News International Phone Hacking and Bereaved Forces Families

I’ve just been listening to Richard Dannet the former Chief of the General Staff, being asked on Radio Four’s Today program what he thinks of News of the World’s dodgy detective holding details of the phones of bereaved relatives of British soldiers killed in Afghanistan.

General Dannet expressed surprise that News International had stooped so low, especially as The Sun and other of their newspapers have long been staunch supporters of British servicemen and women, especially when on operations. Interviewer Jame Naughtie suggested hypocrisy might be involved, to which the general said he could understand if this matter was known about up to a certain level in the News International hierarchy, but not if it went to the top.

Mr Naughtie will know this already, but I suppose it’s unfair to think the general ought also; that bad news sells newspapers. Whenever there’s a tragedy, every news editors first and overriding instinct and need is for a quote from the victims; or if they’re dead, from their closest next of kin. Ramming home the drama of a tragedy sells, especially using words of pain from the lips of the recently bereaved. With the war in Afghanistan, the value of these words can be further enhanced and an additional story created if there’s also some criticism of government policy, or the MoD’s inability to provide safe vehicles – or equipment that might have saved the lives lost….

Next down the scale of newspaper-selling stories is the flag-waving ‘Our Boys are Fantastic’ stuff: campaigns to provide Christmas puddings for the chaps, pen pals – you name it. It’s easy for newspapers to move from this to criticism of the MoD when it lets our boys down – over poor equipment, rancid housing, mean and unfair disability awards and so on.

Many individual journalists are genuinely supportive of British Service men and women, and have real relationships with them – and as a result are trusted, and write serious stories that help people in the Forces. But as I was told early in my own former career as a journalist, “you will eventually have to burn your contacts” – meaning use and expose them to get information for a story the news desk needs.

This phone hacking scandal isn’t misunderstood within the newspaper industry, where getting hold of people’s private telephone numbers is a day to day part of what journalists do in order to get people to say the things needed to make stories stand up. A quote from a recently bereaved war widow goes straight to the front page, so every effort is made to get to her…

There’s nothing new about this. In 1982, after the Paras’ battle for Darwin Goose Green, journalists were immediately dispatched en mass to Aldershot with orders to find the widows and get them to talk. They were very obvious, lurking around the married ‘patches’, but when the head of Army PR the then Brigadier David Ramsbotham, complained to one newspaper editor, he denied it. However, as David Ramsbotham was in Aldershot and named a couple of journalists from the editors own paper, rapid back-tracking and a strategic withdrawal were achieved.

In newspaper world, nobody gets killed. It’s all about stories. Nobody shoots the messenger… do they? Then when a a journalist is actually killed, there’s a readjustment as story world is suspended and what’s actually happened is registered. Not entirely though, as the death might be newsworthy… But I don’t think the widow’s phones would be hacked – or her children doorstepped after school.

Personally, I think Forces families should be protected from such intrusions by specific laws – and the rear parties of units away on operations be permitted to use force to ensure this. But this isn’t going to happen – freedom of speech and all that. We should therefore I think be much more aware of how newspapers manipulate our emotions to make money out of us. We buy the papers, whose editor’s jobs are to give us what we’ll pay for – and it’s mass entertainment.

These days the actual news is on line, constantly updating – not frozen in time at around 7pm the night before. Newspapers know this, and are desperately trying to find unique and colourful stuff to retain readers; the human dramas enacted around the news events themselves. “How did it feel?” is the question they ask, always in the moment people least want to even think about their own feelings in the shock of their loss. The editors know this, but it’s not going to stop them.

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