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Scoop derangement syndrome: Journalists often forget they're writing about real people
An exciteable announcement of a report into a woman's horrific murder is just the latest example.
Content warning: This edition discusses a story involving fatal violence against women. I don’t go into excessive detail but you may wish to skip this one.
When former chief reporter of The Sun, John Kay, died in May, the obituaries — aside from assiduously buring the lede that he killed his first wife — made heavy weather of his “scoops”.
They included acquiring an advance recording of the Queen’s “annus horribilis” Christmas speech in 1992 (someone phoned him up and played it to him), finding out Prince Edward had quit Royal Marines boot camp (someone phoned him up and told him), and that Roman Abramovich was about to buy Chelsea (someone phoned him up and told him). I’m sure you can detect a theme there.
Kay’s string of “breathtaking exclusives” (it says here) show just how elastic the word “scoop” can be in the hands of hacks. Clare Hollingworth (1911 — 2017), then a rookie Telegraph reporter, spotting German forces massed on the Polish border and breaking news of imminent war was a scoop. Kay, confined to the office because of the… uh… “unpleasantness” taking phone calls was not; that’s called having access to a large chequebook.
The Sunday Times carries a genuine ‘scoop’ today, the result of an investigation by the paper’s Northern Editor, David Collins, and reporter Hannah Al-Othman into the murder of 21-year-old Agnes Wanjiru in 2012, who the Kenyan judge presiding over an inquest in 2019 had already concluded was murdered by soldiers from the Brtitish Army.
Collins and Al-Othman have spoken to soldiers who were present on the night that Wanjiru was murdered who have named a soldier who they say confessed to the crime and accuse the Army of a cover-up. The Times now reports that a new murder inquiry has been launched by the Royal Military Police and that the Defence Secretary, Ben Wallace, is “now in direct communication with the Kenyan authorities over the case.”
The investigation is important and necessary work, challenging official silence and the British Army’s willingness to treat a woman as disposable. But aspects of the reporting and the promotion of the story suffer from what I’ll call scoop derangement syndrome, the tendency of journalists to revel in getting ‘the story’ to the extent of forgetting that they are writing about real people.
Ahead of the report going live on The Sunday Times website last night, Al-Othman trailed the story with a tweet that read:
🚨🚨🚨 Big, big story coming from later and in tomorrow’s paper from me and David Collins, your Sunday Times northern team 🚨🚨🚨
It was followed a few hours later by a similarly emoji garlanded message:
And here it is 💥💥💥
I’ve killed her: the moment a British soldier ‘confessed’ to dumping a mother’s body into a septic tank.
That’s the natural end point of scoop culture: Breathlessly hyping your upcoming story as if it’s a trailer for a new TV show then announcing it’s about a woman’s violent death with a series of emoji.
It’s way too easy as a journalist to become detached from the reality of what you’ve written about once the story is out into the world. When you’re writing about real people, your “scoop” can have a very long tail.
I have no doubt both Collins and Al-Othman have been affected by the details they’ve encountered in reporting out the story; the quotes from the soldiers involved are grotesque and the specifics of Agnes Wanjiru’s murder are horrific. But the exciteable trailing of the story and the use of emojis to punctuate the tweets does not show respect to that reality.
What’s particularly striking about Al-Othman’s tweets is how many other prominent journalists have liked, quote-tweeted or retweeted them without questioning the tasteless framing of an undeniably serious and important story. Instead they have praised The Sunday Times reporters for their scoop, turning it into a point in British journalism’s endless system of scoring.
Beyond the ghoulishness of the promotional tweets, the report itself opens in a manner I thought we might have moved beyond after notoriously dehumanising reporting about the five women murdered in Ipswich in 2016.
Richard Littlejohn’s spittle-flecked Daily Mail column raging about why it was “political correctness gone mad” for reports to refer to the women as having “worked as prostitutes” rather than simply “prostitutes” has disappeared from the paper’s archives — another piece in which he dismisses their deaths as “no great loss” remains — but it is remembered in a excoriating Stewart Lee routine from 41st Best Standup:
There was a serial murderer killing sex workers in East Anglia. The police and the broadsheets at the time… some of them were teenagers, and the papers would call them “women who worked as prostitutes” rather than “prostitutes” and Littlejohn did a whole page on how this was “political correctness gone mad” and you should call them “prostitutes” and not “women who worked as prostitutes”.
But it wasn’t “political correctness gone mad”, it was the papers and the police thinking, “Some of these people are really young and they have surviving family and friends and what can we do to cushion this ugly word ‘prostitute’? We’ll blanket it in a qualifying phrase.” It was nice thing to do but for Littlejohn it wasn’t that, it was “political correctness gone mad” and they were prostitutes and should be called prositutes and one wonders how far Richard Littlejohn would go in his quest for the accurate naming of dead women…
Lee imagines Littlejohn in a graveyard, chiselling the word “prostitute” onto dead women’s graves, using his microphone to literally hammer home the point.
10 years after the Ipswich murders, Collins and Al-Othman’s report begins:
For the British soldiers on hot weather training in Nanyuki, Kenya, it started as an ordinary beer-fuelled Saturday night out at the nearby Lions Court Hotel. But it ended — according to the astonishing account of one of those present — with a group of them being led to the hotel’s septic tank, where they were shown the lifeless body of a prostitute one of their number had just murdered.
Agnes Wanjiru’s name first appears in the third paragraph. Details about her life appear 11 paragraphs and one subhead later:
Wanjiru — a hairdresser who loved music and dancing and had recently turned to sex work to provide for her five-month-old baby, Stacy — was last seen by witnesses on the evening of March 31, 2012. She had been walking out of the bar in the Lions Court Hotel in Nanyuki. Witnesses say she was accompanied by two British soldiers.
The structure of the story may not seem to matter but many readers don’t get that far into the copy and in the opening paragraph Wanjiru is defined as a “prostitute”; not “a hairdresser who loved music and dancing [who] had recently turned to sex work” to provide for her child, but a “prostitute”.
Agnes Wanjiru was turned into an object by her killer or killers, stuffed into a septic tank and left there, only to be found months later. The careless choice of language and structuring of The Sunday Times’ report continues that and the way it was promoted on Twitter only adds to it.
I don’t doubt that Collins and Al-Othman feel empathy for Wanjiru’s family, or that reporting on such violence hasn’t had an effect on them as human beings. But announcing the story like breaking news on football transfer day does not reflect that. It diminishes the power of the story, just as the casual use of the word “prostitute” throughout the article diminishes the women it is talking about.
In this case the result of scoop derangement syndrome — which affects not just the reporters who wrote the story but those praising them [insert hands clapping emoji here] — is that the discussion becomes about how brilliant the hacks are rather than the horror of the actions that they’re describing.
It has been a big week for SDS.
Today’s Daily Mail carries paparazzi pictures of the husband and 9-year-old son of Halyna Hutchins, the cinematographer who was killed in a shooting accident on Thursday. On Saturday, both The Times and Mail grotesquely (and deceptively) ran an Instagram picture of Alec Baldwin — the man who shot Hutchins — in costume and covered in blood, which was taken before the incident, while The Sun splashed with pictures of the distraught actor as he left the sherrif’s office after questioning.
And the ongoing case of a woman who stabbed her husband has seen outlets including the BBC News, ITV News and The Times again driving clicks with the promise of audio of the 999 call and police bodycam footage from her arrest. Audio from both has been broadcast on morning news bulletins because frank discussions of brutal stabbings are appropriate breakfast time content.
That word “content” is important. The cramming of news, opinion, slide shows, quizzes and hilarious memes into a single chum bucket labelled “content” has played a huge role in the growth of SDS, which has afflicted journalists’ since long before Evelyn Waugh wrote Scoop.
The Sunday Times’ story is needed, but it’s also important to question the culture that leads journalists to treat everything like fodder for a big tweet and a potential awards entry. Often journalists move onto the next story, but the ‘characters’ within it — real people with real lives facing real consequences — do not shift to the next topic. They’re stuck there in the eye of the scoop.
The Daily Telegraph headline read, “1,000 tanks massed on Polish border” and three days later Hollingworth beat the rest of the press to the news of the German invasion of Poland. In 1963, Hollingworth also broke the news of Kim Philby’s defection to Russia three months before anyone else but was denied the glory when The Guardian spiked her story.