SubScribe: How bad can it get? Google+

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

How bad can it get?

A man down on his luck tries to improve his lot by selling brushes and dusters door to door. He is bused from the Midlands to Essex, where he makes few sales. One evening he's about to pack up and go home, but decides to make one last call. A woman of 50 answers the door, she wants some of his merchandise. They get chatting, but he has a bus to catch and has to rush away; he promises to return.The chance meeting leads to a love affair that lasts 20 years until the woman dies, leaving her devoted partner bereft.
It's a magical story, but not one you'll read in any newspaper. Our salesman has, however, featured in print many times. His daughter is a successful actress. She had a troubled adolescence and her relationship with her 'dad' is a constant theme in the many features that have been written about her in the past decade.

Another father splits with his wife and leaves the family home in Wales to return to his native Australia. Their son becomes a successful sportsman, the father becomes a drunk. There is an attempt at reconciliation. It fails and the father's descent continues until he is eventually found dead in the street with a head wound. The police say he appears to have been assaulted before he died, but they are unable to discover any more. The press in Britain and Australia publish stories about the 'mysterious death' of the sportsman's father.

A respected physicist smashes the glass stratosphere to become America's youngest astronaut. She takes part in two shuttle missions and is preparing for a third when the Challenger disaster brings the programme to a halt. She serves on the presidential inquiry into the catastrophe and remains with  Nasa for a further year before turning to a life in academia and public service. She founds a business dedicated to inspiring young people to develop their scientific and engineering skills. She joins forces with a woman she has known since childhood and they write several books together. When she dies of cancer, her office amends her biography to record her death and the fact that she is survived by her collaborator, who is described as her  'partner of 27 years'. Suddenly the most important feature of this woman's life  is that she was gay.

What is this obsession we have in prying into people's lives, tainting their achievements with snide 'news' stories and features about  relationships that are generally long past, common knowledge, or just plain irrelevant?

Here we are on the day that Lord Leveson packs up his briefcase and a clutch of journalists are  told that they will face criminal charges after the phone-hacking scandal - and still we haven't learnt. Today the Telegraph produces the worst intro I have seen in 40 years of journalism:

In an obituary on her website, Sally Ride publicly outed herself as homosexual for the first time, naming her partner of 27-years as Tam O'Shaughnessy.
Ride's sister and a spokesman for Sally Ride Science, the organisation led by Ride and O'Shaughnessy, later reportedly confirmed that Ride was gay.
I hope it makes it easier for kids growing up gay that they know that another one of their heroes was like them," Sally Ride's sister, Bear Ride, told the Buzz Feed news website.

The piece is bylined 'From Amy Willis, Los Angeles'. You might wish to remember that name.
Ms Willis, above, is the Telegraph's digital editor in Los Angeles, a post she has held since last November. The job apparently involves 'foreign editing and reporting'.
Before that she spent two years as  a content editor on the website, joining from Baylis Media, where she was the Cookham district reporter for eight months. 
That was her first venture into journalism after a year as a sales account  executive at  Euromoney Institutional Investor, which her LinkedIn profile says involved talking to prospective subscribers at major banks and hedge funds. I think that means she was a telesales girl.
To be as fair as I can to Ms Willis, she was in part hampered by the web convention that the most important elements of the story are covered in the head and subdeck:

Sally Ride: America's first woman in space dies aged 61
America’s first female astronaut to enter space has died after a 17-month battle with pancreatic cancer. She was 61.

Ms Willis may be inexperienced, but does she really need to proclaim it - and her own lack of effort - by quoting two websites in the first three pars? And, of course, the biggest sin of all: is there really anyone on the planet (or indeed any alien Ms Ride may have met in space) who thinks the key fact - or, indeed, the 99th key fact - about this pioneering astronaut is that she was a lesbian?
Well, sadly, yes. There are many. If you google Tam O'Shaughessy you'll bring up hundreds of reports of Ms Ride's death, all of which focus on her sexuality.  
The delightful Patriots for America website proclaims 

Faggorty strikes America again: X-astronaut Sally Kristen Ride 1951-2012

Not only obnoxious, but a literal to boot. And then under the ghastly heading it prints the Sally Ride Science biog untainted. Life is full of surprises.

So is it a legitimate news angle? Someone at the Telegraph must surely be overseeing what Ms Willis is posting online and hence approving of the approach? 
Remembering this is a news story and not an obituary, maybe there is an argument for the line. The obits section will deal with her dazzling career in detail. If this is the only new fact;  if she really did keep her relationship with O'Shaughnessy secret for nigh on three decades, maybe there's a case to be made - although certainly not the crass approach of Ms Willis, since there is no question that Ms Ride 'outed herself'. If a heterosexual scientist had been secretly married to her close collaborator for 30 years, declaring it only after death, that would be a decent tale.
But there's a pesky detail that scuppers that argument: the relationship was widely known.Two thirds of the way down his sober profile of O'Shaughnessy, Connor Adams Sheets of the International Business Times writes:

Though Ride was open about her partnership with O'Shaughnessy, it does not appear to have been a controversial topic. 
The two became partners in 1985 - two years after Ride's history-making Nasa flight - but they first met while playing tennis at the age of 12. They were together until the very end, when Ride died ...after inspiring a nation to dream big.

Isn't it nice to see it put in proper context?

It's just so inconvenient when readers have longer memories than the reporters and editors putting papers and websites together - especially when it interferes with our national sport of Build 'em up; knock 'em down. 
While most of Britain and France was rejoicing as Bradley Wiggins was making history in the Tour de France, Annie Barrowlough was busy digging the dirt on his disreputable dad in Australia. The results of her efforts appeared in Saturday's Times under the heading

Drink, drugs, decline and fall: how Britain's cycling hero lost his father

Barrowclough describes how an Australia Day party ended up with Wiggins's father, Gary, being found dying in the road, having been 'beaten to a pulp'. There are various quotes from neighbours who described hearing shouting and seeing men brawling. Someone even saw Wiggins Snr staggering up the street, but assumed he was drunk.
Gary was also a cycling champion, but he had left the family home long before Bradley showed that he had inherited those genes. The Times piece runs through the estrangement, the father's descent into drugs and drink, and how he tried to capitalise on Bradley's success by inviting him to a competition in Australia before the Sydney Olympics. Bradley came second in his race, the father was furious and that was the end of that relationship.
I'm sure this is just what Wiggins wanted to be reminded of on the final day of the Tour. But you have to admit it's all pretty interesting; interesting enough for most other newspapers - and websites all over the world - to go quarrying in the same mine.
But none of it is new.
Gary Wiggins died on January 31, 2008. By that time Bradley had taken part in two Olympics, had come home from Athens in 1984 with a full set of gold, silver and bronze medals and was in training for Beijing. He was sufficiently well-known for his father's death to be newsworthy. 
The Mail  ran a story headlined

British Olympic cyclist's father found dead in Australia in 'suspicious circumstances'

The Express, Guardian, Times and BBC also covered the story at the time.
The tale of how the final attempt at reconciliation ended in recrimination is documented in Wiggins's autobiography, In Pursuit of Glory, which was published four years ago. Barrowclough acknowledges as much in her Times story, in which she quotes our hero's description of his father:

Most of his days would consist of buying a couple of crates of VBs and steadily drinking himself into a stupor...

And of the competition that was supposed to raise Gary's local standing:

By the end of my race he was surrounded by a pile of tinnies, hammered and telling me what I had done wrong and how he would have won.

Is it news to re-report something that happened four years ago and quote from a book of the same vintage? OK, maybe some people didn't know,  but by that token we could retell every story on a four-year cycle. 
And what of the universal determination to find the grimmest secrets behind the happiest moments? We're in miserable times, yet we seem incapable of taking joy where it is to be had; we have to look for the worst in everything.
The saddest thing to my mind is that 'serious' papers - The Times and the Telegraph - have joined in the game.

It used to be just the tabloids. Take the case of the actress and the brush salesman. There were plenty of dark secrets in that family home: illicit affairs, unwanted pregnancies, delinquency. The parents split up, the mother remarried and the teenage daughter's life continued to be troubled. She grew up referring to her stepfather as Dad. 
When she got her first breaks and good reviews, newspapers started interviewing her and always homed in on her difficult childhood. Once one had published details of her history of abuse, it was there in the cuts for every following interviewer to drag out. And so the story was perpetuated with every new television show, every film, every gala. And every time, the knife went into the heart of the estranged father, who ended up changing his name in an effort to escape.

Famous actress: how my dad abused me

ran the billboard outside the local newsagent one Sunday. Our salesman, who had turned his life round, found a proper job and a stable, happy relationship, was distraught. He was the actress's Dad, and he had his faults, but he wasn't an abuser. The stepfather was.
Indeed, the real father had been reunited with his daughter and they are still in touch.

At least Annie Barrowclough appears to have done some real reporting for her Wiggins piece. But when you're looking for dirt, and you do your research in the cuts file or on the internet rather than actually talking to the people involved, the chances are you'll get it wrong. 
I don't know if they teach that at Baylis media.

1 comment:

  1. Its all about being nosey, trying to find justification for your own dull life in digging into somebody else's. Isn't that the basis behind Hello, OK and all the other celebrity stalking mags? Bradley Wiggins has probably achieved something that equals any achievement by any other British sportsman in history and I do not give an iota about his parents, siblings or friends. There was actually a good documentary on ITV4 which gave an insight into the man touching on background from the point of view of how it affected him not a digging exercise to satisfy the voyeurs.