Monday, 7 June 2010

Unholy trinity: Public, police and the media

NEWS today that Derrick Bird was followed by three police officers as he pursued his trail of death through the streets of Whitehaven and surrounding villages will no doubt ensure that media interest will continue.
Together with the opening of inquests into the thirteen deaths, there will be renewed impetus to the coverage, which will upset those residents of West Cumbria who want an end to the focus on such a distressing and negative view of their beloved area.
The three-way relationship between the local population, the police and the media is always a strained and complex one.
When the rampage started last Wednesday, there was a very real need for the media to pass on the message from the police that a dangerous gunman was on the loose. Great swathes of the Lake District were warned to take cover, which in such a large area in such a short time, could only be achieved with the help of professional communicators.
After Mr Bird was found dead at Boot, the media interest was roused by the scale and sheer bemusement at his awful deeds.
The speculation by the national dailies was about his parents’ will; his relationship with the more successful twin who was best friends with the family solicitor; his resentment at taking the Lion’s share of the care of his ailing mother; and his strained relationship with certain fellow cabbies.
The speed with which the media picked up on these details and reported them in an even-handed and amazingly accurate manner were all to the credit of the standard of reporting.
It was aided by the people of West Cumbria who are largely a helpful and uncynical bunch. They shared the need to know what on earth had happened to the psyche of one of their own.
This was obvious on the day after the events when I was helping a team from the National Broadcasting Corporation to understand and interpret what had happened for their American audience.
They had sent a team of five to Whitehaven and spent half a day compiling their one-minute report for breakfast TV, updating for lunch and knowing that by the evening news it would be swamped by the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
They had two challenges. The first was the need to sub-title the West Cumbrian accents. The second was the lack, as they saw it, of help from the police.
In the land of the first amendment they have come to expect total and immediate co-operation from the law enforcers. Why wouldn’t the police confirm names? Why wouldn’t they give interviews outlining the innermost details of Bird’s life? Why no CCTV film or photographs of the actual shootings to broadcast live?
It has been a feature of the events of the last five days that the media has seemed to be at least one step ahead of the police.
But this isn’t really fair. The police have different priorities: gathering cast iron evidence; care for the victims; ensuring health and safety of the public to name just a few.
The media just wanted news, although their part in helping the wider community come to terms with what had happened was no less valuable.
By the time the Sunday newspapers came out, it was difficult to know what they could add to the story. But there were several genuine exclusive angles: Notably the Sunday People’s exposure of Bird’s failed relationship with a Thai girlfriend; and the Sunday Telegraph’s revelation that he had spent the night before his rampage watching a violent film and wondering about his own mental condition.
And so it goes on. Whitehaven and the rest of the area probably wish it was all over and they could return to carry on their lives.
But Derrick Bird’s actions were so extreme, morbid fascination with why he flipped so spectacularly is unlikely to end any time soon.


  1. "The media just wanted news, although their part in helping the wider community come to terms with what had happened was no less valuable."
    At the expense of distressing the families of the victims. Did you know that reporters were waiting outside flower shops on the Thursday waiting for relatives of the victims? Did you see the photographers running around during Darren's service in St Nicholas's church? I understand the need to report these kinds of things, but it shouldn't be at the expense of making things unnecessarily harder for the families involved.

  2. Good blog but