Bad Press – Bea Davenport
Bea Davenport looks at representations of the media
Like millions of viewers, I’ve been glued to the almost-excellent Line of Duty, the series about police corruption, with its twisting plotlines and its breathtakingly talented line-up of actors.
I haven’t been so gripped by a British crime drama for a long time. So why have I snippily described it as ‘almost’ excellent? Because it’s fallen into the same trap as almost all the crime series and fiction I’ve ever seen – the portrayals of the media are nonsense.
I can speak with some authority about this. I was a journalist for most of my working life, often reporting on crime. I worked for many years for tabloid and regional newspapers and then I moved to the BBC, where I worked in local radio and television for seventeen years. I’ve attended many a press conference and reported on hundreds of court cases.
As a now published crime fiction writer, I know that authors spend a great deal of time on research. No crime writer today would suggest a method of murder without ensuring it was feasible, nor would they detail police procedure without checking it was correct. And yet when it comes to including the role of the media in the story, whether that is through journalist characters or how they report ongoing crimes, I can’t remember when I last saw a crime drama, in particular, get it right.
Too often, journalists are merely two-dimensional, cartoon-baddie-style devices to help pile pressure on the police. In even the best crime drama, and I am thinking of the acclaimed Broadchurch and The Tunnel as well as Line of Duty, the journalists behave in ways that would almost certainly get them the sack and/or have them in court for contempt. Reporters, like the rest of us, have to operate within the law regarding what they can and can’t say at each stage of a criminal enquiry.
Yes, there are instances when things went wrong and reporters behaved very badly. The shameful case of Chris Jeffries comes to mind, the man wrongly accused of the murder of Joanna Yeates in 2010 and hung out to dry by the tabloid press. He quite rightly received compensation for this. Another very famous case was after the arrest of Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe, when he was branded as guilty in the press long before he went to trial, which could have seriously jeopardised the legal process. But such cases are genuinely very rare.
What makes the members of the media stick their necks out like this? Often it’s because they’re acting on information that has come directly, if unofficially, from the police themselves. It’s common practice for a reporter working on a crime story to run their facts past a police contact and get the nod that what they’re about to publish is correct. Any reporter who works a ‘patch’ – a geographical area for which they are the sole newsgatherer – will build up a good, trusted, working relationship with their local police team. It’s a relationship that tends to be of great mutual benefit. ‘Baiting’ of a police contact would do a journalist no good.
The Leveson and related inquiries paint a picture of a much more tainted partnership, in which money changes hands between journalists and police in return for information that is of questionable public interest. I promise you that this sort of practice was actually confined to a tiny part of the national press. The regional press has no money for this sort of thing and the guidelines governing all broadcast media are so strict that it would be extremely difficult for reporters to operate in this way. Nor would they wish to, given that they also tend to have different news values.
Let’s go back to Line of Duty and the shouty, unruly press conference that featured in the last episode I watched. This is standard fare for crime drama – the beleaguered officers shouting above the baying media mob. It made me gnash my teeth in frustration.
For one thing, if you ever watch a real press conference on the news (they’re on all the time), notice that reporters do not shout over anyone else. You will hear lots of cameras clicking, but had the journalists started shouting over the middle of a police officer’s good quote, as they did in this episode, they’d probably have been punched – by their colleagues. These news conferences are orderly, quite boring things, necessary for information gathering. Press and broadcast reporters respect each other’s needs to capture a decent quote or news clip. They rarely interrupt. In most of the ones I’ve been to, they actually raise their hands to ask questions, like good kids in the classroom.
On a daily basis, journalists successfully conduct interviews with people from all walks of life and they do not obtain these by hassling and bullying and shouting through people’s letterboxes. In almost all cases, these interviews are consensual and reporters’ people skills are actually very advanced – they have to be.
TV drama is a worse culprit than written crime fiction, probably because an authentic portrayal of the workings of the media doesn’t make for very exciting viewing. But a journalist character that’s not a stereotype is a rare thing in any genre of fiction, and something I was determined to attempt to correct in In Too Deep and the forthcoming This Little Piggy. Several readers have told me they felt they learned a lot about the processes of journalism through reading the former, and I took that as a great compliment.
Come on, writers, show some imagination. The boorish male reporter riffling through the dustbin and the calculating female journalist who will do anything for a story are not only stereotypes, they have little basis in fact. Yes, I know that sections of the press deal in stereotypes too and perhaps have no right to ask for a fair hearing. But as authors, proud of our commitment to accuracy, we can do better than the tabloids. Can’t we?
Bea Davenport is the writing name of former journalist Barbara Henderson. She has a Creative Writing PhD from Newcastle University. Her debut novel In Too Deep was published by Legend Press in 2013 and a second, This Little Piggy, follows in October. She is running the Don’t Shoot the Messenger workshop on crime reporting as part of New Writing North’s Crime Story weekend with authors Ann Cleeves and Louise Welsh and screenwriter Gaby Chiappe on 31st May: http://www.crimestory.co.uk/