Like all writing, good journalism has the capacity to inform, to enthuse, and just occasionally, to inspire. Within today’s society, where the actions of others can have such a profound effect on our own lives, journalism plays a role of incalculable importance. It can teach us things that we need to know, and it can help protect us from those who wish to do us harm.
But journalists today do not have a good name. In a list of the least trusted professionals, reporters would likely find themselves placed somewhere around the same level as estate agents, politicians and internet fraudsters.
This lack of trust is to a large extent understandable, for many journalists seem to have entirely forgotten that, like all important roles, theirs entails responsibility. Too often, reportage has been replaced by muckraking and salacious gossip.
An example of the very worst kind of journalism appeared last month in The Sunday Times Magazine, under the headline “Harry Horse: the man who loved his wife to death”. The story it told, about the deaths last year of Harry Horse and his wife Mandy, was then repeated elsewhere in the news media.
It is true to say that there were probably many worse pieces of writing in the newspapers that day. There were certainly articles that would have hurt more people, contained more inaccuracies and had wider, negative implications. But what was terrible about this one particular story was, I think, the utter pointlessness of it, and the writers’ offensive insistence that they were somehow doing the reader a favour, when quite the opposite was true.
There was talk in the article of “a quest for truth”, but it was clear that “a trawl for dirt” would be a more appropriate description. The writers’ were keen to point out that Mandy’s father “wanted it known how his daughter had died”, as though they were performing some kind of public service on his behalf.
Instead, they were merely exploiting the grief-stricken. Nobody benefited from this article except the journalists themselves, who were no doubt rewarded handsomely for their work.
Truth, as any writer knows, is a funny beast. A handful of facts do not necessarily amount to truth, and the “facts” presented in this article certainly did not add up to any kind of truth at all. The journalists had spoken to family members, friends and acquaintances of the couple, and they pieced these fragments together as if, in doing so, they were offering a complete picture. But they were not. These snippets and fragments remained exactly what they were: tiny pieces of the story. And no amount of gluing together, summarising or cod-psychology could hide that fact.
Following the police investigation into the deaths of Harry and Mandy, the procurator fiscal and the crown office decided that it was not in the public interest to release the details. They were absolutely right to make that decision. It was a private matter, and there was no benefit to making it public. But some journalists are apparently convinced that the “public interest” covers anything that might, potentially, interest the public. They are wrong.
Clearly I do not mean here to advocate a blanket policy of keeping quiet about things. Communities like Shetland do sometimes hide unpleasant or uncomfortable truths, which can benefit from having a light shone firmly upon them. But this is not one of those instances.
Since the story appeared, journalists have been quick to retract the rather facile comparison they had previously made between the deaths of the couple and the tale of Romeo and Juliet. But I’m not sure that Romeo and Juliet is such a bad comparison after all. Shakespeare’s story is one of love, of warring families, of grief, violence and wasted life. It is also a story of truths concealed.
“We see the ground whereon these woes do lie” speaks the chief watchman, at the scene of the lovers’ death. “But the true ground of all these piteous woes / We cannot without circumstance descry.”
The “true ground” of Romeo and Juliet’s death is not revealed to the other characters until the very end of the play, when it is too late. In the case of Harry and Mandy, we have a few facts and much speculation, but the true ground can never be revealed.