theMediaNet mailing 20th March

The Editors’ Code of Practice is not a long document. You could read it in five minutes at  It runs to just 1649 words, but it makes big claims for itself. It sets out the rules and standards that the newspaper industry has drawn up voluntarily and pledged to accept.  According to its preamble the Code is “the foundation stone of the UK press self-regulatory system” – the document that justifies self-regulation as opposed to the statutory arrangements recommended by Lord Leveson and established by Royal Charter at the end of 2013.

If you walked past a newsstand on Monday morning you might have been forgiven for wondering if the Editors’ Code existed at all.  There, on the front of almost every tabloid paper, was a close-up image of Sir Mick Jagger.  He was clearly in a state of shock and grief at the news that his long-standing girlfriend L’Wren Scott had taken her own life.  Three of the papers actually claimed to have captured the very moment when Jagger heard the terrible news.  They probably hadn’t, but they might as well have done.  

Thankfully the Editors’ Code has a paragraph that applies directly to this situation.  It says that “In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively.”  It’s hard to imagine how the editors of The Daily Mail, The Daily Mirror and The Daily Star square their coverage with their membership of the Code of Practice Committee.  What’s doubly strange is that the Editor of The Daily Mail is actually the Chair of the committee that drew up the code.  

Sometimes editors seek to justify a degree of intrusion by saying that it is part of the deal that celebrities make with the public.  That’s a rather spurious logic, because the people who are supposed to have made that deal never get an opportunity to agree the terms.  Even if they had, the deal surely doesn’t extend to having your photograph in a newspaper when your girlfriend has just taken her own life.  What’s happened here is that the people publishing the image have either forgotten that Mick Jagger is a human being whose personal feelings matter, or worse, they have decided that his humanity is trumped by the need to sell papers.  (And before anyone says “Public Interest,” the Editors Code specifically excludes the depiction of grief from that justification.)  

The publication of the picture of Sir Mick Jagger’s grief was wrong on so many counts.  It is an invasion of his privacy, but also that of L’Wren Scott herself, her sister and brother, her surviving mother and friends.  It hurts people we barely know exist in ways we can hardly imagine. And of course it is just one example of the harms we can do to each other when we forget each others’ humanity, or down-grade it to make it serve curiosity or commerce.  

Before all this starts to sound too self-righteous, here’s my Lenten confession.  I looked.  Actually I didn’t see the picture at a newsagent, but I did click on a link to see the online version.  I’m not really sure why.  Morbid curiosity, I guess.  So in some small way I am complicit in this invasion of a 70 year old man’s privacy.

Editors take ultimate responsibility for what they publish, but they don’t work alone.  A photographer took the image.  A Picture Editor decided to use it, and cropped and coloured it for maximum effect.  A sub wrote the headline and a journalist wrote the copy.  And of course others further down the line played their part in publishing the story: the designers, the accountants, the advertisers and proprietors, the printers and distributors, the newsagents and ultimately the hundreds of thousands who saw the picture and yet still bought the paper.  It’s one of the distinctive marks of Christian belief that we can’t palm off responsibility for the world’s evils onto someone else.  We are all part of it and we are all soiled by it.  

One of the messages of Lent is that the capacity for human wickedness, like the capacity for human goodness, is not restricted to the powerful.  It is universal.  Many people are complicit in it, and its effects are far more far-reaching than we imagine.  Even if I don’t work at a paper that publishes inappropriate pictures, when I pass a news stand with an intrusive image on it, a little bit of ink rubs off on me.  

Fortunately that’s not the end of the story.  If (and only if) we recognise our share in the responsibility for what is wrong in our lives, our families and our industry, we have an assurance that God’s grace can deal with our sin, our sickness and our sadness.  

That’s all for now.  Do keep in touch.