was a story in the first place. One self-confessed cynical hack told HTFP: “google the name of the woman involved and you find she is on Saatchi's graduate scheme. One of the criteria to win a place on Saatchi is to get extensive media coverage. I smell a rat."
Another said: “Is the story true? The comment from Tesco was a bit non-committal. Did they confirm that it actually happened?”
And there lies the rub. If Tesco, also currently famous for its dress policy (no pyjamas and no bare feet), did ask for id before selling a quiche, then it is a story.
If they didn’t, it isn’t.

Monday, 1 February 2010

Verdict on inquests

AFICIANADOS of Agatha Christie or similar period detective novels will be accustomed to the all-powerful figure of the coroner.
The man, and yes it always was a man in those days, with joint qualifications in medicine and law held his investigations with the help of supplicant police officers and anyone else he called upon, within days of the suspicious death.
And if he thought he got to the bottom of nefarious deeds he would order the arrest of the person deemed responsible for the heinous crime.
That is not the case now. Coroners come right at the end of the procedural pecking order. The police have to investigate, the facts have to examined by the Crown Prosecution Service, the case has to be heard by magistrates and, more likely than not, the Crown Court, all before the coroner is allowed to have his say.
Take the case of Gordon Park, the convicted killer of his wife Carol thirty years ago, who then hid the body in a bag in Coniston Water. He was found dead in his prison cell at Garth prison, Leyland, last week.
He always denied the murder and campaigners maintained that his death, widely reported as suicide, was proof that he was so tormented by frustration at not being able to prove his innocence that he took his own life. Others said it was proof of his guilt.
The media was full of speculation as to which version was more likely. Yet the matter could have been resolved almost instantly by a confident coroner immune from litigation from aggrieved parties.
If it was suicide, and that is really for the coroner’s inquest to decide, then Park would more than likely have left a note. That note could clear up the mystery once and for all.
But because it was a prison death, the prison and probation ombudsman will have to complete inquiries and report before the inquest is held. So the warring branches of Park’s families are unlikely to get the peace they deserve for a year or more.
In the days when coroners ruled the roost, he wouldn’t have waited for the ombudsman. Even if he did, then he could quite easily have revealed whether a note was left and what it said at the inquest opening, held within days of the death.
The Government could save itself millions of pounds in public inquiries and statutory investigations if it just handed powers back to the coroners.
Nearly every disaster and high profile death is followed by calls for inquiries. Independent and thorough inquests would achieve the same result for a fraction of the cost.
There would be a price to pay in insisting that coroners reaffirmed their priority of getting to the whole truth and stopped giving verdicts designed to protect families from emotional upset and financial penalties imposed by life insurance policies. But that would be a small price and one well worth paying to restore coroners to the status and influence they once held.