Death knocking

Journalist Chris Wheal has written an incredibly moving piece about having to unexpectedly shift to the other side of the fence when his young nephew recently died in very upsetting circumstances. The media picked up on the death and Chris found himself on the receiving end of journalism, some good and some bad. First off, my condolences to Chris and his family. It's a horrific set of events and one I wouldn't wish on anybody.

The journalism side of this got me thinking, and reminded me of a story I had to cover when I was working in local news. It wasn't a death knock, but it was very close, and, again, a lot of the national media hardly covered themselves in glory. Not, I suspect, that this was of much concern to them. Get their story, go, and never have to visit this backwater ever again.

The story itself was equally tragic. In a nutshell a couple in a very small rural town had split up. The wife had turned up to tell the husband she was going to take the kids and leave. That night, the husband killed the two children before setting fire to the house and killing himself.

Of course we didn't know that at the time - it was one of those rolling news situations where you're piecing the facts together at the same time as the police, so there was a lot of rumour and conjecture and not a great deal of facts. All I knew was I got a very early morning call (and you know it's never good news when you get woken up early by the newsdesk) to tell me to get over to the town as it looked as if two children had died.

I was one of the earlier journalists to arrive on the scene. The local ITV reporter was already there and between him and the police, I soon had a pretty good idea of what was going on.

What was also clear was the locals really didn't want the media anywhere near the town - and there were only a handful of them at this stage. The ITV reporter had warned me that he'd already got a fair bit of abuse from what he thought were friends of the family, and that going softly around the area wasn't a bad idea (there was only one main road through the place. As I saw, it was a very small town).

It might be a cliche, but rural communities really do feel these kind of events more than urban areas. There's a much tighter sense of community. In the city, chances are far fewer people would know the deceased and they'd be more willing to speak to the media.

Not in this place.

The handful of us present did the best we could, chatting to locals as sensitively as possible and chatting to the police officers on the ground (generally, as long as you don't antagonise them too much, the police are fairly amenable in these sorts of situation. They recognise neither of us particularly relish these sorts of jobs).

We'd been doing ok, bar a rather tense moment in the local pub, and I had nearly enough audio to last for the rest of the day, when the circus rolled into town.

First up was a localish reporter who'd drawn the short straw (his patch was the other end of the county and we were at the edge of the paper's distribution boundary) and wasted no time in antagonising the locals, despite warnings from those of us already present that the mood was a more than a little delicate, and the street next to the scene was particularly unfriendly.

Said journalist then proceeded to go down said street, half pushing his way into a couple homes, repeat knocking on several people who clearly didn't want to speak to the press, and eventually having to run out of the street after a volley of abuse from somebody he'd pushed too far. When he got his breath back, his response was: "Fuck them. I'm never going to have to come here again."

Following this journalist came the national media. It was, in the rest of Britain, what could be termed as a slow news day. And then the fun really started.

There was at least one very angry confrontation with a rather large man who'd already got angry with a few of us earlier in the day and whose temper wasn't being helped by the very pushy journalists.

The local journalists would routinely get elbowed out the way. I'd been lucky enough to get chatting to one resident who knew a lot of the background to the sad story. They weren't overly keen on speaking on mic, but agreed to do something after filling me in on the details.

Sadly the quiet corner I'd found wasn't that quiet and midway through our untaped conversation one of the national TV journalists, seeing I'd got a rare talkative local, ran over with their cameraman, tape rolling and literally pushed me out of the way to get their own question in. The interviewee clammed up at that point and things got tense. We got no more out of them.

Eventually the scrum became too much and, after the police press conference, I decided I'd had (and got) enough and there was nothing at the scene that I couldn't get from phone calls.

Thankfully I left before they started removing the bodies from the house.

While the national media was doing an impressive job of alienating an entire town (by this stage no-one was speaking) I stopped off at the local primary school - I knew someone who knew someone who knew the headmaster, and as we had quite a good reputation locally, he agreed to a brief interview.

Everybody else got a statement the next day. Later, I heard that most of the media decided to hang around the school gates and corner mums collecting their children from school. Mums who were already edgy and unhappy. Apparently there were tears and some very frank exchanging of views.

One small aspect always sticks in my mind. I'd got back to the newsroom and was busy editing my package for the evening bulletin, with Sky News on in the background. Suddenly they flashed up BREAKING NEWS. A family member had been arrested in connection with the incident.

I knew that, and had done for several hours, but hadn't reported it. Chances were Sky did too. The police had told me, off the record, earlier in the day. The family relative had arrived on the scene in the early hours of the morning in somewhat of a state and it had got to the stage where the police had locked them in the cells for their own good, and to let them cool down and let off steam for a bit. The police had assured me that the family member was nothing to do with the situation and would be released without charge soon.

Sky, I assume, had been sitting on this information for a good three or four hours before flashing it up as an exclusive. My newsroom got a very urgent message from up high - why hadn't we got this angle? I patiently explained and refused to run it. I'd no wish to make the poor sod's day any worse. Sure enough, an hour after 'breaking' the story, Sky hastily reported, briefly, that he'd been released without charge.

(Oddly enough, the family member rang me a few days later - they'd wanted to find out which places had reported their arrest so they could complain. I had a good chat with them and ended with a promise that I could call them for updates at any time).

In all, it wasn't a fun experience. I'm sure the family got death knocked by other media outlets, but I'm thankful I didn't have to do it. And while I generally have a lot of respect for the majority of fellow journalists, I was less than impressed by the way they managed to alienate an entire town in less than 24 hours.

A few weeks later, I had a conversation with a journalist from a local paper about this, and death knocks in general. He said it was something that any good reporter should be able to handle and was just part of the job - we couldn't stop and let somebody else get the interview because the family may be upset.

I disagreed, and I don't think my desire to avoid a death knock made me any less of a journalist. The journo I was having a conversation with such he much preferred big crime or tragic stories as they were usually straightforward, but hated council stuff.

Me, I'd become very adept at going through council notes, agendas, minutes and reports with a pen and highlighter and picking out areas of interest that were probably never meant to become interesting. I don't think it made either of us bad journalists, just better at some areas than others.

I'm aware that I've rambled somewhat. Chris' post sparked off the memory of this story (and mine is most definitely in no way comparable).

I've often thought what it would be like to have to be on the receiving end of doorstepping or death knocking. I don't think I'd handle it very well, which is why I've never been overly keen to have to do it. It's (one of the many reasons) why I can't imagine anything more unsettling than being of interest because I've been on TV, which is why I've never had any interest to go the other side of a TV camera.

My current job and areas of journalism interest mean there is pretty much no chance I'll ever have to death knock; no chance that I will have to sit opposite a mother who has just lost their child in horrific circumstances and ask them how they feel about this, so I can broadcast their words to all and sundry.

And for that I'm eternally grateful.