Thursday, January 12, 2006

Yorkshire Lass' journalism ethics questions

Fellow passenger and journalism student Yorkshire Lass has asked me to help with her course work on journalism ethics and trauma reporting so here goes...

How were you approached by the media? And how did you feel about this?
I was approached by a journalist from the Financial Times outside University College Hospital at about 10.30am on July 7th. I gave him my account as I felt it was important that I got the message out about what had happened, at the time there was widespread confusion and the BBC TV in the hospital was still reporting power surges. I told him it was a bomb. I was still covered in blood and soot and in deep shock. After being stitched I sat in a cafe outside UCL and a woman journalist approached me, I talked to her briefly. She then called me the next day to ask me to do a piece and a photo. I said no. She called again later in the week. I said no again and became quite angry as she was trying to persuade me. Turns out she was from a news agency.

Later that night when I was home and had bathed I wrote my account in my words and posted it on urban 75 website in a breaking news thread about the day of the bombs. There were many responses so I wrote updates. The editor put it on the site home page. The BBC saw it and asked me to write a blog for them, which I did. Later, that became this blog.

Did you find their questions and general interviewing was tailored to the fact you were part of a traumatic event, such as being sympathetic and trying to relate to how you feel? Or did they just ask straightforward questions and stick to the subject?

The FT journo on the morning of the bombs was matter of fact, obviously shocked himself. He was fine, clearly doing a job. The woman reporter from the agency full of fake sympathy and then pressurised me and tried to make me feel guilty for not doing the piece, calling me on Friday 8th July offering me 'a makeover for the picture' . Yes, just what every bomb victim dreams of...

Later in the week I had many, many more calls - the bloody woman stringer journo had passed my mobile number around! I was furious. I told them all no, and to leave me alone in no uncertain terms. (Click to read what happened when the Mail on Sunday asked a particularly stupid question. It was the first time I had laughed since the bombs. A rather evil laugh, it must be said, at them, not with them. )

I decided then that I would never let anyone write my story for me when I could write it better in my own words - why should I let someone speak for me? And probably get it all wrong. This may appear arrogant of me but I knew I could string a sentence together and I knew what the media were after. I read enough mags and newspapers myself, know enough journalists to have a damn good idea. And after nearly being killed, feeling safe, feeling in control becomes essential.

Did you feel that any of the interviews were part of a cathartic process at all?
Nope, which was why I decided to write myself. Then I met Fergal Keane and his lovely cameraman and I spent 2 hours hanging out with them and I did a short interview, a week after the bombs. Fergal was ace. He encouraged me to write, and he said I was a writer. I have never forgotten that. I still email him occasionally. I felt he and the cameraman understood, they had both been in Rwanda, Bosnia, they knew about trauma, bombs, death. They were great.

How did you feel about questions regarding issues like compensation and your personal recovery? Did you feel pressured at all?
Yes, frequently - the volume of calls/emails from the media has been intense ever since July 7th. I have always refused to speak about compensation: when asked to give quotes and be interviewed I said no, but that I would be willing to write myself if I could direct the piece in a way I wanted ( i.e: to find other passengers and let them know about KCU). I did give a few anonymous interviews: this was when I wanted to make a personal political point and couldn't, because KCU is non-political ( such as when I went for the Government over the Terror Laws in a letter to the Times, a blog post and on Radio2 when interviewed by Jeremy Vine). I can be a more political on this blog than I can in print, since this is clearly a personal diary, though I wrote about the need for a Public Enquiry in the Sunday Times - the first overt political piece I wrote for the press rather than on the blog

Have you seen any of the interviews as being a good experience?
Fergal. Everything else was KCU 'work', but that one gave me hope.

Of the pieces I wrote I am most glad I wrote Rachel's Story: that was a major turning point in my life and I would not have got to the point of writing that if I hadn't been blown up. That was I think the most powerful thing I will ever write.

Have you seen any of them as being a bad experience and wondering why the hell they are asking these questions and wanting to know this?

See the stringer hounding me on 8th July, and the Mail on Sunday. ( The journalist's trade mag Press Gazette had a good laugh too, mwah hah ha).

From your experience, do you think questioning people about trauma should be treated differently than it is? For instance, should there be that self regulation in place that when someone has been through a traumatic expericence and clearly doesn't want to talk about it, they should be allowed the same rights as those who are suffering grief and be left alone?
As a rape survivor who did an interview about it, and then ended up rewriting most of it herself, because the original was so awful, and having been on the receiving end of post traumatic press, I think trauma victims should be entitled to be left in peace. If people want to talk they will; hounding them can compound their suffering, as can manipulating them and waving sums of cash about. They are vulnerable, and though they may not look wounded, they are. So yes. They should be given more rights to protection. After that, it is up to them whether they speak out. I also wishthat journalists 'got' that, if you speak out once, it does not make you fair game for evermore. Victims do not owe you copy and coverage.

Looking back, have you regretted any of the media you have taken part in? Or do you think it has all been important and useful?
I am unusual in that I took a lot of tight control of the media process as a victim who became a writer, a 'citizen journalist', then as a freelance writer. There was a survivor group will and agenda to reach victims, and I was able to negotiate what I felt okay about writing, which was to tell the story of KCU to let passengers know about it, with the group's agreement and support. I don't know if the media had any idea at the time how much I was aware of what I was doing, how much I balanced their desire for a story with the agenda I/we had. I tried not to let on that I was often scared, and I used my day job training to make it work as best as I could. I felt under incredible pressure often, though other group members manned the email enquiries and were great, we worked as a team. But my mobile, my work number were often under seige, which was hard.

I passed many media enquiries onto the group as well, so people who wanted to give interviews always had the choice of doing so, and I gave media advice to those who said they were interested in being interviewed, as to how to handle it.

I'm glad I am not doing any more KCU stories - the Sun was the last one. If I was the sort of person who actively wanted to be famous I could have had endless pieces on me personally - the New York Times, Red magazine, Eve, The Independent, the Observer, the Mail, the Mail on Sunday, the Mirror, Richard and Judy, ITN, various documentary programmes on BBC, BBC Radio2, 4, 5, C4, ITV... all wanted to write about me or do interviews or even make programmes with me and I said no. Why did they want to do features on me? Because I am fascinating or beautiful or talented? Nope. Because I was seven feet from the bomb that had killed the most people so I was hot news... and because they could easily get hold of me via this blog or the because the bloody press association woman had given out my number, or the BBC had it on file...because they wanted a first person account . And I was good copy. That was why.

Fame is a stupid thing, a mask that eats into the face. I didn't want it.

I did 2 personal pieces as a writer - both for the Sunday Times - about the rape/my personal take on good/evil/forgiveness and about no public enquiry - the rest was all highly-targeted KCU stuff to reach Piccadilly passengers.

That bloody news agency stringer woman from July 7th. Had I not been in such shock I would never have let her get my details. Never, ever talk to someone from a news agency. Never give an interview whilst in shock. You do not need to give your name or address or number to anyone who is not official. Take as much control as you can. If you don't like it, stop, walk away - do it on your terms. If it is a recorded interview and you don't like the question, stop, and swear uncontrollably, so they have to stop. If it is live and you don't like the questions, don't answer them - say what you want to say instead. Have in your mind your limits and stick to them, tell the journalist what you won't discuss before you start. And have someone with you whom you trust, who knows how it works and can protect you if at all possible .

That is what I would say to anyone caught up in a disaster).

Finally, what do you think of how the media handled the aftermath of July 7th with their human interest features and coverage?
You know, I think I'll throw that one open to the commenters....



Blogger Fiona said...

Thank you so much, this is an immense help. Especially as you're so busy right now.


January 13, 2006 12:06 am  
Blogger aidanrad said...

That's a fascinating read... as so much of this site undoubtedly is, perhaps 'compelling' is a better word but none feel quite right for the circumstances snd emotions, I know... But very considered and, yes, compelling - look forward to reading the further fruits...

Anyway... sorry to trouble and ramble on..

January 13, 2006 5:24 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be unkind, but you make it sound like you only admired Fergal Keane because he flattered you. Remember, journalists are salesmen too.

No offence meant.

January 18, 2006 5:24 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Interesting point anon ( I work in sales myself) but no, he could have got an interview from me on the basis that he is a damn good writer and journalist whose work I admire. He didn't have to talk to me for 2 hours, give me a lift into town and give me his favourite cap as a gift. He was a genuinely nice man. We genuinely liked the way each other wrote. It was very encouraging. That's why I namechecked him, and Gary, the BBC News online editor on the front page of the blog. After 7th July I suddenly began writing, that 2 journalists whose work I think is excellent should seek me, an unknown writer out to tell me to keep writing meant a great deal. And still does.

January 18, 2006 6:39 pm  

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