“Welcome to Death”
It probably happened in 2003 or 2004, though I can’t be any more accurate than that. A man, a professional driver of some kind, was driving along in a van with a friend in the Torfaen area of Gwent, South Wales. He turned to that friend and said, for no reason the friend was ever able to give, “Welcome to death.” Very shortly afterwards the vehicle he was driving was involved in what the police call a road traffic accident. The friend survived; the driver didn’t.
The coincidence of the words spoken and the fatal accident invite narrative; they sound like a story, a murder mystery where pulling one thread leads to the unravelling of a complex plot, a conspiracy that would have escaped notice if not for a persistent policeman or determined journalist. But it was a coincidence. There was nothing more to it. I know, because I was a journalist and I was at the inquest. The driver wasn’t suicidal, he wasn’t entangled in anything, he didn’t drive recklessly. It wasn’t deliberate; it was an accident. If not for those words, it could have been any road accident, any traffic fatality.
I made that clear in the story I wrote about it for the South Wales Argus, where I was a junior reporter at the time. I was accurate. I reported the facts. But there’s no such thing as objective truth or absolute truth. In reporting the facts, I chose which facts to include and which facts to give prominence. And, as a reporter with a good news sense, I knew what the most attention-grabbing fact of that inquest was: the three words the driver spoke, the prophetic precursor to his own death. They were my intro and they were the headline. It wasn’t a front page story, even on a local newspaper covering a single city and a rural expanse with a readership between 25,000 and 30,000. It was the lead story on its page, if I remember correctly, but that page could have been page seven or nine or seventeen. It included all the names and dates and details that I’ve forgotten but otherwise wasn’t much more than I’ve stated: the three words, the death, the belated explanation that the two weren’t related. It was a curiosity, and by the next day almost everyone who read it would have forgotten it.
The driver’s family were the exception. They were at the inquest. They asked me, outside, emotionally, not to include the words spoken before the death. They reasoned that as they had nothing to do with the death, as the coroner had said that specifically, then there was no need to include them and to confuse the memory of the dead man by including them. I don’t remember what I said. I was professional and polite, I’m sure. I perhaps explained that I was there as the eyes and ears of the public, which is the kind of thing we learned to say. There was a hardness I’d learned, a playing of the role where you retreat behind that representation of yourself, and I likely exhibited that. I wouldn’t have denied I’d use the words, though I wouldn’t have outright said it. But there was no doubt in my mind that they’d be the intro and the headline. I knew, cycling back to the office, that I was bringing back news treasure to my news editor, that I’d got the good stuff. And it had happened, the journalist’s rock. He’d said the words. I wasn’t making anything up. I was being accurate.
In the last couple of years, when the Murdoch press finally got busted when a few individuals had the strength to stand up to them, when it became clear that what they’d been doing wasn’t just wrong but had long crossed the line to being illegal, when the police were shamed into an actual investigation, when the Leveson inquiry exposed a solipistic way of thinking across the media, I’ve kept thinking about that story. Because the story behind the headlines, the narrative the UK’s media are desperately pushing, is that the News of the World did bad stuff and it paid the price, the Sun and the Mirror might have done it but it’s being handled by the criminal justice system, and that there’s therefore no need for any regulation. Especially the regulatory system proposed. And occasionally, as a fig leaf over their naked fear, the national press reach for the regional press. They talk about the blameless little regional newspapers struggling to stay afloat and serve their communities, about the public need to know about the new Tesco or the failing school in their neighbourhood that these plucky local papers serve. The national newspapers long ago lost interest in taking their reporters from the locals, though they still take any stories they like without acknowledgement or attribution. But the local papers, who’ve never chased Sienna Miller down a dark street, who never printed any sensational lies about the McCanns or Robert Murat or Christopher Jeffries, provide a great public interest defence for them in a time when the public are in overwhelmingly in favour of press regulation.
It only works, however, if you don’t have any knowledge of the regional press. Yes, they’re generally less in the business of telling lies. It’s easier to hold them to account; a national newspaper can claim a particular area of a city is a no-go area for white people because the overwhelming majority of their readers don’t know the area and never will. A regional can’t because immediately they encounter white readers who go in the no-go area every day who know they’re printing lies. There are no celebrities for the regional press to pursue, no Royal houses to infiltrate, and having the inside track on politics means attending every council meeting rather than being invited to the right parties.
But the sense of news is still the same. A reporter develops a news sense in their gruelling first few months, and it’s treated as a valuable asset not easily acquired. The truth is that it could be synthesised without getting or writing a single story by locking the reporter in a room with a full year’s copies of The Sun. Because reporters for regional newspapers follow the lead of the nationals when it comes to news sense, the definition of what news is, and the nationals follow the tabloids, and the tabloids follow the most extreme and successful tabloid. It’s passed on down the line, bridging the huge gulf between top and bottom effortlessly. What they believed was news at the top we believed was news at the bottom. The locations were different, the power wielded was immeasurably different – regional papers can’t afford legal action, so can’t afford to even allege corruption where it’s obvious – but the principles followed were identical. It’s the difference between a rock star and a guy singing in a rock band that packs pubs in his hometown but can’t get gigs 20 miles away. But he still acts like a rock star, still swaggers and expects deference and treats girls like shit. The circumstances are barely comparable but the attitude, the mindset, is reproduced accurately and absolutely.
We did, therefore, the best we could to be like a national paper when we weren’t. We searched for sensationalism and amplified everything we had. Sure, we reported the new Tesco and the new housing estate and the council elections and all that. Sometimes they even made headlines. But if we could claim that the sky was falling we did. The most emotive possible angle and language was the key to making a story successful. My first front page was a story about a bus service that LEFT PASSENGERS STRANDED. The passengers were on the Bettws council estate, not in the Gobi Desert, but STRANDED was what made it a front page. We never covered anything outside our news area, like it was a impenetrable wall, except when a grisly murder happened across the Welsh border and we suddenly ignored our own rules to cover it in multi-headline detail. We ran headlines like PURE EVIL about a pensioner neighbour from hell, or headlines that shouted EVERY SCHOOL IN THE CITY TO SHUT while relegating the news that they’d mostly be reopening with the same staff, pupils and buildings to the next page. I once worked the late shift and wrote a brief story based on a police report about a trainer with the bones of a foot inside found on the bank of the Severn estuary, washed up from a decomposed body that couldn’t be identified. I came in the next day to the headline IS THIS RICHEY MANIC’S FOOT?
We endeavoured, in short, to deceive. It wasn’t Richey Manic’s foot. It conceivably could have been, having been washed up from the waters where it’s likely he ended his life. Within the day investigations showed that it wasn’t, but that was too late for the headline which was published in the short window when it could be called accurate. He was from the newspaper’s area, which made him news. His family also lived in that area. It’s likely they saw the headline and likely it caused them some measure of distress. And his friends, and his fans. And the family and friends of anyone else who threw themselves in the Severn whose bones they may have been. Waiting a day, a couple of hours, putting a little investigative work in, or simply not ignoring obvious facts could have avoided that. Just reporting the actual facts, without the sensational celebrity spin, would have avoided that. But we, as a newspaper, felt an obligation to make the discovery of human remains into a story that hit as many receptors as possible. Accuracy became our cover story, our excuse for twisting the facts into a shape we liked, that fit our ideas of what newspapers are and what they should be printing.
What does accuracy mean to the press? What did it mean to us? It meant beginning with the facts. And from that beginning trying out a number of projections; what is it possible to make with these facts? How can they be put together? What can we capture of the zeitgeist in them? How can we make this the story we want to write without explicitly contradicting them? And those were the stories that came to us, the reports of events that actually happened. Their flip side were the stories we were sent out to get. A headteacher in Cumbria banned children from playing conkers in the school playground; go and find a headteacher in our area who’s banned conkers. The Spice Girls have reformed; go and find five women whose lives were changed by Girl Power. The media creates the story, then finds people to fit the story, and ignores all the cajoling and distortion necessary to get the facts in line with the myth.
The motives ascribed by the public to the press, to the newspapers and the journalists, aren’t correct. They’re too base, too obvious. They make too much sense. Headlines don’t sell newspapers, not most of the time. Bylines don’t make reporters famous. Hits on the website don’t earn the person who wrote the story any extra cash. And that’s even more the case at the local level, where the readers are more loyal and the journalists are paid less. If the reporters were getting extra cash for their contortions of the facts, if the headlines that bore only a glancing relation to the truth sold more newspapers, if the work of journalism actually paid off on some level, it would be easier to understand. But it didn’t and doesn’t. Journalists on regional papers earn wages so low they can’t afford to pay bills. Their newspapers are constantly losing readers and cutting, cutting, cutting to maintain any profitability. They’re locked in a death spiral, and nowhere in the plunge to oblivion does anyone wonder why. Why they do it. Why it isn’t working.
Which brings me back to the intro to this story, the first few pars, back to “Welcome to Death.” It would be wrong to say it haunts me. I remain protected by what protected me at the time; my role, the armour of journalism. Even though I can, with the objectivity of distance, recognise what I did was wrong, wrong was right for me back then. I’d become a journalist and I was comfortable with the flipped morality of the profession, so while I regret what I did I have difficulties seeing myself as responsible. “You don’t know what it was like. You weren’t there,” as people say about war, confinement, investment banking, when excusing the things they did. But it’s become emblematic to me of what was wrong with journalism, what’s wrong with the media. It didn’t sell one newspaper. It didn’t help my career. It did, undoubtedly, hurt people and that hurt is probably still there. They will remember the details that I don’t. Their pain was broadcast as entertainment, and I was the transformative element. It would have cost me nothing not to do it. I couldn’t possibly have been caught. I did it for the approval of my boss, who did it for the approval of her boss, who did it because of acolyte error, the belief by followers that they have to do what the leaders do only more so. My excuse is that I wasn’t responsible for my own actions. I had become complicit in a machinery that convinces itself that it is necessary, that it does the right things, and that even now fights to remain the mutation that it’s been for so long it can’t remember when if wasn’t.